Muriel Lotto used to be a shrinking violet. Try telling that to anyone who’s met her without being laughed at. Go on… I dare you.
Muriel is the high-energy Head of Global Brand and Marketing at Western Union, a legacy company that Muriel is helping re-establish as the leader in moving money. She has a distinguished career spanning thirty years in marketing on both the client and agency side in Europe and here in the United States. Muriel grew up in the South of France, with an Italian father and French mother. She currently lives in Miami, Florida, is a mom to two daughters and a son, and a proud member of The CMO Club.
CMO Club — Always exciting to talk with you. I can’t ever imagine you as a shrinking violet. When was that and what changed?
Muriel Lotto — “Yes. I was incredibly quiet as a child. If you looked at my school reports, the comment that came back most often was “Muriel is a brilliant student. If only she participated in class more.” I never put my hand up, never wanted to be in the spotlight. Ever. My sister, who was 18 months younger than me, had a powerful personality, much more driven than I ever was. I lived in her shadow, even though I was older than she was.”
CMO Club — When did that change?
Muriel Lotto — “I was in my late teens when I decided I wanted to attend business school. Up to that point, I’d mostly studied Literature and Philosophy, not exactly the kind of program that gets you into a prestigious business school. Everywhere I went, I was turned down. I was feeling awful about the rejections, so one day, my mother asked me…”
“What are you going to do about it, then?”
Muriel Lotto — “I knew I had to find my voice. I had to convince people to give me a chance. I was determined that in the next interview, I wasn’t going to let them say no. That was the moment that changed me when I realized the power I had. I remember my mom, who’d been sitting there in the interview room, looking at me afterward and saying, “who are you, and what did you do with my daughter!” (laughter) “In all seriousness, when you are more vocal, when you are more assertive, you get a lot more out of life. You get better results. I’ve never stopped, since.”
CMO Club — Wow, great story. What was it like growing up in the South of France? What were your parents like?
Muriel Lotto — “It was wonderful. I was born in Nice and raised in Aix en Provence, a beautiful small city outside Marseilles, in the warmth and the sunshine. The two things I remember my parents instilling in both my sister and I were always doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is, and to always think for yourselves. If I asked my parents a question, they would never give me an answer. Instead, they would ask, “well, what do YOU think the answer is?”
“They always encouraged us to seek information and understanding rather than just taking things at face value. It led me to be curious for the rest of my life, to always be yearning to learn. I’ve brought that to my children as well as my marketing teams. I encourage them to be truth-seekers, to not just accept the first answer they get, to look underneath and find what people are really saying.”
CMO Club — How did that help when you became a marketer?
Muriel Lotto — “I think it’s the same with consumers. We always need to ask why? Why do they do what they do? Why do they prefer this brand over that one? It’s been a guiding force in my business career as well as personally.”
CMO Club — Is that what drew you to marketing?
Muriel Lotto — “At first I wanted to be an interpreter. I’d always loved language, the beauty of words and the sound of different languages spoken. I studied many languages in school, including English, French, Italian, German, and even a little Latin. Dad arranged for me to shadow a translator for a week one summer, and I came out of that experience understanding that translators can only translate what other people are saying. I found myself thinking that I had an opinion and wanted to chime in, wondering “when do I get to chip in with my opinion?” Never was the answer. That’s the job.
I was at another crossroad. I knew I liked creativity. I also knew I liked working with numbers and spreadsheets and a lot of variety. Dad suggested talking with his marketing director where he worked. I didn’t even know marketing existed up until then. Soon after, I became smitten. I credit that Marketing Director with launching my career. He immediately became my friend, my coach, and my mentor through my whole career, right up until he passed.
CMO Club — So what was your first marketing job?
Muriel Lotto — “In an advertising agency in Paris. I did an internship while still in university with this agency, and got along very well with both the Account Director and the Creative Director there. They both worked for Lintas on the Unilever accounts and decided to leave and set up their own agency. Both of them asked me if I wanted to join, sort of a sales and marketing job combined with a little of everything else needed.
CMO Club — Can you remember any lessons you learned in that first experience that you still feel has relevance today?
Muriel Lotto — “Positioning, always. How do we position ourselves in the marketplace? How do we differentiate, and what do we stand for? Why should people come to us? If we aren’t clear on who we are, why would people give us the time of day? That’s more relevant today than it’s ever been. There are a million more choices out there now, and access to information is instantaneous. How do we stand out?
CMO Club — You’ve recently received an award for being one of the world’s boldest CMOs, and I’ve heard you quoted as saying “Attitude matters more than skill when building a modern marketing organization.” Can you elaborate on how what that means to you?
Muriel Lotto — “Getting that award was such a surprise, and about time before I retire! (laughter) Seriously, it means that if you have the appetite for learning, you can develop your skills. There’s always going to be two or three things that you’re good at doing. The question is how do you approach that. It goes back to that point I was making about being curious, about being inquisitive, leaning forward, being hungry, having that desire to understand. If you have the right attitude, you can acquire learning, which in turn becomes a skill. It’s not just about how good you are at your job. It’s about how you go forward.
CMO Club — You also have a reputation as a catalyst for change. What do you do that others might not?
Muriel Lotto — “If there is no appetite for change, I’m probably the wrong person in that job. I tend to operate best in an environment where the mandate I have is to change things. Sometimes it’s change everything, other times it’s to change a little bit. I gravitate to those jobs that have a bigger ambition. I’m a big-picture thinker. That usually starts a ripple effect on everything else. I gauge the challenge to how uncomfortable I feel. When I’m feeling uncomfortable, that’s when I know I need to listen to that feeling, really lean into it. I ask ‘Why do I feel uncomfortable?’ ‘How do I harness that?’ I feel that risk at the edge and I know I’m in the right place and can ask the right questions.” It means we are not in a linear trajectory; we’ve leaped.”
CMO Club — Interesting. What are you most proud of, then?
Muriel Lotto — “Ah, my purple Patch. I was working for Unilever. They wanted to sell their frozen food division, the brand Bird’s Eye. The decision had already been made to sell, not a question of if, but when I was brought in with the mandate to maximize the sales price. The market at that time was declining about eight percent, even though our brand was declining at about five percent, so we were doing better than most, but still an overall decline. Fresh foods were all the rage, thought to be much superior to frozen food quality. I knew we had to change perceptions to grow, and I had about eighteen months to achieve that.
I had a two-pronged approach. First, I needed to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of consumers that chilled, ready-made foods were better than frozen. I organized a secret meeting with our competitors and got them to all chip in for an unbranded public relations campaign for frozen foods at a generic level. We had famous chefs advocating for the benefits of frozen foods. We did roadshows where we had a chef prepare a fresh lasagna, and then put one in the refrigerator and one in the freezer. We then asked consumers which one would they’d like to eat in three weeks? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that one. Then we asked them how they think that chilled lasagna has a shelf-life of three weeks? What do you think they’re adding to that lasagna that allows it to sit in the fridge that long?” We got people thinking.
I would also personally visit supermarkets at night, rearranging the frozen food sections and food-sampling fresh versus frozen tables. It became a viral movement before there was such a thing as viral.”
Secondly, we did a branded campaign illustrating why frozen foods don’t need additives or preservatives of food colorings. It highlighted our product as being as natural as if you cooked it yourself and put in in the freezer. That took some product changes at the factory in the way we did things, better quality standards. We made many changes. I threatened to resign twice. I knew we needed to live up to what we were saying or we’d lose all credibility. It ultimately worked. We went from a 5 percent decline to plus 1.8 in just eighteen short months.
CMO Club — Any advice to fellow club members on staying relevant?
Muriel Lotto — “The number one thing is to get up from behind your desk. If you try to be relevant from behind a computer screen, you’re going to fail. That’s not the real world. I start every day listening to customer calls as I walk to work. It grounds me in always asking “who are the customers? What are they experiencing? What are they looking for? When I head into a meeting, I’ve already listened to “Maria” in St. Louis, telling me about a bad experience or “Marco” in Raleigh, asking why something did or didn’t happen. When I walk into that meeting, Maria and Marco are there with me. That doesn’t happen sitting behind a desk, looking at data and Power-point presentations all day.
CMO Club — If you could go back and give your 21-year-old-self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Muriel Lotto — “Don’t try to be good at everything. I wanted to be great at everything I tried. It took me a long time to understand that if I could be brilliant at two or three things, I’d have a much better chance of succeeding. I’ve learned to accept that I may be just OK at a handful of things, maybe not very good at all at some, but brilliant at very few, that that’s a much better model for life. I wish I’d understood that sooner.
CMO Club — What are you most passionate about outside of work?
Muriel Lotto — “Tennis. I play three times a week. I also love to dance. Those are the two things that keep me sane, my escape hatch if you will. When I’m playing or when I’m dancing, I’m a hundred percent in the game. Everything else drops away.
CMO Club — Is there anything about you that most people would never know?
Muriel Lotto — “I don’t know why, but I continuously meet famous people, on planes, or in restaurants, and I recognize them, not as famous people, but I think I know them from somewhere in my past. Their face looked familiar to me. I’m not very good with names. I’d start talking to them like they were long-lost friends of mine and making friends as a result.
I’ll give you two examples.
Once, I sat next to a good looking gentleman on a plane ride from Melbourne to London. I swore I knew him from somewhere. I named all the places I thought I knew him from as we spoke. He told me he’d never been here or there, and I couldn’t figure it out. At the airport, all these young girls started launching themselves up to him and trying to take photos, asking for autographs and hugging him. After things calmed down, I walk over to him.
“I feel I’ve missed something. I don’t think you’re the person I thought you were,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I enjoyed meeting you. You’re very funny.”
It was Orlando Bloom.
I’m not even going to tell you about that time in first-class when I tickled the feet of one of the most famous players on the All Blacks rugby team. That’s for another day.” (laughter)
CMO Club — We can’t wait. One last question on a serious note. Can a CMO change the world?
Muriel Lotto — “I’m very deliberate about working only for brands that have, at their core, a purpose greater than just making money. If I look back on the past fifteen years, they all have that in common. They all play a role in society that can absolutely make the world a better place.”