Over the last two decades, Carla Johnson has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action through amazing experiences. Her work with fortune 500 brands has set the stage for the latest of her seven books, Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing.

She has been named one of the top 50 women in marketing, one of the top 10 influencers in content marketing and she travels the world teaching anyone and everyone how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.





In This Episode

One of the top 50 women in marketing and top 10 influencers in content marketing shares how she helps Fortune 500 companies leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action.

Topic Timeline:

1:45 Fortune 500 Challenges and Struggles

Have a compelling and unique story to create an emotional connection between people and a brand.

2:45 Discovering the Story

Discover and use a company’s origin story to stand apart from the competition.

4:00 Consistency Throughout Time

Tell the story time and time again to remind people about the difference that you make.

7:00 Reverse Engineering Empathy

Create an emotional environment ‒ one where people feel connected, comforted, and excited.

8:00 Creating Valuable Assets

Assets you can put on a website or promote through an email for a small price tag will help the ebb and flow of revenue and income.

9:30 Research From Future

Be the historian for the future. Once in your business’s ideal future, what do you want to see looking back? Design and plan for how that path should look.

10:15 Get Your House in Order First

Educate your own employees first about your company’s direction, then help them share content that’s interesting and relevant.

12:45 User Experience and Interface

Design a user experience for your brand that is different and really memorable.

15:30 Space to Create

Make a concerted effort and commitment to break away to have time to create, learn, and find inspiration.

The biggest problem that everybody struggles with across the board is finding a story that’s compelling and unique to their organization and then the ability or willingness to consistently tell that story over time.

– Carla Johnson


Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. Today we have Carla Johnson who, over the last two decades, has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action through amazing experiences. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has set the stage for the latest of her seven books, Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing.

Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking and has been named one of the top 50 women in marketing, one of the top 10 influencers in content marketing, and she travels the world teaching anyone and everyone how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation. Whew. Thanks so much for joining us.

CJ: Thank you for having me.

LR: This is great. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen the show before, but the … our crowd is, you know, smaller businesses than Fortune 500s typically. And so, it’ll be interesting to hear the challenges faced by these larger businesses, our larger peers, in the areas that we struggle with every single day ‒ content marketing, data-driven advertising and storytelling. What are the challenges that you see these fortune 500 companies struggling with that we may be able to relate to?

CJ: Yeah, well I think it doesn’t matter if you’re a Fortune 500 company or if you’re a small medium sized business or a brand new startup since last week. I think the biggest problem that everybody struggles with across the board is a story that’s compelling and unique to their organization, and then the ability or willingness to consistently tell that story over time. Because that’s how people get to know you for something and, unless you show up in the same way consistently over a long period of time, that’s what it takes to ingrain that emotion, that connection with a brand, into people’s minds. And, you know, sometimes that’s harder to do as a Fortune 500 company than it is as an smb.

LR: It’s also harder to do for yourself, I think, than it is for others. How do you … Do you have a process or a way you think about kinda like pulling out the story of a brand that could be used by a small business owner?

CJ: Yeah and, actually, I’m working with a startup. They’re about five years old and they’re at that point where they have a product and they’ve been doing great starting out with sales, but they can tell that in order to go to that next level, they need to have that compelling story. So at any size business … and it’s fun to work with the small business owners because generally the owner and the founder is still there. And every company was started for a reason. So they had a passion about something that they felt that they could do better than somebody else.

And often, what’s behind that passion is a story about what it meant to them. But now that we can bring out that much more rich story about the reason behind him starting the company and how that flows into the products, he has an opportunity to be incredibly powerful and stand out in ways that his competition could never ever copy. And some of the competitors that he’s looking to go neck and neck with are those big Fortune 500 brands.

LR: So the other thing that you said that’s interesting is about being willing to tell the story kind of over and over again, and I do resonate with that because I’m tired of my story. It’s one thing to be the CEO and have to tell my stupid story over and over again. But it’s another thing for a marketing team to stay focused. A lot of times, they’ve figured out something that does work and then they get bored of it too, and they move on. So how do you kind of keep that happening?

CJ: Well, I think there’s a lot of companies that are guilty of a launch and leave approach to storytelling or branding. Because, like you said, we’re sick of telling our stories. And if this is just us saying it out loud, there’s all that’s in our head, where we’ve worked things out and ideas and tried things. So, we’re really sick of it. But what we have to remember that this is our full-time job. This is what we think about all the time at work. A lot of times it’s what we think about when we leave the office and we go home and it’s weekend work. But for everybody else, our story is such a small sliver of their world. And so the reason we have to consistently tell it, and tell it time and time and time again, is to remind people who we are.

And even in a small organization, you know, if you’re 50 people or 100 people, you need to, as a leader, continue to tell that story, to remind people about the difference that you make. And when people say, “Well, you know, that was our story then, and you know, it doesn’t seem to really resonate anymore.” What we have to always do is go back to the customer and see what’s changing in their world. Because even in the last five years with business and marketing, there’s been a tremendous amount of change that we’ve heard going on. So if we can keep that real root and foundation of who we are as a company through that story, and massage and evolve that story over time, based on what matters to customers, we’ll see that our story always has life and interest. And then for all of us as storytellers, it becomes more interesting for us to keep telling.

LR: Yeah, ’cause it’s relevant again.

CJ: Exactly. Yeah. It’s always keeping it in context.

LR: So we don’t normally have people promoting themselves in these chairs. But I’m curious just because I’d like an example of what a story sounds like. What is your story? If you were to say, “This is it, right? This is the thing I say about my story.” Can you just tell me what that is?

CJ: Sure. You know, I grew up in a really small town in Nebraska, a thousand people. I went to a one room country school and it was in a part of the U.S. where there was a lot of European immigrants, so it was a lot of mix. And people came together and shared their stories. And the experiences that I grew up with were very mixed between cultures that all blended together. I came from a very science oriented family. All of my siblings went into a science industry ‒ engineering, biology, computer science, things like that. So I figured that’s where I belonged; I was to go down that road. I studied electrical engineering for a couple of years and saw it wasn’t my thing. But I always loved to write, and I always loved the stories from my childhood. So I have a master’s in history. And I blended that technical side of engineering with that storytelling side of history.

And that’s how I ended up in architecture the first 10 years of my career. And then, what that brought to me was I worked with design architects. And I loved how they would go and work with the client. And one of the companies I worked for specialized in children’s hospitals, and so they would go in and they’d work with a client and they would say, “Okay, for me to really have empathy for what’s going on with your patients, I have to go through what they go through.”

So here are these grown middle-aged men coming into a children’s hospital and they’re putting on the gowns and knee pads and walking around on their knees to get empathy for what that experience is for a child. And so they start with the emotion we want a child to feel in a hospital. Because generally they’re isolated, they’re scared, they have a complete feeling of loss of control. So if you want to flip the difference and you want to create that emotion that feels connected, comforted, and if possible, excited about the environment that they’re in, then what’s the physical experience that you need to design?

CJ: Now you reverse engineer that into what you create. So that’s how I look at marketing is that we start out with what’s the emotion that you want to create? How do we structure and design that? Now, how do we reverse engineer it into a story that actually enables that delivery of it all?

LR: Ba dump bump.

CJ: Ba dump bump.

LR: That’s amazing. So, Fortune 500 companies hire you to work that process with them. And so, let’s just turn towards your own career for a second. You’ve obviously had to get a bunch of Fortune 500 customers over the course of time. You’ve had to build your own brand and build your own business, and certainly you’ve struggled just like the rest of us. What piece of advice would you give your sort of younger self that would’ve smoothed this road for you?

CJ: I wish I would have been better and smarter about creating marketing that marketed for me when I wasn’t there. And somebody who I saw earlier on in my career that I have learned a great deal from, never met, but watch what he’s done over the years, is a man named Robert Bly. And he was a freelance copywriter. But one of the things he’s been great at is creating assets that are valuable, that you can put on a website, you can promote through email to a subscription list to your company.

So he’s consistently delivering small bits of value for … much of it is a small price tag, but it all adds up too much more money that evens out that height and lower part. And the way he approaches it, he constantly has marketing going for him so that he doesn’t have that ebb and flow like that. And then the spikes for his income, I think, are much higher than they would have been otherwise. So I wish that was a lesson I would have paid attention to and actually practiced much earlier in my business.

LR: Yeah, I totally hear that. So what do you feel like your unique skill set is that allows you to kind of pull these stories out where other people don’t see them?

CJ: It’s kind of the researcher that comes from the historian in me and to dig into the, “Why did things happen like this?” So almost a historian for the future. So if we want to go to this place as a business, once we’re there, what do we want to look back and see the history of that path to look like? So, in looking at that, once you’re there, then let’s design what that should actually look like.

LR: You know, once you’ve got the story kinda like put together and it’s clear, obviously you need to get it out there. What do you see that’s working today best for any of your clients to really express that story in a way that’s just like getting picked up and then moving?

CJ: Oh yeah. Well, the best way is I always say, “Get your house in order first.” Because there are so many companies, and Fortune 500 companies are horribly guilty of this, that they come up with this new story or branding approach and they launch it from the marketing department and nobody else back here knows about it, or they don’t believe in it. And if you look at the social network of a person as an employee in any size company, their social network is much bigger than that brand as a name on social media.

So if you educate this group of people about what your company is, what you do, what you stand for, and then help them share content that’s interesting and fun and relevant, you have a powerhouse of opportunity to expand your reach and your exposure and engagement with people who can be your future customers. And I think that’s the biggest thing that I wish companies knew and would pay bigger attention to.

LR: Interesting, just literally leveraging the conversation that’s happening internally….

CJ: Internally yeah.

LR: … inside people’s homes when they go home for dinner or whatever.

CJ: Exactly. Because when they get excited about what’s going on and they tell their spouse who works with somebody else, or they’re at a neighborhood backyard barbecue and they say, “Hey, what do you do?” And you give them a recipe for how to tell your own story in a way that sounds like a real human being, not a lot of product speak, then other people say, “Hey, you know what? Have you seen Jim? Because he was so excited about what’s going on at work. I should check it out. What do they do for business?” You know, those are the things that get people excited to know more about a company.

LR: Yeah. And the same thing goes, I think, for ex-customers, right? If your customers know your story, then around the barbecue, they’re able to say, “What is Ontraport?”
“Well, it’s this,” in some clear, concise, compelling way as opposed to, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s a bunch of things that do a bunch of things.” You know?

CJ: Yeah. And oftentimes what we do is we tell people, “Here’s what we say about our company.” And all of the words are so carefully crafted and everybody weighs in ….are we likable or are we delightful? I mean, I worked for a company that I swear spent a month deciding whether or not they could use the word delightful. Was it too squishy and huggy or was it strong enough? And it’s really like, what if you were sitting down at a bar to describe what it is that your company does, what words sound like a real human being? And a lot of the times, the words that we give people to say about our company …

LR: They’re not what you would say.

CJ: … are not what real people say.

LR: Yeah. I haven’t said delightful in years.

CJ: Yes.

LR: So what’s like the cutting edge for you? What are you learning next? What is the next mountain to climb in your business?

CJ: Oh. You know, what I’m really looking into is much deeper into the process of design, architecture design, to a certain degree, graphic design, IT systems design, user experience, user interface. Because these are all things that matter for a business. What’s the user experience of your business? And I think when we look at our interactions with people like that, whether it’s employees, customers, potential customers, we start to see these amazing opportunities to show up in ways that are different and really, really memorable that we don’t even think about.

But those are the really great opportunities that we have to differentiate ourselves because if we look at our company and say, “Well, everybody’s doing this, so I need to make sure to do this the same way or pay attention to this,” we’re just doing what everybody else is doing. So I look at what’s the user experience of a brand and how do you architect one that you really want to have out there?

LR: When you get into, say you decide, like I need to learn more about design experience, design, graphic design, whatever it might be, because these are the experiences that we’re delivering as a brand whether we are conscious of it or not, and if we’re going to do it, we might as well be conscious of it, right?

CJ: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

LR: Do a good job?

CJ: Yeah.

LR: What is that like for … what do you actually do to get into design? Are you going to the bookstore and taking out design books? Or are you taking a class? Or are you just … What is your process for actually going, “I’m going to tackle this thing”?

CJ: Yeah. And it’s yes, like everything that you’ve said, it’s a yes. One, it goes back to that researcher in me. And I just, you know, I google things. I watch a ton of Ted talks and it will say, “Here’s this talk and then there’s however many more on the side here that it recommends.” And some I watch for a minute and a half and some I watch for an hour and a half. And I look at books and Amazon really loves me. And I just go everywhere I can and I talk to people.

I’ll find something that somebody wrote an article and I’ll see if I can find a way to reach out to the author. So is there an email? Can I reach out to them on social media or something like that? And people are really happy to talk about what it is that they love, and it’s I just want to know what they know and what their perspective is on things. It doesn’t have to tie in because that’s one of the things that I’m really good at is connecting all of those dots and bringing it into a process that makes sense. So I just want to go learn what experts in these different areas know, and see how I think it relates to the work that I do.

LR: How do you think about this sort of almost free time where you’re just researching or kind of groping around for what the next bit of inspiration or the next piece of education is? How do you allow yourself to do that?

CJ: I read a great book that’s called Steal Like an Artist. And in there, the author talks about you need to give yourself space to create. And that changed how I set up my entire office. And my office is probably smaller than this space. And I had a big executive u-shaped desk. So what I did was I got rid of that desk and I bought two, five feet long standing desks. One is this way and one’s behind me. And I call this one my digital desk and the one behind me is my analog desk.

Because I can go from a mindset of this is productive and it’s my email, my phone, and this is where that work gets done . And if I have 20 minutes to do something else and I can turn around, and just because of how I’ve set that space up, my mind can make a switch now because I’ve had it that way for so many years. But it really is making a concerted effort and commitment to break away and have some of that time. Otherwise, we get caught up in all the minutiae of business.

LR: Yeah, forever.

CJ: Forever, forever. Yeah. It really is forever.

LR: So what is it all about for you? What would you like your legacy to be when you kind of look back on your career and can sum up what it was all for?

CJ: You know, I think what gets me excited is when people tell me that I helped them think bigger than they ever imagined. And so, especially for small businesses, you have this idea and you hope it’s going to be big, but you get into that minutia of the day and it feels overwhelming. So it doesn’t matter what size of a company I work for, it’s that my legacy is to help people think bigger than they ever imagined possible.

LR: Yeah. Beautiful.

CJ: Yeah.

LR: So, we call this thing Modern Ontrapreneur. And the kind of point here is to figure out what it is that’s unique about being an entrepreneur in this moment in time. What are the unique opportunities and maybe the unique responsibilities of being an entrepreneur today? What do you feel like that is?

CJ: I think a big part of it is that entrepreneurs can do a lot of the good things and they can be good at a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they should be doing all of those things. And I think that’s an important message to remember is that we really have to focus and we have to manage our energy for the long run. Being a small business entrepreneur takes a lot of sustainability. It takes a lot of energy over a long period of time and through a different kind of terrain. And we have to be able to protect that energy and focus on what’s most important.

LR: Awesome. Well hey, thank you so much for spending the time. Really appreciate it.

CJ: Great. It was nice to be here. Thank you so much.

LR: Would you sign our wall?

CJ: Absolutely! How fun!

Want more Modern Ontrapreneur Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring holistic business coach Shayla Mihaly.

About Wilson Kwan
Wilson Kwan, Ontraport's Traffic Manager, is from California's Bay Area and received degrees in Asian American Studies and Statistics from UCSB. Wilson has enjoyed many roles and apprenticeships at Ontraport in customer support, tech support, email delivery and marketing. He finds enjoyment in experiencing new cultures and adventures, but is also very much devoted to his hometown basketball team and future dynasty, the Golden State Warriors.