Executive Leadership Branding with Bonnie Habyan, X-Caliber Capital

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The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about the importance of executive leadership in branding and marketing of successful companies. To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Bonnie Habyan, CMO at X-Caliber Capital, and author of The World According to Bess which was just released.

[Greg Kihlstrom] Why don’t we start by you giving a little background on yourself, as well as what you’re currently doing as CMO at X-Caliber Capital?

Sure, I’ve been in the communications marketing business for two decades now, a little bit more, started out as a reporter, love songs DJ, a corporate spokesperson, and then, over the years, was fortunate enough to get my MBA in banking and finance, which really opened up a whole new world, gave me a lot more opportunities. So I was able to start in a marketing role where I started with myself and one other and then built a team up to about 26 people for a publicly traded REIT, and then most recently I took on a new role as a CMO in a similar type of field, but it’s more in that kind of going from small to mid-level, which is where I really shine, where I really enjoy, taking a company from one level to the next. That’s where I’ve been corporately. But I am very proud that I have just added the title “author” after my name, because I just published my first book about a month ago. And that is a whole conversation in and of itself, but very proud about that as well.

Nice, I’ll have to have you back on the show to talk about the process of writing! So today we’re going to talk a bit about the power of executive leadership branding. And so, first, to start, can you define what it means to you?

Yeah, for me, I think the thing that I’m seeing is that people always, kind of, associate brand with a company. And that’s not so much anymore. I think a brand can be anybody’s brand. And to me it’s the way a product, a company, or even an individual is perceived by those who experience it. So it crosses all the lines, in 2022, especially after the pandemic.

Why is it so important that executives pay attention to their branding? 

If you look 20, 30 years back, the only channels we really had to speak to our customers or our clients were maybe through direct mail and television. That has changed. Think about all the channels that are out there today, some of them more appropriate than others from a business perspective. But the influx of social media and, I would say as well, post-pandemic, how things have become heightened with respect to communicating via social media, audio, wearables, things of that sort, that you almost are not taking advantage of being able to help support your business if you’re not out there personally showcasing your brand. People trust you; they trust your brand, and I think we have so many leaders nationally and internationally who have taken advantage of that and now their brand is the company. And I think you’re going to see more of that.

I think there’s definitely a few out there who have really taken that sometimes maybe even too far, but they’ve definitely taken that and run with it. And I think we’re also seeing trends like CMOs being promoted to CEO. That’s happening a lot more than it used to, right?

I know. I find that really interesting. I would say that, you know, in the last five, ten years, you don’t see CMO tenures lasting that long because I think everything has changed so quickly and people want that quick something. And if you’re not producing it, you could sometimes be, I would say, you know, the person that maybe is right in the line of fire because things aren’t being produced quickly enough, or times are changing and you’re not beating the competition, but there’s so much involved, I think, in the elements of trying to stay competitive. And there’s just so much you could dive into to say, what is that all about? 

But, yeah, I think you’re seeing a lot of that change in the industry. And it’s funny, when you talk about those leaders who have done it really, really well, I think all of us can think of five or six at the top of our head who have really gone out and personally used their brand to help their company. And I think those people are, kind of, tied to that brand so much now that that’s a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing, I imagine, if things don’t go great. But to me, there’s definitely more benefits of building a brand than not.

In a sense, it’s job security and even CEO tenure is not what it necessarily used to be, either, let alone CMO, I think, is shorter even, but, it’s a double-edged sword, right? It’s like, you get that charismatic leader that really takes the brand forward, but then, if a scandal befalls them, or whatever, it’s time for a quick pivot. So how about the leaders that, you know, it doesn’t take a CMO to be one of those charismatic CEOs. But what about the leaders for which none of this comes naturally, but they’re a solid leader and maybe they’re a little more of an operational or finance or legal or some other area that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to being a branding expert? How can a leader get more comfortable with this idea? And what are, maybe, some potential first steps for them?

That’s really challenging. And I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs during my career, and some are very open to it; some really want to be more of a defensive sort of role. And so you see different personalities. And as a CMO, sometimes I see attributes that I think could really, really work well, but if you’re not comfortable with it, you have to work around it. So I would say that, yeah, there are definitely CEOs out there that may want to just be a little bit quieter and aren’t comfortable, because it’s hard going out on a channel of thousands of people and feeling authentic. You have to feel comfortable with what you’re saying, what you’re doing. And so I get that. 

I think there are some small steps you can take. I think you can certainly make sure that any of your business assets, whether it’s LinkedIn, whether it’s some thought leadership, always positions you in the best light, that it is content and topics that you’re comfortable with, because that will definitely resonate more; if you feel comfortable, you’ll feel more comfortable sharing it, speaking about it. But I also think, you know, when you talk about personal brand, you can do things that may not be forward-looking to the media and to industry organizations, but you can do it for your employees. So if you are out there perhaps commenting socially or commenting about things that your company did, that is a way that you can really communicate with your employees and get tremendous brand worth from that. It can be natural. It can be motivating. Because CEOs these days just don’t have a ton of time. But if they’re able to go out there and express a little of the strategy, express how proud they are of their employees, express the appreciation, it just has a huge ripple effect. So in turn it will absolutely support business revenue because you’re going to have great employees who are happy and who stay. But it’s a step forward and it’s a baby step.

I think that may feel natural to someone who at least is a good leader. I mean, we could call that internal branding or internal communications, almost, of, yeah, if they’re not quite ready to be out there as a public figure, or don’t want to be a public figure, I think they do have to have some kind of brand, even if it is mainly with their internal teams, right?

I agree. I agree. And I think, you know, in that situation, and I’ve been in many situations where you may want to put a product out there with a product head or a product leader, but if that’s not possible, you work around it. Maybe you can use the company and all of the great achievements to help brand that under the leadership. Maybe it’s a once-a-year letter. Maybe it is a once-a-year thought leadership piece. You know, taking those little baby steps and trying to figure out ways and understanding what is comfortable for a business leader is very important. But I do think it’s a nice tool to have in the toolbox of being able to speak on behalf of the brand, a little bit, to help it grow. But I do also know that things have accelerated in the last couple of years. Maybe three or four years ago we weren’t having this conversation as much. But post-pandemic, you’ve seen the winners and the losers in this situation of being able to leverage social media and the press and things of that sort to help heighten the brand, or those that may have lost a little competitive edge because they were not as tech-savvy or not as focused on how to stay engaged with their clients.

So we’ve talked a bit about, let’s call it “What to do.” How about what to avoid? So, you know, even for those that consider themselves savvy or those that wouldn’t consider themselves savvy, what are some things that leaders should avoid when they’re thinking about their own branding?

I think the biggest thing is really try, where you can, to avoid unauthentic communication. You know, I think they need to avoid thinking that their brand doesn’t matter and that their branding doesn’t matter. It does. And they need to be deliberate about building it. But I think you need to really try and work within the parameters of authenticity, where it is a personal brand. And if it’s someone like a CEO, if they’re not comfortable – I personally, as a CMO, wouldn’t push it. I think you work around it, or you get them more comfortable with it. I know I’m one that will come in and be like, “Let’s do this! Let’s do that!” You know, I have a whole strategy and a plan. And more than once I’ve learned that maybe my speed or my thoughts aren’t aligned 100 percent with, you know, that of a personal feeling of someone that they’re comfortable-level with it. And I think you have to take all of those factors into consideration.

But to me the number one thing is to be authentic. So if, you know, you want to write a response and you, kind of, teeter on, “Well, is that professional enough,” I think you always go on the premise of you want to be professional, but you also want to be like you’re talking to someone in a room. You don’t necessarily resonate if it’s very, very rote, very, very robotic. And I struggle with that myself every day, making sure that you want to put things out there that are of value, but then you also have to put things out there that are a little bit salesy, and that’s a hard line, you know, to follow.

So as you’re thinking about the months ahead, or even just things that you’re seeing and hearing now, are there any trends or even platforms or methods or anything like that, that leaders should be paying attention to and at least get on their radar as they’re thinking about all this stuff?

I think there are a few things. I think approaching things, or marketing, or business, as an integrated strategy across all the various channels and access points that you have to your clients, is most important. It’s constantly changing. You need to be aware of where your folks are really hanging out, where your consumers, clients, businesses are getting their information. And you need to understand what their pain points are. If you can do those two things and move that along the way, you’ll always have a measure of success. 

For instance, one of the items that I see really just blowing up in a big way is audio. People are consuming audio so much more, for many, many reasons. And I think that has to be a part of your plan. You have to start going places where LinkedIn, Twitter, you know, Instagram, can’t get you. And audio does bridge that gap a bit. So I think you have to look at it holistically.

I wanted to talk with you a little bit about that in particular. I mean, we’re on a podcast right now, obviously, so I believe in the power of audio, and you obviously do, too, because you’re here talking with me. So, you know, what are you seeing in the space of audio marketing? And you just mentioned that it’s something to pay attention to. What are you seeing and how have you seen it be used successfully?

Well, I like to research a lot. I’m constantly looking at futuristic trends. And I had no idea that it’s gotten to the point of people, on the average, listen to some sort of audio for about an hour and a half a day. And that’s definitely increased over the last five, ten years. And it continues to go on an upward trajectory. That being said, audio presents a lot of things that other mediums don’t. Now, if we had this conversation five years ago, I would have said, “Yeah, right. I don’t see that. You know, that was radio; that’s here and gone.” It’s rejuvenating. And it’s rejuvenating for a lot of reasons. You have people that are very digitally savvy, who like to multitask. And you can do that with audio. So I know, if I have to watch something, a presentation online, at times it frustrates me because I have no problem listening to it. Because I can do ten other things at once, plus I find, when I’m receiving communication via audio, I retain it better, as opposed to sitting and reading. And I don’t know why that is; maybe it’s our sensory neurons; I don’t know, but for me, personally, and I see that a lot of other folks are, kind of, finding that as well. I mean, nearly 200 million Americans stream music, radio, news, podcasts.

And think about how that’s growing. It’s not only now on radio. You have wearables, your Apple watch, things of that sort that you can constantly use. So the resources and the channels continue to grow. So I think audio is definitely a segment that people have to look into and integrate. I’m even seeing it to the point of you may have an article sent out, and, you know, content is king, but a lot of these articles have text transcriptions now that go right to audio. And there are services out there that provide it, that are like computer-generated voices. So you don’t even need to have voiceovers anymore. So I just see that continuing, audiobooks, all of those mediums, because it’s so convenient and it is just on so many different channels and different applications.

I’ve been doing this show for – I’m in my fourth year, about to start the fifth, but I feel like I was a little late to the party, so to speak. But at the same time, I’m a big audiobook listener, and I do listen to some podcasts as well. But, you know, it took me a little while. So I would say I had a harder time retaining things audio versus reading it, or watching, things like that, but doing it a bit, over time, I retain a lot more, and it’s kind of changed the way I think about audio. But I go on other podcasts as a guest as well, and often it’s recorded on video, and so, you know, I’m looking at the host and we’re kind of keying off of each other with eye contact and stuff – and so we’re recording this right now; it’s audio only. I actually intentionally don’t do that, for the reason that, you know, the end audience listening, I don’t want us to have an advantage over them, like I want them to hear it how we’re communicating, and we’ve got to communicate through auditory signals. So I think it helps make a better audio experience for the end user. I have no scientific data to back that up whatsoever. Call it a hunch, but I feel like it does help.

Yeah, I think it’s exciting. And I agree with you. I was probably a little late to the podcast game, which, you know, I was one of the naysayers, not thinking that this would grow at the time, at the rate it has. I didn’t realize how many wannabe broadcasters would come out. And I think it’s pretty cool because one day I’d love to have my own podcast, you know, when you have the time. And I think the beauty of being able to have that as an option is amazing. It’s amazing. And there is just expertise out on every topic you can imagine, and you can consume it at your leisure. And that’s what I think is just the beauty of audio.

About the Guest

Bonnie Habyan is CMO at X-Caliber Capital, and author of The World According to Bess.

From Bonnie:

I am a proven, creative, and innovative Chief Marketing Officer who leverages an entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, digital, and traditional marketing acumen to support the strategic vision of a growing, progressive company. I strive to not only bring marketing expertise, but to serve as an internal and external ambassador of the corporate brand, reaching across departments and disciplines to add significant value and deliver results. I love what I do, and it shows.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 


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