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The Episode Flyer for #49 Humanizing Your Brand Through Storytelling
Episode Flyer for #49 Humanizing Your Brand Through Storytelling

Guest: Ekaterina Walter        Guest Title: Co-Founder & CMO of Branderati, Author, Consultant

Date: March 25, 2017            Guest Company: Intel              


[Intro music]

Debra: Hello, this is Debra Ruh and you are listening to Human Potential at Work. I’m excited about our guest today. I have been a fan of her work for many, many years. I wanted to have her on for a lot of different reasons. I think we could talk for hours and hours. She’s just such an interesting woman and she’s also (of course, everybody is young to me these days) a young woman. She’s a millennial and she has a pretty amazing background. I’m going to say her name and then she’s going to say it correctly [laughs]. I’d like to introduce Ekaterina Walter. How would you say that better, since that is your name?

Ekaterina: You did a great job. Debra, you did a great job.

Debra: Ah, you’re very, very kind. So I’ve been tracking your work for a long time. I know that I was reading one of your recent articles that you wrote in Forbes Magazine, “Ten Ways to Humanize Your Brand Through Storytelling”, and I certainly want to talk about that but I also want to talk about women that are making a difference and you certainly fall into that category. You’re a mother and you have done a very good job really understanding how to, in my opinion, really socialize social media and really humanize it in a way.

Ekaterina: Social media and digital transformation as a marketer is a big thing for me. Especially, when you talk about brand storytelling. In an environment now where we live in the “age of infobicity”: how do brands really stand out? And the way to do it is through relating back to people’s values and interests and storytelling is one of those that fits quite naturally. Then you always have the parenting side and other passions that you have. For me its writing, whether it’s books or articles. So I always prefer to think of each person as multidimensional and it doesn’t necessarily mean just us as a professional or us as a person. It’s just one person that encompasses a variety of different things and passions and achievements that we want to accomplish in our lives, right?

Debra: Yeah, well said and we talk a lot on this program about really looking at the entire human. I often talk about people with disabilities and instead of labeling people. I know we were talking, before the show started, about your beautiful accent and your name. Tell our guests more about where you grew up.

Ekaterina: Well, I grew up in Russia and I came to the U.S. in my early twenties. So I have always been a global citizen, if you will, and I’ve had an opportunity to work in global companies that allowed me to connect to people around the world- whether it’s Europe, Asia, Latin America, or beyond. That’s always been a fun thing for me and I don’t know whether it was because I was an immigrant and I had the privilege to experience living in several different countries, or whether I just feel naturally that the world is so small. And, you know, with digital and social its getting even smaller. To me, I think people are people everywhere. No matter where we grew up, what our beliefs are, we’re all humans. So connecting with folks around the world has always been a very natural thing for me. I’m really pretty privileged to have an international background and experience.

Debra: And I agree. I also do a lot of international traveling. I grew up in the United States. I grew up in Florida and then moved to Virginia so I’ve lived mainly on the east coast of the United States but I travel frequently. I just got back from the UAE and I was having some conversations over there. I was speaking at a conference about the inclusion of people in that region with disabilities and employment and education and society at large- overall I should say- and what I find over and over again is that people are people. Parents are parents- they want the right thing for their children. They want them to have opportunities. They want the right things for their families, no matter where I go. I have actually not visited Russia yet (I hope to in the future) but I am, like you, very well-traveled and I find that people are people and I think that we all want to do our best. And I agree with you also- social media has just broken down a lot of barriers. Of course, sometimes, there are people misbehaving on social media and we’ve talked about that. But I love social media and the power of it and I know you’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about really the power of visual storytelling and using social media to talk about not only marketing your brand from a corporate perspective but your personal and professional brand. I know you had talked about that a little bit, once again, before we started the interview. I read an article the other day that said, “Don’t even bother with your personal brand. It doesn’t matter anymore.” I thought, “What?”. I don’t know that I agree with that because what is the difference between our personal brands and our professional brands?

Ekaterina: Totally. You know, it’s interesting when that perspective comes up. [laughs] When the internet exploded people started to draw attention to their content by saying, “Well the internet is dead”. Then there was traditional media versus organic and social media: “Traditional media is dead”. It feels to me that people seem to like to radicalize, if you will, their points of view. I absolutely agree with you that the brand, whether its personal brand or corporate brand, is becoming more and more critical and more and more important. As a matter of fact, if you really look at how companies and corporations approach branding, those companies realized, finally (exclamation point, exclamation point)-


Ekaterina: that they cannot hold onto their control anymore. They are not the ones who create their brand, their customers do- the people around them who have a perception of what their brand is, right? Your brand is what people say behind your back and that’s what your brand is. No matter how big your marketing department or PR department is you can try all you want but over 90% of content about your brand online is created by third-party sources by your clients; by your employees, et cetera. So what a lot of corporations realized is: why not help their employees also create, build, nurture, and extend their brands? And by definition their brand will be extended through them. So I am seeing (there are a few) some really smart companies taking the employees who are well-known in their industry who would like to write or speak on behalf of the company and giving them a platform and giving them the voice. That says, “Look, the reality is, if you decide to leave, you decide to leave. But while you’re here we got to treat you right and we’ll give you a platform to talk about what you’re passionate about. Because if you’re known for expertise on a specific subject that you have in that industry, the more value you add for your content and through your presence and through your social networks and communities that you build on social networks. The further our own brand will come”. And there’s a ton of statistics that talks about the fact that if a brand shares particular news about themselves and then an employee shares the same thing, the reach and the engagement with the employee share on their own personal networks will be 8, 10, 15 times that of the brand share, right? So they’re starting to realize that, look- personal branding when it comes to their executives, their employees, anybody who really truly advocates for their brand from within, is a critical thing to have. And those companies that are not catching up with that? I think will be left in the dust- be left behind. So there’s a lot of ways to talk about personal versus professional brand; corporate versus personal brand. But the reality is, in this day and age anybody can become a star. Anybody can create a really passionate community out there and you’re making a huge mistake if you’re not tapping into those communities. Especially if those communities are created by employees who do work for you and believe in what you do.

Debra: Yeah, well said. Well said. And that’s so true. I know that the other day I posted a post about getting a new thermostat- a thermostat I could actually use by myself. It was made by Honeywell and I talked about this story about my husband and I fussing with each other because neither one of us could really use our old thermostat without pulling the manual out. It was very frustrating and the attention that story got certainly caught the eye of Honeywell. And I think that in some ways it was a more credible story coming from me than if it came from Honeywell themselves because I’m a consumer that bought their product, that really enjoyed it, and it actually was sort of funny how it added value in my home. I agree with you, also. Corporations are made of individuals and individuals care about a lot of different things. Of course, I personally as a parent of an adult child with disabilities, I really care about disabilities and I advocate for that all the time. And when I worked for very large banks, when I was an employee years ago, it was always something I was very passionate about and I was always volunteering. If they were doing a United Way campaign or Easter Sales or anything like that I was always wanting to contribute to that because it was something I was very passionate about. So I agree with you. Corporations that are really tapping into employees to humanize their brand, I think, are very smart. And I also agree with you that not all brands are figuring that out. I’ve actually seen brands tell their employees not to be on social media and I think that’s a huge mistake, but I think that is going away because the reality is- social media is here. I do want to compliment you and just say that I can’t help but be impressed that you were named number 3 on the Forbes 2014 World Top 40 Social Marketing Talents. And in June 2014 Fortune Magazine named you as one of the Most Impactful Business People on social media alongside Bill Gates, Oprah, Arianna Huffington, and Warren Buffet. So congratulations on making a mark.

Ekaterina: Thank you. Thank you. You know, we talk about the fact that the companies are individuals who really make an impact, right? Whatever that impact might be. Also no matter if it’s small or large. And I think the way to make an impact is to add value. I believe in it so much. That’s how I build large communities on social networks around me. That’s how I build large networks. That is how I built some of the best relationships I’ve ever had in life, whether they’re personal or professional. When we talk about making an impact, (and that’s what I know your show is focused on) the reality is, if we don’t add value, whether we’re people or corporations, we’re not going be considered full-fledged contributors to society, right? And nowadays, especially when you look at the millennials, people have a high B.S. radar

Debra: [laughs]

Ekaterina: They can see through the veil, if you will, that you are trying to create if there is no truth behind it. And so if I look at myself as an individual, when people ask me, “How did you achieve what you have achieved?” and I say, “Look, you don’t set off achieving something very specific.” I guess you can always have that as your goal. The reality is, the way you grow those communities around you and the way you start making impact is you just help somebody out. Somebody asks for help, you help out. You mentor people around you. You really create content that helps other people understand what you’ve done and not make those mistakes. Again, whether it’s in the professional world or the personal world. I’ve been creating for ten plus years. I’ve been creating content and speaking on the topics of: “Look, I’ve been there done that.”, “Here’s where I fell on my face- don’t do that.”

Debra: [Laughs]

Ekaterina: Whether it’s connected to digital transformation and running those programs on the corporate side, or whether it’s very specific and tactical, or whether it’s personal life (and I participate in a lot of programs on women [Audio Cuts out] and careers in general)-  it’s all about adding value long term and consistently. Same with the corporations. I mean, going back to what you mentioned about storytelling. Here’s what’s happening with companies overall: the reality is, especially in the United States, over 90% of the companies compete purely on customer service. Right? If you think your product is the best out there and really going to help you continue to be a leader a decade from now, then you are absolutely mistaken. Anything can be copied within weeks, months, within a year if your product is really complex. It’s not about your product it’s about those experiences you are creating for your customers. So when you look at how millennials now perceive, not only the friendships they have personally, but also the relationship they have with brands- that’s the way to go and the way they set it up. What are the experiences that the brand provides me? How are they treating me? Are they really treating me as a human being or just another customer number? Right? And so it is interesting how with the democratization of information the expectations change. There’s always cons and pros that social networks drive within your personal life and your professional life. There is always positive and negative, but on the larger scale the way you really truly connect with people is by adding value- by helping out, by providing a piece of information that might be interesting and necessary at that particular point on that particular channel at that particular time. And so, talking about the storytelling, the bigger the amount of information that is out there, the more people really want to connect to your stories- who you are, what’s going on with your company, what is happening behind-the-scenes, if your employees love you. And that’s where the whole thing comes together. That sort of brand perception that you want to shape is being shaped by all of this- how you tell those stories. Do you allow your employees to tell those stories? Are they happy? Or are they not happy doing work for you? How do people relate to you? Your product? Your content that you’re putting out there? Is your content promotional? Is it valuable? Right? And all of that transcends all of those boundaries and comes back to one thing: building relationship capital. And you can’t build relationship capital if you’re not adding value. 

Debra: I agree. This not just about the generations, but one thing that I see coming from the millennials (which I think is very powerful) is: the demand that corporations be good corporate citizens. I saw some studies that were coming out of Europe and the Middle East and the research was telling us that millennials said they were willing to pay more money to do business with a brand that treats their employees right, that does the right thing by their customers, and by their communities. And then I saw some of that research come into the United States and the millennials here were doing that as well at the time. So most of the research I have read has been focused mainly around the millennials, but I think more and more we are demanding of corporations. We expect you to take care of your employees. We expect your employees to be happy- and we’re going to know if they’re happy. We’re going to know if they’re happy by the comments they are making on social media. The way that they act when I’m flying on your airplanes or I’m visiting your stores or I’m in your restaurants. I can tell whether or not your employees are happy instantly, you know? So it’s the same way with your social media presence. And once again, whether you’re looking at it for personal or professional, it’s really all the same. I’m very optimistic about the trends I’m seeing because I really do believe that, yes, be profitable- I know profits are very important- but social impact and social good and really proving to me that you care about the big things that I care about is very important to me for a brand. I’ll tell you another thing that I’m really encouraging the community that I care so much about. There are a billion people in the world that have a disability and the numbers are growing because we’re human beings and sometimes we’re born with disabilities and sometimes we acquire disabilities. It doesn’t mean that’s who we are, as you said earlier. We’re multidimensional beings. We have a lot of different things that make us up but I’m really trying to encourage my community to reward the brands that are including us. So if, Barclays Bank, is making efforts, which they are, to make sure that all of us can use their services- I can shop at their banks, I can go online, I can open up a checking account, I can put my money in there-. Regardless of whether I have a disability or not, we as a community need to reward that brand. Same way with other brands that are including us. And I know that’s what you work a lot with- helping brands understand how important it is for them to be speaking to these different communities so we know what you’re doing. Don’t keep your social goods efforts a secret. We want to know. We want to hear from not only the brand, but we want to hear from your employees. I also am curious what you think about brands engaging with us on social media. I’m always surprised. I’m blessed with a large following on social media and I’m always surprised at the brands that do and do not engage and when they choose to and when they don’t. I’m just curious if you could give us a little wisdom about brands engaging with customers- us potential customers, us employees, et cetera- on social media.

Ekaterina: Great question. It’s interesting that when I talk to companies and I talk I say the word “consumers”.

Debra: Right.

Ekaterina: A lot of times I say [with an] asterisk, “It’s not your consumers. In this world they are not just your customers anymore”. Right?

Debra: Right.

Ekaterina: Not just people who buy from you and hoping to come back and buy again. Those are people who also invested in you, so they are your investors. Those are people who partner with you, they’re your partners; your employees. And the list goes on and on. Even people who are watching those conversations, and they have never known about you or never bought your product, these are all the people that are shaping their perception-

Debra: Right.

Ekaterina: of you based on your stories, your content, your engagement, or lack thereof.

Debra: Right, right.

Ekaterina: So you look at this and I go when you get to the consumer*, you need to know that this is who you are now. When you actually come in and have meaningful conversation, whether someone has trouble or an issue and you help them solve it or somebody is really advocating for you and you know that they’re there and you go and you thank them. Somebody shares your comment and provides their P.O.V on it and you engage them in that conversation. Suddenly, you’re not a brand anymore- you’re human. You’re somebody who sees me; who hears me; who (if you’re really really advanced as a brand) knows me. I mean, imagine that. That is how all of the relationships are built, but that’s how they’re built on a personal scale and brands haven’t gotten to building that sort of relationships yet. And why is that? One word, one word and one word only: fear. “Fear” because they’ve had decades of control. We have executives who don’t understand millennials, who don’t understand what the social media revolution really is and they’re worried and they’re afraid. Very few of them said, “You know what, we need to be ahead of our time and if we don’t engage right now we are already behind”. And they’re right. So my idea on engagement is just that- you are not a brand, you are another relationship to your consumers and if you don’t really engage them then you don’t have a relationship. If the only time you’re forced to engage with them is when they call your 800 number to complain about their issue, that is not engagement. Engagement is reaching out proactively and joining those conversations, whatever channels that they have. The problem, Debra, becomes, “Oh my god, we used to only manage several channels.” What was it? It was:

Debra: Right, right.

Ekaterina: phone for customer care, it was TV, and then later on e-mail got added and there were 3-5 channels and we mastered them. There’s direct mail- look, we mastered those channels. Now there are 40+ different channels-

Debra: [laughs]

Ekaterina: across the globe. Especially, if you’re a global corporation, right? There’s so many channels and there’s so many conversations that you need to listen for- you need to reach out to. That proactive approach is unfamiliar to brands. So either they’re afraid or they’re just not dedicating their resources to being included in those types of conversations. So my answer to you: the brands that don’t engage have no prospects for really truly building that relationship[ capital that will pay dividends long-term down the road. Because if you’re totally quiet on me and I’ve been mentioning you and I’ve been reaching out and giving you an opportunity to respond and you’re not there- then you don’t exist.

Debra: Right.

Ekaterina: Then I’m just going to switch to my competitor because, let’s face it, the consumers have choices.

Debra: Yeah and I love that relationship capital. So let me tell you a little story that happened yesterday and it’s such an interesting story to me. I’m a baby boomer and I was always a technologist and I’ve always used non-Mac products. Let’s just say I like that. And a few years ago I went to Mac products- iPads, iPhones. Then, I bought myself a MacBook Air. I love it. I love it. But I noticed I was filling it up, filling it up, filling it up, and all of a sudden I was having functionality problems with it and my son was saying, “Mom, you’re not using your Mac Air right” and “Blah, blah, blah”.

Ekaterina: [laughs]

Debra: So I went online and I thought, “I just need to buy a new Mac”. I went on and I was looking at what my options were. I started confusing myself so I called their 1-800 number. And I’m going to give a shout-out to their representative: I spoke to a Trevor Schwartz. I pulled his name up with Apple. I told him what my problem was, I explained it to him, and he said, “Gosh, I would love to sell you a new Mac. I would love to, but you don’t need it. What you actually need to do is actually take the files off”. And he told me exactly what I needed and I cleared up almost 30 gigs of room on my Macbook Air and I just was stunned. I said, “How can you do this? How can you give me such excellent service?” and he said, “Well, because I know you’re going to come back and buy more things”. And guess what- he is so right. I love Apple. I love them. I went online and I went to Twitter and I shouted out for the good service and I’m a huge loyal fan of Apple because of service like that. I never got service like that before but I’m getting it now and I’m actually starting to expect it now, you know? So I think it continues to prove the point. If you’re not really focused on the capital of it… and I will tell you the one reason why I did go over to Mac. Even though I still love Microsoft, so I use my Microsoft Office for Mac on my laptop because I need it, but I just kept hearing glowing reports about these wonderful brands. And my son kept saying, “Well, if you want to be creative, mom you’ve got to go with Mac. What are you doing?”. I’m such a die hard fan, now. That’s just one story but I think of all these moving parts. I think you bring up such a really good point about the way we used to do it. You know, we nailed the e-mail and the direct mail and all that. You’re an entrepreneur as well. I know you created a company and it was actually acquired by a company- Sprinklr, which I’m fascinated by. I think it’s just an amazing tool. I’m not a proud customer of Sprinklr but I’m going to in the future. Do you mind telling us a little bit about that journey of becoming an entrepreneur and actually selling your company?

Ekaterina: Yes, it’s interesting. To me, one thing that was fascinating is going from being on the corporate side and building global teams and campaigns and strategies to jumping into the entrepreneurial world and seeing the differences of how the world operates and what’s required. I wasn’t the only founder. I had several co-founders so it was a really great team of people- smart and sharp and capable. Together we’ve created a software that was the right software for the time- the one that brands needed and were looking for. It’s interesting. The acquisition was, again, through relationships. So the reason why I keep saying “the relationship capital” probably has to do with the fact that I grew up in Russia where relationships drive business. Maybe it was kind of ingrained into me back then. Maybe it’s because I learned it as I went in my career- that relationships and your network drive everything. And so I’ve known Ragy, who is the founder of Sprinklr, for a while and we started talking and one thing after another and that’s kind of how the acquisition happened. It’s a different journey and it’s a different approach and it’s a different perspective- being on the corporate side and the corporate world versus being on an entrepreneurial side. But there are a couple of really critical things I learned: folks, I noticed (and again I mentor a lot of people) who have been on a corporate side previously, who want to take the leap of faith and that jump are afraid because that’s all they’ve known. I’m saying if you’re passionate about something- do it. Do it. You’re going to learn something new. Nothing is impossible. But there are different mentalities and skill sets that you need to have and the agility and you need to be able to adapt and self-learn. They are qualities that anybody needs in this world, whether they are on the corporate side or the entrepreneurial side, but the interesting thing that I found is that I never thought about myself as an entrepreneur but I’ve done a lot of innovative things when I was on the corporate side, on the brand side. I was one of the sort of cohort of people that I call “entrepreneurs”. And I think we make a mistake thinking that you are not an entrepreneur. I disagree with that. I think we are brought up thinking that an entrepreneur is somebody who is starving- living out of mom’s garage trying to create something from absolute scratch. And that’s not necessarily true. I think every single one of us has an entrepreneur inside of him or her, no matter what. I mean you talk about inclusion and that includes everybody, no matter who you are. I mean look at some of the examples that have recently been covered in the news: kids with Down Syndrome opening their own businesses, starting their fashion lines.

Debra: Right. Right.

Ekaterina: It’s an amazing thing to see. It makes me cry every single time I read stories like this. So it doesn’t matter who you are. All you need to do is have passion and a plan. Because passion without a plan isn’t much. Idea without an action isn’t much, either. So there’s a couple of interesting things I learned that is definitely going to stay with me and help me be better in my career no matter what I do. So those are just a couple things I want to share.

Debra: Yeah, but those are very powerful shares. And I like what you said. I always worked in the banking industry and I felt like I was an entrepreneur. I really did. Then when I became an entrepreneur- boy, I learned. I made so many mistakes along the way, but I learned so much. I really like the word you use, “relationship capital”, because I have always been about relationships and one thing I’m really trying to encourage my community to do is really tap into those relationships. Once again, reward the brands that are rewarding us if a brand is working really hard to make sure people are included. You mentioned a person with Down Syndrome creating their own business or doing their own fashion line. Let’s support the brands like Tommy Hilfiger who supported Runway of Dreams.

Ekaterina: Sure.

Debra: A mother had a child that wanted to create adaptive clothing and that brand supported her and they were handsomely rewarded because the line sold out faster than any other line they had had before. So before we close the interview today- I know that you’re an author. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about how to find out more about your work- the books you’ve written. How to follow you on some of the blogs. I know you contribute to quite a few really well-known magazines like Fortune and Fast Company and Huffington Post and stuff. But tell us more about how we can find out more about your amazing work.

Ekaterina: Oh, well, thank you! Thank you. Very kind, Debra. I try to do the work that adds value, as always, but it’s easy to find me. I am very much into connecting with folks on a variety of channels. My main hub is my website: And then obviously you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter and drop me a note there at any time for any reason. I did publish two books and continue to publish them for sure. I love writing. One on business innovation called Think Like Zuck and another one on marketing in the social age called the Power of Visual Storytelling. And I am a prolific writer so I write for a number publications. You can definitely find me on Forbes, Inc, Huffington Post and a couple of others. And I tend to write on a variety of topics that are really near and dear to my heart. Things that I also consult my clients on: digital transformation and building strategy around surviving in the digital world with all the new trends washing over you and women and technology and women and the work and life balance [laughs]. The elusive balance that we have-

Debra: Yes. Yes.

Ekaterina: et cetera, et cetera. So I have a number of passions and you can find me on a variety of channels, for sure.

Debra: Well, thank you for making such a difference to so many people including myself. I consider you to be a mentor, whether you realize it or not. I’ve been tracking your work for a long time and learning a lot about ways to really broaden my voice by following some of the tips and techniques that you provide. So thank you so much for being on the program today and you keep changing the world. We’re definitely noticing. Thank you so much.

Ekaterina: Thank you, Debra. It was a pleasure being on the show.


[sign-off music]


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