Greg Kihlstrom, Consultant, Advisor, Speaker & Author, The Agile Brand

Greg Kihlström is a best-selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur, and serves as an advisor and consultant to top companies on marketing technology, marketing operations, customer experience, and digital transformation initiatives. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, FedEx, HP, Marriott, Nationwide, Victoria’s Secret, and Toyota. He is also the host of The Agile Brand podcast where he interviews enterprise marketing and marketing technology platform leaders.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Greg shared his professional trajectory, insights on how impact-driven businesses can create authentic connections with their target audiences, the major takeaways from his book, personal sources of inspiration, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Greg, can you tell us about your journey into marketing and branding and what made you passionate about marketing technology, customer experience, and digital transformation?

Very early in my career, I was a website and software product designer at a technology startup and had the opportunity to work closely with both the Marketing and Engineering teams, which fostered a love for work at the intersection of UX (now more CX), marketing, and technology. After that, I founded my digital experience agency which gave me more opportunities to work at this intersection and for some great brands like Toyota, Coca-Cola, and many more. Since selling that agency a little over 6 years ago, my primary focus has been to help Fortune 1000 organizations adapt to changing conditions through digital transformation, including improvements to CX, adoption of AI-based tools and processes, and more.

Building a purposeful brand requires a deep understanding of core values. How do you help businesses identify and align their values within their branding strategies?

The thing about values is that they are easier to find than some suspect. If you have to try to invent your company values, it likely means they aren’t authentic in the first place. Do some thinking about the behaviors that drive action in your organization, the founding principles around it, and don’t just think about what might be nice to have.

Once this is done, aligning your branding around your values can be easier because there are likely already pointers to the types of values you are branding with, as they already exist to some degree in the behaviors present in the organization.

In the digital media and social platforms age, how do you advise impact-driven businesses to create authentic connections with their target audience?

One rule of thumb is to separate the “sales” content from the “engaging” content. In other words, if you are advertising or selling a product or service, be straightforward and direct about it, but be intentional about the content you wish to engage users with and trust that if their target audience is engaged, they will consider purchasing.

Another way of looking at this is to focus your call to action in whatever you do. Focusing on both a sales CTA and engagement is two too many requests.

Apart from your roles as Advisor & Consultant, you are also a Faculty for School of Marketing at Association of National Advertisers. Can you please tell us about the course created by you and its relevance in today’s rapidly changing business landscape?

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with ANA on 3 sets of courses: one on customer experience measurement, one on marketing measurement and analytics, and a 4-part Agile Marketing certification. I strongly believe in the power of education to help marketers and other professionals to perform better and grow in their careers.

It is also important for organizations to support their team members to continuously learn and grow in their core areas of expertise as well as related areas.

Can you share some valuable insights on the role of storytelling in brand building, especially for businesses focused on making a positive impact in society?

Storytelling plays a crucial role in brand building, and it can be particularly powerful for businesses focused on making a positive impact in society. Humans are drawn to storytelling, whether from the emotional impact and connection it can create, or its ability to show empathy and inspire or motivate key audiences.

By using storytelling to communicate their purpose, build empathy and understanding, establish trust and authenticity, inspire action, differentiate themselves, connect with diverse audiences, and create long-term brand loyalty, these businesses can create a powerful and lasting impression on consumers that will drive their success.

Please share some of the major takeaways from your book, “House of the Customer”.

I wrote the book, House of the Customer, because I had very recently worked on some large-scale transformation initiatives at some large, well-known brands and just felt I had a lot to share from those experiences about both how to approach some things, as well as some learnings about how some things could have been approached differently.

One of the biggest takeaways from House of the Customer is that it helps to break down digital transformation into smaller pieces. I did this using the metaphor of the house and by breaking down different areas into different parts of the house. By doing this, it sets companies up for greater success and less likelihood of beginning an initiative that is too big to get off the ground.

Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

There are way too many people to mention, and I will say that there isn’t a single point of success I’ve ever had that wasn’t due in part to at least one other person. But I’ll start with my parents who always encouraged me to follow my passions and reinforced that I could do anything I set my mind to. While that “anything” part wasn’t necessarily 100% accurate, it gave me the confidence to try a lot of things and to be successful at least some of them!

What does the term “authentic leadership” mean to you?

Authentic leadership refers to a leadership style that is genuine, sincere, and true to one’s values and beliefs. It involves being transparent, honest, and vulnerable, while also being confident and courageous in one’s actions and decisions. Authentic leaders are not afraid to show their human side and are comfortable with being themselves, rather than trying to fit into a predetermined mold or image.

While it’s hard to sum it up in only a few words, some other characteristics of authentic leadership are transparency (sharing the “why” behind requests), vulnerability (being able to admit when you’re wrong), empathy (putting themselves in others’ shoes), and self-awareness (realizing they don’t have all the answers).

What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Well, I have just started on my journey to obtain a doctoral degree, so that will be a rather big achievement for me within that timeframe. I also am in the midst of completing a multi-book publishing deal that I will be able to announce in more detail in the months ahead.

My goal is to continue to work with the types of organizations I’m working with, and to continue to grow the audience for my podcast and other writing such as books, articles and more. I have been very fortunate to have learned from some amazing people and opportunities and feel it is my duty to give back in the form of sharing knowledge however I can.

What advice would you give aspiring marketers and entrepreneurs who wish to create purpose-driven brands and design lives aligning with their values?

My advice would be this: get started, today. Start small, but start soon, and know that you may not succeed in exactly the way you originally intended, but every opportunity is an opportunity to learn. As long as you understand what your values are, and what those values either encourage or discourage you from doing, there is no such thing as failure, or even a wrong step.

Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect, and also don’t make excuses why compromising your values is okay “this time.” That is a slippery slope and may cost you months or years or missteps.

Finally, always look for the “win-win” in everything you do. It’s easy to find “win-lose” situations, but unless everyone can win in a situation, the long-term success and sustainability will always be in question, and you have the opportunity to build support and some valuable friends along the way if you are always thinking about how all sides can win.

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