She says that risk-taking and storytelling are key to winning the hearts of fans.
She entered, stage right, to thunderous applause. The only things missing were the leather-and-studs trappings of villainy the public usually sees when Stephanie McMahon, the chief brand officer of WWE, steps into the spotlight, as she did at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif on Wednesday.
McMahon is a fourth-generation wrestling promoter, the most recent McMahon to rise through the ranks of a wrestling empire, which now has $700 million in annual revenue, delights fans in 180 countries, and delivers content in 25 languages.
“We trend on Twitter 52 weeks a year,” McMahon told the crowd. “We’re the No. 1 sports channel on YouTube, with 12 billion views a year.”
But on television, where she inhabits the WWE brand by portraying an evil version of herself—a “boss’s daughter” who abuses authority and threatens lesser mortals in the mythical ring of wrestling—she’s less of an executive presence and more of a force of nature. “When you see people booing me, it’s good,” McMahon reassured the crowd. “It means I’m doing my job.”
McMahon describes the appeal of wrestling in lofty terms. “We have a very passionate fan base,” she said. “Our fans are part of our show. It’s really more akin to performance art—no different than Shakespeare, opera, or ballet,” she said to giggles and nods. The live action, which is often dictated by fans through social media, is the compelling piece. “There’s a protagonist, an antagonist, conflicts, and storytelling,” she says.
And this formula is at the heart of the advice she offered to her corporate compatriots in other industries: Start telling better, more authentic stories. “Information without emotion is not retainable,” she said, quoting motivational guru Tony Robbins. To brands trying to connect with consumers, she asks, “Why should they care about your product? Can you answer that through your marketing?”
It’s a lesson McMahon is taking to heart. Her memoir, the first book to emerge from the McMahon family—which includes her CEO father Vince, and mother Linda, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut in 2010—was scheduled to be published this fall by Regan Arts. She announced it’s been postponed, at least for now.
“I’m personally reassessing,” she said. “It was originally supposed to be a memoir. But as the first book from my family, it needed to be so much more.” Like how her father received death threats from actual mobsters when he first tried to scale the business from a regional diversion to a national entertainment powerhouse. “They went through so much to grow the business.”
McMahon who has been a part of the business officially since age 12 (unofficially earlier as a volunteer merchandise model) says that she ultimately wants that story to honor the bigger one. At the very least, she said, it made for an interesting childhood. “One of my best friends growing up was Andre the Giant.”
And the crowd went wild.