Denise Lee Yohn is best known as the go-to branding consultant for Silicon Valley’s top companies. But Denise is not your average branding expert. She is a helicopter-flying, passion-seeking, servant leader with the authenticity and insight to blow you away. Denise cultivated her brand-building approaches through her sought after career in consumer research analytics and brand strategy with companies including Spiegel Catalog, Burger King, and Jack In The Box. Denise later amassed major accolades for heading Sony Electronics’ first brand office, which encouraged her to embark on a journey as an independent brand advisor. Impressed yet? Well, she doesn’t stop there.
Most of Denise’s time is now spent as a thought leader/speaker while writing books such as “What Great Brands Do” and “Fusion”, contributing to Forbes, and doing so much more. Listen in as Denise shares how companies can cultivate a strong brand culture from the inside out and address challenges during the pandemic and civil unrest. Over everything, Denise uses her faith to drive her purpose and motivate her to serve others, which inspires us to ask, how can we help someone today?
In this episode, you’ll learn…
- Denise’s passion for branding starting with her interest in Nike as a status symbol during high school in St. Louis, Missouri
- The evolution of a company’s role in people’s lives beyond its product into the realm of emotional connection and identification
- Denise’s interest in becoming a lawyer until all her time in stuffy libraries whisked away the TV glamour
- Spiegel Catalog and its role in exposing young Denise to the world of purchasing decisions and brand perception
- Growing up as an Asian American with the expectation of a serious career and how Denise made her parents proud
- How the Jack CEO character from Jack in the Box saved the company in the midst of a crisis by humanizing the brand
- The discrimination Denise faced as an Asian American woman and her transformation from believing there was something wrong with her to becoming secure in her identity
- Denise’s relationship with her faith and how it has helped her overcome adversity and shape the impact she makes
- Why Denise used to be hesitant about sharing her faith and her path to becoming more transparent
- Working at Sony and how that became a kicking off point for Denise to start her own consulting practice as an independent brand advisor
- The #1 thing that the world’s greatest companies do to succeed according to Denise’s book, “What Great Brands Do”
- Developments that companies can achieve during the pandemic and civil unrest to create value for their communities, employees, and the world
- The complicated, yet fulfilling experience of learning to fly a helicopter!
[6:25] There’s that quote from that movie “As Good as It Gets” when Jack Nicholson’s character says to Helen Hunt’s character, “You make me want to be a better man.”…[The best brands] strike a chord in the customer in such a way that makes the customer want to be something better, to do something better. And the brand is part of that journey to that better.
[14:08] At the time I was working for Sony electronics, I was head of brand and strategy, first female vice president of the company, you know, all these accolades, all these great things. And he’s like, “Why would you leave that to go work on your own?” And I just had to do what I felt was right for me and a good fit for me.
[41:30] “Some jobs are too small for some spirits.” And it was just this idea that if you have a passion and a drive to do something in your work and your job is not allowing you to do it, you need to go get another job or you need to go do something else.
[51:46] Everyone does contribute to the culture. But if the leadership isn’t driving that forward, isn’t setting the tone, setting the priorities and making sure that everyone in the organization understands what kind of culture we’re going after then…no, you’re not going to make progress.
Denise Lee Yohn 0:02
16 years ago, I ended up leaving corporate America, I resigned to my job to start my own business. And that was, I think, really hard for my dad to understand. Like, he was like, why would you do that? At the time I was working for Sony electronics. I was head of brand and strategy, first female vice president of a company, you know, all these accolades, all these great things, and he’s like, why would you leave that to go work on your own? And I just had to do what I felt was right for me and a good fit for me. And I think by now, he’s not only accepted it But hopefully, he’s proud of my decision.
Marc Gutman 0:45
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the baby got backstory podcast. we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like to think back stories and I cannot lie Hi, I’m your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby got backstory. We are talking with brand expert Denise Lee Yohn. All right. All right. Now if you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at iTunes. iTunes uses these as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on the apple charts. And ratings help us to build an audience which then helps us to continue to produce this show. And we’d like producing the show, so please give us a rating if you think we deserve it. On today’s episode, we’re talking to Denise Lee Yohn. You may or may not recognize her name, but you would certainly recognize her face.
Denise is the de facto branding expert when TV new shows need insights on the branding crisis of the day. Facebook or Starbucks in trouble. Denise is on TV is the brand new expert, you’ve undoubtedly heard her insights. And as you’ll hear, Denise initially cultivated her brand building approaches through several high level positions in advertising and client side marketing. She served as the lead strategist at advertising agencies for Burger King, Land Rover and Unilever. And as the marketing leader and analyst for jack in the box restaurants in Spiegel catalogs. Denise went on to head Sony electronics first ever brand office, where she garnered major corporate awards is the vice president and general manager of brand strategy. And today she is a sought after keynote speaker, consultant and expert on branding and this is her story.
So we’re here today with Denise Lee Yohn and Denise is the go to expert on brand leadership she she’s often appears on all the major networks when there’s a big brand question such as like, what’s Facebook doing with their advertising? Or how they’re responding to criticism about how they’re doing business? She’s a keynote speaker and consultant and a very great writer. She’s the author of the best selling book, what great brands do the seven brand building principals that separate the best from the rest in fusion? How integrating brand and culture powers the world’s greatest companies? And, Denise, you are considered an expert on branding. So when you were a young girl,
Denise Lee Yohn 3:35
No, I only play one, I only play one on TV Marc. Just so you know.
Marc Gutman 3:39
Sometimes that’s enough, right? So when you were younger when you were like, you know, eight 910 you know, did you think that you were gonna have a career in branding? Were you always drawn to branding?
Denise Lee Yohn 3:53
Well, that’s interesting, because a couple years ago, I moved homes and I was looking through some old files. I found a paper That a written in high school about Nike. And I was kind of in elementary school when Nike was coming out really big if that gives you any sense of my age and the time period, but even back then I was fascinated by Nike the brand. And so I don’t know if I knew the end up doing what I’m doing today, but definitely that passion for brands has been with me for a long time.
Marc Gutman 4:23
And back then what was it about Nike that was interesting to you?
Denise Lee Yohn 4:27
Well, I you know, I think was the first brand that people or at least in my world, that people felt like they wanted to show off and to like to wear their logos and kind of have T shirts with the names on it and that people like had some sort of connection to the brand, beyond just the product and you know, from that from that time till now I’m just really curious as to how brands seduce people almost to to get them to to buy them, pay more for them. Even love them.
Marc Gutman 5:00
Yeah, and I think that, you know, you hit on a really interesting point that there’s been this evolution of brands and what it means. And, you know, for a while it was kind of just to signify a difference in, in production or packaging, but it really we are now moving into this era of brands as communities as self identification, as you know, something that we identify with beyond the product and service. And, you know, what’s your thoughts on that and how that has changed from when you first encountered that that Nike brand, which is starting to have that that feeling and where we’re at today?
Denise Lee Yohn 5:37
Right? Well, you know, it’s so your question is so timely, because just yesterday, I was giving a keynote to a client, about iconic brands, and I talked about Nike. And, you know, I said that, you know, most most brands these days know, they need to have some sort of emotional appeal. So the fact that a brand creates some sort of emotional connection, it’s really not news really anymore. What is Different about brands like Nike, and you know, we talked about Trader Joe’s and even impossible foods is that it prompted people to like, identify, as you said, with that brand to see something in that brand that, you know, makes them feel the brand not only gets them, but it’s also for them and inspires them to be, you know, to be a better person.
You know, there’s that quote from that movie as good as it gets when Jack Nicholson’s character says to Helen Hunt’s character, you make me want to be a better man. I think, you know, the best brands do that, who are their customers, they make them want to, they strike a chord in the customer in such a way that makes the customer want to be something better to do something better. And the brand is part of that journey to that better.
Marc Gutman 6:50
Yeah. And so that’s where we are today. But let’s say I still want to go back and so I know you live in San Francisco now. Did you grow up in the Bay Area? As well,
Denise Lee Yohn 7:01
No, I’m a Midwest girl. I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and then went to school and went to college in Chicago. So my very formative years were all in the Midwest and, and I think, you know, back then maybe the emotional appeal of a brand and particularly a brand like Nike was kind of more as a status symbol, or you know, kind of you’re wearing the brand as a badge. And I think what happened you one of the things that happened between then and now is you know, the plethora of options and you know, similar products that are out there so much so that you know, it’s it’s pretty difficult for a brand today to differentiate based on a on a product alone our product feature alone and any sustainable way I mean, you know, they might be able to, to come out with a news but it’s easily copied or out done by someone else.
So I think that part of the response to that reality that companies found themselves in was to understand or to just to discover that they could actually create an emotional connection with the customer that was beyond the product that was more about that those feelings of identification, aspiration, and that kind of reconsideration that a brand might prompt for people. But it’s I think it’s, you know, whether a company’s intended to do that, or whether they just found that that was a necessary, there has been an evolution. I don’t think that brands played the kind of role that they play now that they did back then.
Marc Gutman 8:42
Yeah, not at all. And, you know, so you, you know, went to school in Chicago, and where’d you go to school there. Northwestern. Oh, very cool. Very cool. I’m actually recording this from a temporary location just about five hours north of there in Lake Michigan, in the Midwest in northern Michigan. Before four, we get back Colorado, but well, so you’re in northwestern, and were you studying marketing and branding? At that time? Did you have any inkling that this would be your path forward?
Denise Lee Yohn 9:09
Well, actually, um, there was some time when I was choosing which school I was going to go to. And you know what I was going to study that actually thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Now you have to understand that this was the era or when era when la law was really big. So I’m definitely I’m dating myself now. But, you know, I like being an attorney and working a law for a singer like glamorous. So that was that might be for me. And so I went to Northwestern just to get a basic liberal arts background thinking that if I decided to go and be an attorney, I would take I would go into law school and so that would be a good foundation, and would also just open me up to other ideas. I guess at the time.
I didn’t really seriously consider “Oh, you know, I want to go work for an advertising agency or marketing, communications.” And even if I did Northwestern College of Arts and Sciences, doesn’t have a major like that they have a communications major and their journalism school, but not in the liberal arts school. So I just kind of said, you know, maybe I’ll just do a little liberal arts study and I ended up double majoring in psychology and political science. But along that way, I did an internship at a law firm and realized all that glamour from the TV show was completely false. I said I would I myself and I would see other Junior lawyers spending hours and hours in this like stuffy library poring over these Martin Hubbell Dale books that were just just like, Oh, it was just awful. I thought, okay, I’m not going to be an attorney. So one of the things I did at Northwestern was I sold advertising for the daily Northwestern there, the student newspaper, and that got me really into the whole thing about well, maybe I could make advertising a career. And so my first job out of school was in market research.
Marc Gutman 11:00
Did you do that in Chicago? Or do you move away?
Denise Lee Yohn 11:04
Yes. So Spiegel catalogs again, I feel like I’m really dating myself talking about all these old brands, old circumstances, but-
Marc Gutman 11:14
Classic, iconic is what we prefer to say.
Denise Lee Yohn 11:18
Really! I mean, I have to say that in Siegel’s heyday, I mean, and when I worked there, that was definitely a time of growth and, and real, like, it was Spiegel was part of the culture really. It’s not only in fashion, but also in home furnishings, etc. They I was a market research and, and at market research analyst and there I really learned how to understand customers. What are the research tools that you can use to understand how they’re making purchase decisions, how they develop brand perceptions, how they end up favoring one brand over others. So it was a really great continuing continuation of my education. You first job,
Marc Gutman 12:01
And what your parents think of all this. I mean, you left to go to school to be a lawyer, and we didn’t really talk about it. You mentioned you had the foresight to be like, this is not for me, but were they crossed were they were they bummed?
Denise Lee Yohn 12:13
Well, you know, both of my parents were my mom passed away. My dad is still living on chemical engineers. And so they thought that I, you know, they wanted their kids to be engineers, or do something very practical sciency. But my older sister ended up going to MIT and getting her degree in computer computer science and engineering. And so she took care of that, and I was like, fine, she’s gonna go be the good daughter, and I’ll go be the rebellious daughter and do a little bit of liberal arts background.
And they ended up being fine with it, but I do have to say that, you know, being an Asian American, and my parents definitely had different expectations for me than maybe some of my Anglo counterparts were they did think that, you know, to have to be You needed to have a serious career. But when you once I got hired by by Spiegel I think they realized, okay, this this could be a serious career.
Marc Gutman 13:08
Yeah. And they were cool with that because I do remember like, even when I was coming up, I never really, like when I came out of college, I didn’t really understand marketing. And I think I kind of thought it was all logos and colors and, you know, kind of catalog layouts and yeah, that was just, you know, obviously incorrect interpretation or the way I thought of it, but I don’t know if other people thought that as well. I mean, were they like, Okay, this is legit, or were they thinking or not so sure about this marketing thing?
Denise Lee Yohn 13:36
Yeah, no, I think that the, you know, the all they wanted to know is I was going to bring home a steady paycheck. And you know, I was working for a reputable company. And, you know, that which sets up a transition that I don’t know if you want me to jump to but eventually about so this is in 2004. So what tooth No, yeah. 2004 so 16 years ago, I ended up leaving corporate America. I resigned my job to start My own business. And that was, I think, really hard for my dad to understand. Like, he was like, why would you and at the time I was working for Sony electronics, I was head of brand and strategy, first female vice president of a company, you know, all these accolades, all these great things. And he’s like, why would you leave that to go work on your own? And I just had to do what I felt was right for me and a good fit for me. And I think by now, he’s not only accepted it, but hopefully he’s, he’s proud of my decision.
Marc Gutman 14:34
Yeah, and I want to get there and I want to talk about that. But let’s say you’re here at Spiegel. And you’re you’re learning about marketing, and you’re learning about, you know, customer analytics. And at that point, are you like, this is this is where I want to be, are you just kind of like I was probably at that age, which was, I’m working, I’m hanging out. I’m kind of figuring out the world and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.
Denise Lee Yohn 14:59
I’m trying to remember, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I could answer definitively, I do know that, at that time work became a real work and career became a very important part of my life. And, you know, I remember from, from those early ears, really getting deriving a lot of joy and satisfaction out of working and excelling. Unfortunately, my boss at Spiegel not only, you know, empowered me in so many ways and mark and taught me so much in market research, but she actually, we set up a phone center where we actually doing outbound survey calls to people back when people would answer their phones and come in and do research over the phone.
And she basically said, Go set up a call center. And so everything from identifying the technology and the software that we’re going to use from hiring the employees to working with our existing Contact centres to get space to use everything I just kind of she just said go do and I did. And so I really just enjoyed, like devoting myself to, to projects and to work that ultimately was just really, I think meaningful not only for the company, but but for me.
Marc Gutman 16:19
Yeah. So what did the trajectory of that of that career at Spiegel look like? Did you stay there long?
Denise Lee Yohn 16:25
Oh, no, I was there for probably a couple of years. And the story goes that I was dating a guy I met in college. He was actually a couple years younger than me. And so and so, you know, fortunately, I got a job in Chicago and he was still at Northwestern. And so we continue to date. And yeah, like so the story goes that he was applying to grad school. He asked me to marry him. I said, Yes. And then he said, Oh, great, because we’re going to move to San Diego. Oh, okay. And you know, back then my whole life had been the Midwest and I thought, California, all the people out there, they’re just fruits and nuts. I’m not gonna go there. But I had made the commitment to my husband. So we packed up and moved out to San Diego and I got another consumer research job at jack in the box restaurants.
Marc Gutman 17:20
Jack In the Box restaurants and so that’s, that’s awesome. And you go out to San Diego that must have been, First of all, quite a change. I mean, I don’t know how much you know about me. But I had a very similar kind of path. I went to school University of Michigan and ended up in Los Angeles for a while and it was awesome. What is also a big shock, right? You know, it was it was very different. You’re in San Diego and you’re working at jack in the box and what’s going on there for you from a from a career in a brand standpoint.
Denise Lee Yohn 17:47
Yeah, yeah. So I started out in consumer research, then became a product manager role. My role was to introduce new products, essentially new menu items I introduced for different groups. And sandwiches at the time that was the product manager. And then eventually it took over, went back into the research group and headed up research analytics for the company.
What was really formative about that time at Jack in the Box is some of your listeners may recall, there was a foodborne illness crisis that happened at jack in the box. A few of few people ate our burgers and died and a lot got really sick. And so overnight our business went from kind of booming and growing to like dying basically. And for about maybe a year, maybe a little over a year. We tried everything to resurrect our business. Practice giving away our food for free investing tons and advertising etc. And nothing would nothing really would jumpstart the business and then the head of Mark calm at the time, hired chiat day to advertise As an agency in Los Angeles, who is responsible for behind the foot for many commercial famous commercials in 1984, commercials from Apple, the Taco Bell, little yo quiero, Taco Bell dog, all these really famous ads, and they introduced the jack CEO character, which is still around today. At the time when they introduced the this character. You know, they had done a bunch of research to understand how people felt about the business. And jack represented, like this leadership of the company, even though he was just like, you know, his big clown ball head. And he’s obviously a kind of a fictional character.
At the time he represented someone who was taking care of the business he was watching out for the customer and making sure that they were going to be safe and taking care of a jack in the box. And as soon as we launched the campaign, With jack, our business pretty much turned around overnight, the promotions that we had tried before the campaign which had utterly failed, once we did them after the campaign were very successful. And that caught me so interested in how powerful advertising and campaigns and a character and character that was really based in strategy could the kind of impact it would have on a brand. So when it came time for my husband to go to grad school, to post grad, to do his post grad work, he was kind of looking at some options, and it looked like he was going to end up in New York and I said, great, I’m going to go work for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue. And that’s basically what I did. It wasn’t on Madison Avenue, but it was definitely in New York agency had a great experience. They’re working on the Burger King.
So definitely have a lot of fast food in my background. But, you know, just kind of it was an interesting journey from kind of observing how powerful advertising would be to then working in an agency and understanding how you develop insights. How do you work with creatives to come up with, you know, campaigns and strategies that can really impact the business. It was a great experience.
Marc Gutman 21:20
Thank you for sharing that you and I are so remember the jack as the CEO campaign. It was so just irreverent and smart and catchy. It was like almost impossible not to love them and like them. Remember, Evan was driving around with those little jack heads on their antenna? Oh, yeah. All over. Yeah. And I By the way, I have a dirty secret. I love to jack in the box tacos very late at night when I was living in Los Angeles. So if you had anything to do with those,
Denise Lee Yohn 21:49
My secret is that I still love them. So now, I mean, there’s something in me that that jack box taco. It calls to me.
Marc Gutman 22:00
They’re unique and very special. But so when you first saw that, that jack is the CEO, did you really believe and think, Hey, this is gonna be awesome. Are you skeptical? Before it launched?
Denise Lee Yohn 22:12
I frankly, I was very skeptical. And I was also I kind of maybe was an agency hater, you know, frankly, because you know, like, Here I am, you know, heading a research and analytics and trying to develop all these great customer insights. And you know, here are these cool guys from Los Angeles with, you know, this stereotypical ad guy with the ponytail and the cool clothes and the hip attitude. And, you know, they come in and they had definitely done rigorous research. I’m not saying that they didn’t, but they are they just came in and said, you know, forget everything. You know, here’s what you need to do. And you know, at the time, the leadership of the company was so desperate, they were just like, okay, fine, we trust you. Let’s do it. And I felt like, wait a minute, you know, doesn’t it matter what I think and why You know, shouldn’t we validate this and that we do our own research and we, you know, test different options. And I was just kind of, I don’t even know skeptical is the right word. I was just kind of like, almost feeling a little put off by the whole process. But I soon became a believer once we saw those results.
Marc Gutman 23:19
Yeah, I mean, not very hard to be an agency hater sometimes, but they do. They do. They do have their place. And so, you know, I love your story. You’re You’re obviously super smart and talented. You’re just you’re working hard. You’re making things happen. You go to New York, you’re working at the ad agency, you’re working on the Burger King account, and I want to ask him, you kind of brought this up a little bit, but you’re a woman of Asian American heritage. I mean, was it tough?
Denise Lee Yohn 23:47
Looking back, I definitely can see times when I was not respected or taken seriously whether because I was a woman or because I was an Asian American. I would say that growing up in the Midwest, I definitely faced experience racism and discrimination. I remember, you know, getting made fun of and, but at the time, I think culturally, as well as, you know, how my parents raised me, and also just kind of the Chinese American, like, ethos or whatever, I always felt like, I was like, I, there was something wrong with me. So instead of like, you know, the person who is, you know, calling me names, because I’m Chinese, and me thinking that they’re bad, I was kind of like feeling very badly about myself. And I have to say that I’ve only really come to this realization in the last six months or even last three months since all the awareness about racial inequity and racism in this country, and I’ve really now kind of thought about and I’m like, you know what, I really, I was discriminated against but I didn’t think I didn’t think to think I needed to put These people in their place, I was kinda like, there’s something wrong with me that have to be different. So I really tried to assimilate as much as possible. That’s what my parents were very much into. And so in some ways, I kind of was just like, I just need to blend in and kind of, you know, work as hard as I can. And if I do great work, it’ll get recognized. And I think you’ll Fortunately, I was I ended up in situations where that did happen. But I know that a lot of people aren’t as fortunate. And they end up working really hard, but not really getting anywhere. So do you have so that’s a long answer to a question. Yes, it was hard. But I think some of it was probably, I put I put on myself.
Marc Gutman 25:41
Yeah, and I’m just hearing a little bit in shock thinking about how difficult that must have been to think like, Well, you know, I’m the problem, you know, and the way people are acting is the norm. And if I speak up, it’s just going to create problems and either at the very base level people won’t like In a more extreme people, I mean, it becomes unsafe or more extreme level becomes unsafe or, or, you know, at a variety of levels, whether that’s directly like from a physical standpoint or even just like, Hey, I might lose my job, you know, and, and I just thinking about that for you. I mean, it must have been extremely difficult, but you were able to push through and, you know, what do you think, what do you attribute that to? I mean, now that you’ve, you say, you’ve just recently had some awareness? I think it sounds like you’ve been meditating on this idea a little bit like, how do you think you were able to push through because certainly there were there were obstacles in the way,
Denise Lee Yohn 26:37
Right. I owe it to my faith. So I’m a person of faith. And I came to that phase around the same time that I started my professional career. And I think that having having a belief in God and knowing that God has a purpose for my life enables me enabled me and Today continues to enable me to derive my identity from my relationship with God, and not my work or my work product or what other people think about my work. Now, that’s not to say that, you know, I don’t care about, you know, producing results or getting accolades, I’m human. And so it is important for people to respect and admire me or whatever, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, but I think that fundamentally, I am secure and who I am, I’m secure in why I’m here, I’m secure, and what good I need to be doing through my work. And so I think because of that, you know, some of the things that may have held me back or would would maybe be more hurtful to other people just haven’t hasn’t been as much of an issue for me.
Marc Gutman 27:51
And so how did you come to, to this, this relationship with your faith and it becoming such a driver in your life?
Denise Lee Yohn 27:58
Yeah, well, you grew up going to church all the time. But you know, the church I went to, frankly, was just all the people there were either, you know, old ladies really nice old, old ladies or families where the woman didn’t work outside of the home. And so it was very kind of traditional and not not, there were no real role models for me as someone who was interested in work and interested in developing and developing a career. So when in my first year working at Spiegel, one of my co workers invited me to his church and ended up being this awesome experience where I saw all these people who were very close to me seemed very successful in their careers but who were loving God and getting you know, like I said, kind of their identity and their center in him. And I thought, okay, maybe maybe this thing really is for me after all, you know, is this It’s been a long journey. So like as a gift that was, what, almost 25 years ago, I think that you know, what has, I continue to learn more and more about God’s vision for me, and the impact that he wants to make through me. And that continues to be kind of a driver and both a driver and a compass, you know, so it’s kind of a motivator, but that’s also allowing him to shape my attitudes and my decisions and ultimately, the work that I do. Did I answer questions or thinking about it much?
Marc Gutman 29:38
I think you’re close. I mean, I got it. I got another one. You know, I just I do find it really fascinating. And probably because faith wasn’t a huge driver in my life. And I think you know, and when it was, you know, I had a Jewish father and a mother who was Protestant and so I was always like, kind of confused more or less, you know, and, and I didn’t know which side I did not know what side of the fence I felt. But, you know, I think about for you, Was this something that was an asset for your your career? Or was it something you kind of kept a little on the on the down low? Or was it something that really helped, you know, fuel your relationships within the business world? And that was a part of, of your career as you as you were building that career?
Denise Lee Yohn 30:21
Yeah, that is, that is such a good question, Mark, because I have to confess that for many years, I was in the closet about being a Christian. It was I didn’t want anyone to know, get it out, did not talk about it at all. I think that’s because, you know, number one, there are a lot of negative perceptions about Christians, some of them well deserved, but just in general, there’s a lot of negativity.
And number two, I always kind of got the perception that other people thought that people of faith were maybe less intelligent, you know, just less thoughtful, less worthy of respect and and i don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I kind of just got the senses and and you know, I’m I really wanted to establish myself as you know this quote unquote expert you know. So for a long time, I just didn’t talk about my faith at all. And it’s really probably been only in the last few years that I’ve become much more open about it. And in fact, if you had asked me five years ago, to do this interview, we would not be talking about this, I guarantee you, I would have just kind of deflected and just maintain this conversation about passion for brands, without linking that to my identity and what I think the purpose of my life is.
So it’s a relatively new thing for me to share. But I’ve come to realize that, you know, people want to know me. They don’t want to know they don’t want to be they don’t want this like facade or image to be in the, in the kind of a mediator for who I am. And so I’ve tried to be much more transparent about my beliefs and, and my faith and so that just kind of been part of that revealing. And it’s been really rewarding. I don’t think anyone that I’ve ever, you know, shared about, you know, this has kind of been my journey has had a negative reaction or if they have, they haven’t had it in front of me. I think a lot of people enjoy talking about what their spiritual backgrounds were and how how they were raised and how that impacts how, you know, what they what they believe in now. And I think that, you know, ultimately, part of my identity is to really be as a servant to serve other people.
And so, in when I, when I kind of was sharing that with people, I think people appreciate that and know that I’m not trying to push my face on them. I’m not trying to evangelize or whatever. But I’m really trying to understand, you know, how can I help you? How can I serve you? How can we do great things together that we both really love them and produce something really cool. It’s been it’s been affirming.
Marc Gutman 33:02
I want to thank you for showing up as your as your authentic self. I appreciate that. It’s nice to hear about this episode brought to you by Wildstory. Wait, isn’t that your company? It is. And without the generous support of Wildstory, this show would not be possible. A brand isn’t a logo or a tagline, or even your product. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product service or company. It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Wildstory helps progressive founders and savvy marketers build purpose driven brands that connect their business goals with the customers they want to serve, so that both the business and the customer needs are met. This results in crazy, happy, loyal customers that purchase again and again. And this is great for business. If that sounds like something you and your team might Want to learn more about reach out @ www.wildstory.com and we’d be happy to tell you more. Now back to our show.
So you are in New York City and you’re working at the ad agency, but where are you in your career now? I mean, are you I don’t know the right way to say this. Are you kind of just saying like a worker bee? Are you still just kind of in the trenches like doing your thing? Are you starting to get notoriety as a branding expert, like, like, what’s going on for you in New York City?
Denise Lee Yohn 34:34
Yeah, well, um, you know, the first agency I worked for in New York was Ahmadi porcelain toss and Lynn toss had been like this huge agency. So it was a huge agency and I was definitely just kind of like a small fish in a very big pond, just worker bee. But then I had the opportunity to go be like the sole account planner. So an account planner is the person who’s kind of responsible for the strategy. The To account to head up and be the kind of driver of strategy at a smaller agency, Grace and Rothschild and now this agency was small, but it was definitely had big impact.
It worked on the Land Rover campaign, Land Rover business for many years and came out with all of the kind of iconic Land Rover advertising as well as other business. And it was kind of there where I ended up being kind of a bigger fish in a smaller pond. And I felt like I could really have more impact and influence on the creative work and influence on the client and their strategies. So you know, there was kind of this more development of, Hey, I have something of value to offer. I think when I went to that agency, and then Sony electronics came and recruited me out of that small agency to go head up their first ever brand office in the US. You know, at the time, Sony was it was kind of their heydays, it was like, they were people bought the products paid tons of money for them. Everyone thought that Sony’s products were like the coolest and latest technology. And but they’ve never had anyone to work on their brand, which is kind of strange and we can get into that. But anyway, so once I went to Sony then I felt like that was an astronomic affirmation that, yes, I do have I’m developing expertise.
And at the same time, the experience of Sony taught me so much about kind of the internal operationalization of your brand and the engagement of your stakeholders and all of the stuff that I work on now really came to me as part of my Sony experience. So it was just a great both development opportunity as well as I think, an establishment of me as a brand strategist. Yeah, and that’s
Marc Gutman 36:49
Like a huge leap. So you know, you’re working at this, you know, other agency, Jason rock Rothschild and cool agency doing some cool work, but to go ahead and A brand like Sony. I mean, we scared.
Denise Lee Yohn 37:03
Um, but you know what, like, I think it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome and particularly for female imposter syndrome that, you know, like, I remember thinking do these people know who I am and what they’re hiring, but the mere fact that they had faith in me and that they, you know, saw something in me. And then I had a, you know, great immediate manager as well as the kind of Chief Marketing Officer. Both of them were just terrific role models and taught me so much and I think that whatever fear or self doubt I had, just was, it was quickly addressed by how much confidence they had in me.
Marc Gutman 37:49
And so when did that, that tenure at Sony look like, you know, would you accomplish and why did you ultimately leave?
Denise Lee Yohn 37:56
Yeah, yeah. So um, I was there for about five or six Yours in the first three were amazing. I was working for this great cmo and even the president of the company at the time really believed in brand building. And actually, I should say that, you know, when I first started Sony was when they when they first started to see some sort of softness in their business. And fortunately, the CMO and the president at the time had the foresight to say, you know what, we need to reinvigorate our brand.
But we’re not going to do that by just creating a huge brand campaign, we’re actually going to turn our focus internally and make sure that everyone inside the organization share shared one common understanding of what Sony needed to become, how it needed to evolve, what were the values and the vision that it needs to embrace in order to move forward. And so for the first three years, that’s all I worked on. And we created this, this program called been Sony, where we engage everyone throughout the company, on what the Sony brand was and how each person in the organization could interpret Reinforce and nurture that understanding. But there’s always a but and that is that within the five years that I was at the company, there were I had, I think it’s like five different bosses and three different presidents or vice versa three bosses, and there was tons of turnover. And this great cmo that, that I worked for last and what I was working on all sudden just didn’t wasn’t important anymore. And so, after a year, a few more years of me, banging my head against the wall.
In fact, I always say there’s still bruises on my forehead from the head. You know, just trying to kind of move the organization forward in the direction I thought it needed to be. I was like, Okay, I’m done. I’m going to leave Sony. I should have mentioned that. Midway through my time at Sony, I went from working in their new jersey office, they relocated me back to San Diego, which at the at that time, I loved I feel I have I have loved sandesh fall in love with San Diego wanted to get back there. That was perfect. The problem with San Diego is though, though, is that there are not a lot of consumer brands based there. And so there are not a lot of great consumer marketing jobs. And in fact, I don’t say this to brag, but I think I probably had the best consumer marketing job in San Diego was heading a brand new strategy for Sony. And so here I am trying to look for another job. And it’s like, it’s crazy, you know.
So that’s when you thanks to, you know, encouragement from others who said, you know, you would actually be a really good, independent advisor, I decided I was going to resign my job and start my own consulting practice. And so that’s what I did. Back in 2004.
Marc Gutman 40:45
Yeah, and then we’re back to where I believe your your father is thinking, What are you doing,
Denise Lee Yohn 40:50
Right? Exactly, yes.
Marc Gutman 40:53
Yeah. And so he’s scared for you. He’s terrified like what you had enough belief in yourself to do that, like, what was calling to you to be independent? What what Hadn’t you done? or Why did you need to do that?
Denise Lee Yohn 41:08
Mm-hm. Well, um, I probably shouldn’t say this because the people in corporate America went like this. But Sony sponsored me to go to a leadership development program in my last year with the company. And one of the things that the the founder of this development program, she had the same that she said, some jobs are too small for some spirits. And it was just this idea that, you know, if you have like, a passion and a drive, to do something in your work, and your job is not allowing you to do it, you need to go get another job, or you need to go do something else. And I realized that probably, you know, the best way for me to do this was going to be on my own. I don’t have to say that. For the first. first couple years of me being out on my own. I always thought Oh, you know what? If this doesn’t work out, I can just go back and get another corporate job. So it wasn’t like I was completely committed to it. But I did think that I could have a lot more impact on a lot more companies, if I were out on my own than working in one company, and dealing with all of the, you know, setbacks and disappointments that I had at Sony.
Marc Gutman 42:21
So what was the plan? Like who was your first customer?
Denise Lee Yohn 42:24
Um, you know, I always tell people who are going to you’re thinking about going leaving corporate and owning and starting their own business, that your customers your clients will not be the people you think they will be. And so you’ll I thought, Oh, no, all these people that I’ve met through Sony, of course, they’re going to have me you know, come and consult for them. And, and no one did I, I want to say that actually, in an advertising agency, might have been my first client, and the only reason why they hired me to work with them as because they were pitching a piece of business to that CMO. That I had worked for at Sony and wanted to know everything about him and his philosophy about brand building, etc. So they hired me just tell them that I think that might have been my first consulting gig. But what ended up happening is I, I just would do a lot of business development and a lot of networking I recontacted tons of people. And one of a client that ended up being a really great client for a couple years was Vf Corp.
They own a lot of brands from The North Face to Eagle Creek. And I had met a guy who worked for Vf at a conference, you know, several years before I left Sony and when I left Sony I recontact them and said, Hey, you know, just wanna let you know I’m on my own. He ended up bringing me into that organization. And because the I’ve had all these different brands, I was able to work on multiple projects for multiple brands. So that really just kind of established me but I have to confess that this guy who got me into the company. If I had run into him on the street, I don’t think I would have recognized him because I like I said I’d met him at a conference several years ago. I just reached out to him because kind of in my networking and he ended up being such a great advocate for me, I ended up we ended up reconnecting in person.
So now I just want to know what it looks like it and we have a friendship but you know, that’s what I mean by like your business is going to is not going to come from where you think it is. It’s going to come from the most surprising places. And I think that’s in part because when you are well known in one way, it’s really hard for people to then think of you in a different way. And so everyone who had known me as this kind of brand and strategy person at Sony couldn’t see me working on like, Nautica the or Nautica jeans. You know, they just couldn’t make that leap and they couldn’t see me actually developing a whole kind of business and brand plan because they see me in this very narrow window. Where’s people Who didn’t know me as that? Only Saw that? Yeah, I used to have a brand new strategy for Sony. They’re like, okay, we believe that you can do that. And so I think that’s why different people and hiring, that it. Does that make sense?
Marc Gutman 45:12
Yeah, totally. And it’s really interesting. And I’m just thinking, you know, we’re, I’m very familiar with Vf. You know, they’ve relocated their headquarters to Denver. I personally know a lot of people who work they’re very kind of outdoorsy, cool brand. And so, just thinking about how you got in there, what a What a great story. I mean, not an easy company to land is is your first client and you start building up your consultancy, and then what happens?
Denise Lee Yohn 45:36
Yeah, and then, um, through the church that I was attending at the time, we put on this program where we did all these different assessments. So we did the Myers Briggs assessment, we did the Strengthsfinder assessment. We also did like the spiritual gifts assessment, which is based on the biblical teaching that different people are gifted in different ways. Anyway, I did all these assessments and I realized that What I really wanted to do, and really what I was built for was to be kind of, you know, again, I hate these tribes are kind of more of like a thought leader and a speaker, you know. So instead of just doing consulting projects, I really kind of realize that what was the best fit for me was to be a speaker and a writer, kind of getting my ideas and doing research and then getting my ideas out to as many people as possible. So I started kind of thinking, Okay, well, how do I become a speaker and granted, you know, as a consultant, I would go to conferences and speak for business development purposes, but you know, I will be speaking for free whereas, I wanted to become a professional speaker, you know, and I, in my research on that, I realized that I needed to have a book, which is kind of crazy. It’s just this weird thing.
I don’t know if you found this to be the case, Marc. But, you know, just somehow when you have a book because then people think they know something worth While listening to I needed to write a book, and I tried for several years to write a book I had put away at one point, I talked with a publisher who said, You’ve got a great marketing platform, you know, because I obviously I wrote this book proposal about how I was going to promote the book. She said, You’ve got this great marketing platform, but you don’t have the content of the book yet. So I put it away for a while. It’s like, Okay, great, I’m just going to be a consultant, whatever. And then I just could not let go of this drive to be a speaker. So and I also ended up connecting with an editor, who I just thought would really help me write the book I needed to, and that’s where What Great Brands Do came and from so What Great Brands Do came out in 2014.
And so since like probably 2013, I’ve really been building this business as a keynote speaker, more and more, such that I’ve only taken a few consulting clients that even just a couple of consulting clients or engagements a year, and most of my time is spent speaking.
Marc Gutman 48:08
Yeah. And so that’s that’s a great segue. So So what do great brands do?
Denise Lee Yohn 48:15
Well, I do have these seven principles that separate the best from the rest mark in my book. But, but the number one thing, and the very first chapter of what great brands do is great brands start inside, meaning that great brands aren’t built by their external communications and their logos and you know, all that stuff. They’re built by cultivating a strong brand led culture inside the organization. And if you are able to articulate an overarching purpose and core values that not only motivate customers, but also motivated employees, then you can build this this brand that has So much impact and so much authenticity and so much integrity. And so then just to kind of close the loop on this idea of of starting and so that’s how I ended up writing my most recent book fusion, how integrating brand and culture powers the world’s greatest companies. Because the more I worked on brand building, I realized that idea of starting aside is something that more and more businesses need to know about. And so I ended up writing a book solely on that idea.
Marc Gutman 49:28
Yeah, and I agree, like, in my experience, that, you know, a lot of companies view those two things as mutually exclusive, when in fact, they’re oftentimes especially like, you know, company like VF, where like, culture is the brand, you know, for a lot of those different brands that they own. You know, it is important to start inside and so what are some of the biggest sort of mistakes you’re seeing from brands when they try to start, you know, building from the inside when it comes to purpose and values?
Denise Lee Yohn 49:57
Mm hmm. I would say the lack of leadership, responsibility for culture building is probably one of the biggest mistakes in the sense that, you know, you might hear like the CEO or you know, the leader of the company and kind of talk about we have, we have a great culture, we need to, you know, work on our culture, but they’re not accepting responsibility for really shaping what that culture is, is or should be, and moving the organization towards it, I think that they there’s often this sense, either a, our culture’s just kind of kind of grow organically, just if I talk about it, it’ll happen, you know, if I build this it will come, or B, that’s HR’s job. So I’m going to tell the HR folks you need to work on our culture and come back to me in six months or a year and tell me you know, report to me what progress is made, without really recognizing that, you know, there’s so much in the way The organization is run, and the way the organization is designed. And all these different aspects of the employees experience, some of which do fall under HR responsibilities. A lot of it falls outside of that. All of these things shape your culture. And so I think there’s just kind of this kind of a hands off approach to culture, which holds a lot of companies back.
Marc Gutman 51:23
Yeah, I think I think the the biggest red flag I heard when I asked one, so who owns the culture? The answer was everybody owns the culture. And I thought, No one owns the culture. And you’re in trouble. You’re in trouble. Yeah,
Denise Lee Yohn 51:40
I will say that it’s true that, you know, everyone plays their part. And I was just talking to someone earlier today about how everyone does contribute to the culture. What if the leadership isn’t driving that forward? Isn’t setting the tone, setting the priorities and making sure that everyone in the organization understands what kind of cultural we’re going after? Then? Yeah, you’re right. No, no There’s you’re not going to make progress, you know? So it’s kind of one of these things that, yes, there was. Yes, everyone is involved. But the leaders are responsible for, for championing championing it and leading it moving forward.
Marc Gutman 52:15
Yeah, absolutely. And so when it comes to brand, like, what are you most excited about right now? What are you seeing? And what are you excited about as we kind of enter a crazy world these days, something’s a little different, and something that’s being reshaped and remade and a lot of ways, both with the diversity and equity issues we’re seeing as well as with COVID. I mean, there’s a lot going on that that’s putting a lot of pressure on brands, but I also think is impacting how we as consumers feel about brands.
Denise Lee Yohn 52:44
Yeah. So I would say two things and they’re, they’re probably related to some extent, but then they’re both definitely a result of the current situation with the pandemic and and also the civil unrest. One is that I think there’s elevated expectations on brands, from their customers and from the media and kind of other stakeholders that these brands need to be. I wouldn’t even call like responsible corporate citizens, they need to be creating value for their communities, and for the customers and for the world, that you’re part of it is a real positive impact there. And because people have the visibility to see kind of what these companies are doing now, it’s not enough for a company just to kind of do some social responsibility effort off to the side. I think there’s an expectation that the way that you run your business needs to create shared value value that everyone who’s involved in business can share that actually elevates your communities elevates your employees elevates your customers elevates the world.
So I think that that’s one trend or one development that I think if companies rise up and step up to the challenge, we will see businesses dramatically changed for the better. And then the other is that the employee experience is been completely disrupted. In fact, I just released an article in Forbes about this, that it’s, it’s you cannot deny that what your employees are experiencing, or what your employees need. And what they expect in and kind of what they’re experiencing now has not just changed dramatically over the last few months. And that therefore, you as a leader need to redesign your employee experience. You know, you can’t rely on people coming to your campus. And kind of you know, soaking in the culture through the ISA you know, in the ethos is something that just kind of happens, which it never did in the past, but it definitely makes it clear that you can’t be thinking about your culture in terms of space or place and time, but you need to be thinking about engaging every one of your employees and their, you know, individual needs and in their individual context.
And so just the fact that you can’t ignore that and that business leaders are going to have to address that I’m excited about because I think the way that companies engage their employees could again, be completely different. And I think if companies really stepped into that opportunity, both the businesses as well as the people will be, will be so much better. And that
Marc Gutman 55:32
Sounds like a world I want to be a part of, you know, it sounds like not only are we creating commerce and value in companies, but we’re creating more value in the world.
Denise Lee Yohn 55:41
Yes. And, and, and, and, you know, there’s not this kind of in we’re inside the organization outside the organization kind of divide, you know, but like it’s the company really views, everyone who’s involved in their businesses as a stakeholder and how can we create value and how can we have a positive impact on All of these groups,
Marc Gutman 56:01
Denise, tell me about flying a helicopter.
Denise Lee Yohn 56:07
Oh, so that was on my bucket list. And so last year, I decided, Okay, I’m going to do this. So I took flight lessons for about nine months. And it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, Mark. And I think I’ve done some hard things in my life. But just and I think that I’m pretty coordinated. You know, growing up as a, as a ballet dancer, I kind of feel like I have fairly good coordination. But the thing about a helicopter is that all four of your appendages, right arm, left arm and your two of your feet or legs are doing different things.
You know, one is going back and forth, you know, side and the other is going side to side and your feet are steering. And it’s not the kind of thing like a plant like a fixed wing aircraft, nor like a car where you could take your hands off the controls and you would still basically kind of go in the same direction unless something dramatic happens, you know, like, every moment every second that you are in that in the cockpit, you are making micro adjustments just to keep the helicopter afloat. And like I said it was, it was the most difficult thing.
All I remember after several lessons I asked my flight instructor I’m like, you know, do you ever have people who you just don’t think are ever going to get this? basically asking them Do you think I should just give up you know, and, and fortunately, he was nice enough to be like, No, you know, you really, it just takes time. He said, there will be a moment when have a quick and you’ll be able to do it. And so I ended up getting to that moment I ended up doing my first solo flight. And it was just an extraordinary feeling. And I think something that I was really proud of that I was able to do
Marc Gutman 57:57
Why was that important to you to learn about? Fly helicopter.
Denise Lee Yohn 58:01
Well, I mean it was really stupid in a way because I had gone to Hawaii and we had gone on this awesome helicopter ride where they took us I was on I can’t remember what Island it was. We basically like flew straight up those flew straight into there like we were looking I level at the top of the waterfall and then we basically went straight down and landed at the foot of the waterfall got out to Pune whoever and then we you know left we went straight up and then we you know went around or whatever and I thought that is the coolest thing in the world. I want to be able to do that.
I just, it was just kind of one of those things are just, it just was such a memorable experience. And it is very much unlike flying because you know, like you like like I travel so much again on a plane I don’t even think about you know what’s involved that we’re taxiing down the runway and then taking off at you know, these ginormous speeds in order to be Get a float. You know, the helicopter experience is so different. And I just felt like I want to do that. And little did I know how hard it was a little bit. I know how expensive it is. But yeah, like I said, I was just so happy that I was able to do it.
Marc Gutman 59:18
Denise, we thank you for sharing that as we end the get to the end of the interview here. You know, if you ran into your eight year old self, that little Denise in St. Louis and her ballet outfit her tutu, what do you think she’d say if she saw you today?
Denise Lee Yohn 59:36
Wow. I would think that she would be kind of proud and like, excited about what I was able to accomplish. At the same time, I think that she would, if she knew what I had gone through in the time in the interim, she wouldn’t know about like, you know, the, you know, some of the waste in my life. In terms of before I came to face and they’re like the stupid thing that I did where I was just kind of wasting my talent and potential, and she would maybe think, gosh, she could have been even more Have you not, like made those mistakes? But I think overall I think that she would just yeah, I think that she would be like excited about what has happened
Marc Gutman 1:00:21
So where can these listeners find out more about you and get in contact with you if they have some questions about anything you share today?
Denise Lee Yohn 1:00:29
Oh Marc, thank you so much for asking. The best place to go is my website DeniseLeeYohn.com and it’s really kind of a portal to everything. So there you can learn about me as a keynote speaker and watch my videos. You can access my social media accounts. You can access my all of the articles I write for the Harvard Business Review and Forbes and other outlets so you can access all those articles there as well as my blog and newsletter. So really, Denise Lee Yohn comm is the place to go to then, you know, engage in whatever way And I will say that I really enjoy connecting with new people just like this connection that you and I have now mark, I’m just so thankful that you know, through these different people that we know and different channels we can actually meet new people and develop new relationships and just grow as people. So please reach out to me, I would love to hear from you.
Marc Gutman 1:01:25
Fantastic, and I can vouch for Denise’s newsletter. I love her emails. They’re full of gold nuggets. So go ahead and sign up. I think it’s a great resource. And, Denise, thank you so much for being on the show.
Denise Lee Yohn 1:01:36
Marc, Thank you. It’s been great.
Marc Gutman 1:01:43
And that is Denise Lee Yohn. I loved her comment that people identify with brands, they get them that help them to identify themselves. Think about that one for a moment. And Denise, thank you for sharing Your story in an authentic and vulnerable way. I so appreciate that you showed up as you are and didn’t hold anything back. I’ll say back to you what you said in our interview, you make me want to be better. And we’ll make sure to link to all things Denise Lee Yohn in the show notes, so please check out all the free resources she makes available. Thank you again to Denise Lee Yohn. Well, that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS so you’ll never miss an episode. A lot big stories and I cannot lie to you other storytellers can’t deny