In this eighth episode of our ‘3 Learnings From...’ video podcast series, we sit down with Christen O'Brien, CMO at NFX.
In this interview, Christen digs into the dynamics of brand identity, the role of tomorrow's CMOs, and how movements can shape and grow the best companies.
Check out the interview! 👇
"Obsessed with the power of words"
Christen O'Brien is convinced that the best marketing is all about storytelling. Her work as a writer and author has impacted millions of people around the world, and has featured on The Today Show, CNN, CNBC, and Medium.
Whether she's writing about technology or humanity, Christen endeavours to explore the ties that bind us together as people. Great storytellers understand audiences better than anyone, and this skillset has no doubt served Christen well in her career as a marketing executive.
Passionate about the potential of technology and entrepreneurship, Christen has been a key part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem for over 10 years. She has worked with companies like LinkedIn, Twilio, Box, AdMob, Poshmark, Loopt, and Atlassian in their early start-up stages.
Today, Christen leads marketing at NFX, a seed-stage venture capital firm founded in 2015 by entrepreneurs who’ve started 10 companies that have exited for more than $10 billion.
NFX's lens is always "through the eyes of the Founder." First, the NFX team aim to build an early stage experience for all founders that is powered by more software. Second, NFX offer these founders innovative and exponential techniques for network effects and growth. Third, to bring more visibility to the typically unseen methods used by technology's most impactful companies.
Christen leads all NFX marketing including content development & marketing, brand, product marketing, growth, network development, and external communications.
Outside of her professional life, Christen is an adventure traveler, lifelong piano player, (she has written several original compositions) and she loves learning foreign languages—already fluent in Spanish and Bulgarian, and conversational in Italian after a few grappas!
Learning #1: Brand is not a message. It is an identity
"This is the number 1 thing that people get wrong," insists Christen, is that "when we think of brand, we often think of descriptors—the way we describe the brand." Using her favorite NorthFace backpack as an example, Christen shows us that the backpack's features are indistinguishable from any other backpack.
And yet, there's something about the brand that she identifies with—beyond the descriptions of the backpack's utility that she would typically give as her reasons for buying it. The backpack makes Christen feel outdoorsy, athletic, and sophisticated—exactly the kind of identity she's happy to buy into.
When starting a company and brand, Christen says "Think of brands as people. What is the archetype of this kind of person, and how do they behave?" You can then build all brand messages through that lens: "brand, at its best, becomes a prism for communicating an identity, and messages are just a reflection of that identity."
Learning #2: Everything is becoming media. The 'Managing Editor' will become the CMO of the future
"We're wired for language and we're wired for stories," says Christen, and this will drive a more human-focused approach to marketing in an increasingly saturated media landscape.
"We are consuming media all day long, it's on social platforms, it's on the news... people feel a lack of connection today." According to Christen, we are all looking for deeper connections in our daily lives, including the things we buy: "You want to be a more responsible consumer, you want to believe in the things you're buying and the goodness of the company and what they're producing."
As a result, traditional CMOs will have to evolve into 'Managing Editors' because storytelling, language and a writer's sensibility will be essential for creating marketing campaigns that really connect with customers and their needs.
Even as new content mediums become more prevalent, such as video and podcast, writing remains the core skill to create stories that truly resonate with customers... Time to pick up your pens and dust off your notebooks, marketers!
Learning #3: Movements, not marketing messages, are how great companies are born and grow today
"Think of your company as a surfer, and the world as a series of waves... you're finding that wave that's going to last a long time so you can ride it for a long time."
For Christen, it's never just about trying to put a message forward, or simply telling the story of a company—it's about finding the deepest level of what a company is trying to do and what it believes in, and then matching that with what is happening in the world.
Christen cites Tesla as a prime example of a company capitalizing on a movement: "Tesla is so much more than a company. They've basically looked at: what is the zeitgeist of the world right now? how is the world changing? how is that becoming a movement? and how do we ride that?"
Companies can propel themselves forward by aligning their brands with the forces behind a movement and attaching themselves to this wave, provided that there is an authentic link between them.
Christen has been one of the leading connectors & marketers in Silicon Valley for over a decade. To some degree, her success stems from her writer's instincts—the ability to tap into how customers think, and create stories that sell. As CMO at NFX, she's now helping a variety of startups to grow and develop strong brand identities of their own.
Do you agree that future CMOs will be resemble 'Managing Editors', as Christen predicts? Are you looking for a movement to ride that both reflects your company's values and the path the world is taking?
More marketing insights and career learnings coming your way in the next episode. We'll be speaking with Amelia Ibarra, SVP & GM at SaaStr! See you there ✌️