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13 min read

The future of brand storytelling for CMOs

Branding

People love a good story, so logically, people love marketing that tells a good story, right?

But with society, business, and technology (i.e. the media we use to tell stories) constantly evolving, what will brand storytelling look like in the future, and how can marketing leaders and CMOs keep pace?

Our sister community CMO Alliance tackled this topic with Lorena Morales, Director of Global Digital Marketing and Revenue Operations at JLL, on an episode of the CMO Convo podcast, but you can now read a full write up of what was discussed below.

Lorena’s journey to marketing revenue ops

Hi, Lorena. Welcome to CMO Convo. How are you doing today?

Hi. Such a pleasure to be here. I’m good. Enjoying not such a sunny day in San Francisco, but happy to be here.

We’re happy to have you here too and looking forward to talking to you about storytelling, why it's so important in marketing, and what it's going to look like in the future. But before we get into that, Lorena, maybe you can tell us a bit about yourself and why we're talking to you about this subject today.

Totally. Hi, everyone. I'm Lorena Morales, the current Director of Global Digital Marketing and Revenue Operations at Jones Lang LaSalle, also known as JLL.

My background is a bit of an interesting story – speaking of storytelling – because I am Mexican. I came to the US after I finished my formal education in product design. I could create pretty much any service or any product, but then I realized, “Oh, shoot! I have no idea how to sell it!”

That's when I knew I needed to learn marketing, and I needed to learn it in the best possible way. I believe in school and in being surrounded by and learning from people with the same interests, so I came and did my first master's degree.

Once I graduated, I started working almost exclusively for startups because there's no other business in the world that moves at the pace that a startup does. That’s when I fell in love with the concept of hyper-growth.

Then I followed my instinct, and I was like, “I need to keep learning design thinking,” because organizations didn't focus on that so much. It's not that they didn't care about the customer, but they were not customer-centric organizations.

So in 2015, I moved to New York, and I did my second master's degree in strategic design management, which apart from the fancy title, means understanding design thinking and human-centered design as crucial parts of what you do professionally. That's how I've been running teams and revenue for the past almost 11 years of my career in marketing. It's been a fun ride.

At JLL, I am in revenue operations, which sits in marketing, weirdly enough. I don't do the branding or messaging side of things anymore. I'm on the more operational side of marketing, looking at how marketing activities impact revenue.

Another story to tell is that at the very beginning, my accent was a limiting belief of mine. People didn't really understand me, so I had to take English classes in order to be good at marketing, but today my accent is one of my biggest assets. People find it either interesting or charming. I don’t know what it is, but it attracts people when I talk to them.

So that's who I am and what I'm doing currently.

The unbreakable bond between marketing and storytelling

This might sound basic to some of our audience, but it’s worth starting with the foundations – let's talk about why marketing and storytelling are so important and why they go hand in hand.

When we talk about storytelling and marketing, the first thing to say is storytelling is a muscle, whether we like it or not. If you develop it, it will allow you to become a better listener, which for me is one of the hardest things in life.

Once, someone that I cared really deeply about told me that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion. But when you think about it, people don't listen. They hear the words, but they don't stop and really listen to the person they have in front of them. The marketer, by nature, should be the customer voice’s biggest listener in the company. Without that, the marketer is lost.

Stories that are told well make complexity digestible for the audience. More than that, they open a world of possibilities. I love to listen to stories, especially stories about people or companies, because they make my imagination go wild. They also make me a better conversationalist. Listening to stories gives you the biggest library of content to share. I think that's how storytelling links to marketing, and that's why it's important.

And a story, regardless of whether it utilizes words or images, is much about planning the story as it is about the actual storytelling. I plan every single piece of the strategy I have in mind. Otherwise, I end up being reactive.

The art of storytelling

When it comes to the planning of a story, how do you approach that?

You have to think about the goal. But more than the goal, it's about the audience. Who am I going to tell this story to? Who is going to want to listen to what I have to say? And then you plan the components.

Before I do any kind of engagement, I ask who the audience is. When I'm a speaker, when I'm a panelist, when I'm on a podcast, and especially when I'm in a meeting, I think about the audience first. It’s the same when I create a document – I always ask who's gonna digest this thing. That’s because, for every story, you need to change certain components to touch your target audience.

For you, what are the most important components of a good story?

I think if you ask most people this question, they're gonna tell you the same thing that an internet search will tell you – you need the plot, a conflict, and a resolution.

Not necessarily.

For me, a good story needs to create some level of friction in order to be interesting or engaging. Sometimes the better stories are the messier ones, right? The ones with more conflict, more difficulties, and more struggles are generally the ones that attract people the most. Also, as I was saying before, each story makes its own demands, so you have to be a bit of a chameleon to adapt to it.

I would also say that you need to be interested in what you are saying. A big component of storytelling is interest. If you are not even interested in what you're saying, how can you expect anybody else to be?

We live in an era of hyperstimulation where everything is trying to catch our attention. Everything! You have a crazy number of apps in your phone and a crazy number of communication channels in your company. If you're not genuinely interested in the story you're telling, people will notice and stop listening.

I also love to use the Pixar framework. Their movies always follow the same storytelling format and I find it very interesting. However, for me, the main components are what I told you – interest, friction, friction, friction, and adaptability. So those three things, I think, are what have made me a good storyteller.

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B2B brand storytelling is important as it humanizes your organization. Telling a convincing story about the people in your company and how they solve problems, effectively engages your audience and makes your message feel more personal.

You mentioned adaptability there, and you also mentioned different channels. How important is it to make sure stories can be adapted to the channels they’re being told on?

Super important. If you have decided to target your audience on socials, for example, you need to be aware of your competitors and if they’re telling stories to the same audience. You almost need to do market research before going into storytelling and then take into consideration who has done it before you and who has done it effectively before you.

If you’re looking to reach your audience with a book, you need to go and find the authors that are really really engaging. For me, Adam Grant is one of the people whose content I always consume, no matter if it's on socials, in a book, or in a podcast – no matter where it is. He has this thing, a je ne sais quoi, that is inspiring, and he knows how to adapt it to every single channel.

I am a work in progress; I don’t always get it on point. Socials are especially hard for me. Not LinkedIn – on LinkedIn, I'm pretty good, but Twitter and TikTok are hard. I am not on TikTok, so don't look for me there because I don't understand that thing!

But these platforms offer us so much possibility. That's the thing. You have to be really nimble to adapt and make sure that you utilize that technology correctly. Otherwise, it's gonna be a disaster.

It's interesting that Adam Grant's work is so attractive to you. It sounds like it's because of the personality behind it. Is that human element important when it comes to telling a good story?

I think it's because I relate to him. He’s a professor at Wharton, and I am dying to become a professor; I was teaching a couple of months ago. When he talks about himself and how he’s an introvert that has become kind of an extrovert because of the nature of his work, it's fascinating to me, because I see some of that in myself.

That was me. I am an extreme introvert. I used to have a stutter that I had to get rid of when I came to the US around the age of 23 or 24. It sometimes comes back when I'm super nervous. You might notice that sometimes when I'm recording, but those things that make me Lorena are the things that make me interesting.

I think it's the same with Adam Grant. He is this super geeky psychologist who talks to you about themes that everyone is thinking about but nobody is willing to talk about. He talks about work and how you need to understand yourself and do more internal work in order to be a better co-worker. All these things are useful. His stories are full of information that, in the end, you can utilize to tell your story.

I think one of the biggest things about storytelling is if you are not comfortable telling your own story, you are lost. That's where everything starts. You need to be comfortable telling your own story before anything else in this world, and if people don't find that interesting, then you need to tweak it because every single person has a unique story to tell. I think that's where everything starts, and that's why I'm fascinated by Adam Grant’s work.

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Storytelling is one of the most important parts of product marketing because it’s a great way of introducing your product or service to your target audience. Magda Saralegui and Elliott Rayner discuss the importance of strong storytelling.

Cultivating relatability in storytelling

Let’s focus on a concept that you mentioned there, Lorena: relatability. How important is that when it comes to stories? Can your audience relate to things that they can't properly empathize with? How close does a story need to be to the audience’s situation to be effective?

I think relatability could be another essential component of good storytelling, now that you mention it. In marketing, we’ve started to understand that throwing a bunch of content through the funnel and seeing what sticks – almost like spaghetti to the wall – doesn't really work.

Personalization came to marketing for a reason, and I think that reason is precisely relatability. If you can't connect to the end user on a personal level, there's a really low chance that they're going to pay attention to you.

I think as long as you are relatable to them, and as long as you find those things that they care about and meet them where they are in the funnel (which, by the way, is now a bow tie) I think you have really great chances of success. So you're totally right – relatability needs to be there as a storytelling component.

Entering the era of hyper-personalized stories

Personalization is a big word that gets thrown around a lot in the marketing world. Is that the future of marketing stories? Are we going to see hyper-personalized stories for every single individual?

Totally. I think that's one possible scenario. We’re going to find and utilize technology to personalize our contact at a more individual level. Right now, you see a lot of companies personalizing content for each industry or account, and there are a bunch of really cool tools like Drift and 6sense that allow you to know exactly what stage your audience is in so you can bring those stories to them at the right moment.

I think the future is already here on some platforms in the B2C world. However, it's not here in the B2B world yet. I was having this conversation with a friend about B2C marketing. He was telling me it's kind of scary the way Alexa and these other products listen to you, and then automatically show you related ads on your phone.

My answer was that I'm actually okay with those things happening to me. I love it. I'm a marketer. On Instagram, when something appears that I need or I like, I'm going to buy it. I'm a sucker for good marketing and packaging, so I'm gonna buy it. My partner is like, “Can you please stop?”

My problem is with bad targeting. Bad targeting and bad storytelling are where I draw the line. That’s where I say, “You know what? You're blocked,” or I try to do something about it.

But I think there are two possible futures. In one, we feel nostalgic and we go back to basics in the sense of observing and creating interesting characters (that's another thing you need to create – a character for your story. In the case of marketing, it’s generally the customer.)

In the other possible future, speed will play a definite role, and maybe we'll see more visual stories than ever before, instead of written or other types of media. That’s already starting to happen.

In terms of how we’ll do marketing in the future, as you said, there are all kinds of advances happening already, particularly with the personalization stuff. It's the norm for some companies already. Is this something that all CMOs and marketing leaders need to be looking at now as a way to evolve their storytelling, or can they wait until these new technologies become more popular?

No. The one that waits is the one that loses. You should never wait for these things to hit you in the face. You should be a futuristic kind of marketer who feels comfortable planning for all possible scenarios.

Technology, as we were saying, is evolving as we speak. I think the most interesting thing is gonna be how we consume information. I don't think we're gonna be consuming information the same way that we are today or in the same format.

I wish I could predict the future, but unfortunately, I can't. However, my thinking goes that we’ve seen some very drastic changes. Think about the pandemic. Just like that, a channel completely disappeared – field marketing. From one day to the next, budgets changed and a channel was lost. Nobody knew what to do about events, and if that was your main source of lead gen, you were in trouble. People had to start evolving to the next thing, which was digital marketing.

And so I think the best thing that we can do as marketing leaders is iterate and iterate as fast and as often as possible. You have to become a kind of chameleon to adapt to whatever the future will be.

The other thing I think is important for marketers is to find our voices. We need to find our voices when it comes to storytelling, and that is something that can’t be taught.

According to this one Michael Lewis, people either have voices or they don't. That’s not to say you either have it or you don't, and if you don't, you're pretty much effed. No, you're not. It means that if you don't find the thing that makes you original, storytelling is going to be tough for you. When we sound like ourselves, we have a huge impact on the audience.

Back to your question on whether we should wait for these technologies to come, no, we shouldn’t. We should be keeping an eye on what's coming. In Silicon Valley especially, you have access to the things that are being built and are gonna get big in the next five or 10 years.

That's why I love San Francisco – the access to the future in this city is unbelievable. When driverless cars were starting to be talked about, you could already see them in the streets of San Francisco. When e-scooters were starting to become a hot topic, San Francisco was already full of them.

I’m lucky enough to live in a city where I can see the future and where I can become a futuristic marketer. I don't know if that's possible everywhere, but I know Japan is another place where that happens, Berlin too. In cities where they believe in a better future, they iterate a lot, they do a lot of prototyping, and you see those prototypes in real life, it's amazing what we can do as marketers.

Lorena, that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. It's been super duper relevant to what's going on in the CMO role right now and how we market in general. No doubt our audience enjoyed it very much too.

Written by:

Will Whitham

Will Whitham

Will has written copy and content both in-house and agency-side for a broad variety of brands, industries, and international audiences. He's the host of the CMO Alliance podcast, CMO Convo.

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The future of brand storytelling for CMOs