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How Mailchimp builds real and human connections in B2B

How to be a consumer-grade challenger

In the sixth and final episode of PHD and Eatbigfish’s podcast series, Overthrow II: Challenger Strategies for a New Era (a spin-off of their 2019 publication, Overthrow II), host and founder of Eatbigfish Adam Morgan talks to Tom Klein, the chief marketing officer of Mailchimp, about how and why Mailchimp built such real and human connections with its customers, and further dissects the interview’s salient points and key learnings with Olivia Douglas, global business lead at PHD US.

Think like a challenger, act like a yellow banana in a sea of blue

As an all-in-one online marketing platform, Mailchimp provides all tools needed to start and grow a business online; the name Mailchimp itself (the fame of which will be revisited shortly) is synonymous with one-stop-shop for marketers. And yet as Mailchimp has expanded, it finds itself in a challenger position time and time again.

“We’re a challenger every time we go into a new category or launch a new product,” Tom Klein, chief marketing officer of Mailchimp, tells Adam Morgan in the latest episode of the Overthrow II podcast. “It’s a really useful mindset for everyone to have access to. It feels like there is a purpose behind everything we do.”

It is likely this same challenger spirit, deeply embedded in the company’s culture, that led to Mailchimp’s 2017 campaign ‘Did you mean Mailchimp?’, launched by PHD US and Droga5 and went on to win a prestigious Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

“Think about the company that you’re in,” says Klein, “and how likely your company would be to develop an ad and have that ad mispronounce the name of your company.”

That’s exactly what occurred when Mailchimp was mispronounced as ‘MailKimp’ on the famed true crime podcast Serial. Mailchimp leadership saw an opportunity and ran with the blunder with a campaign that used nine new mispronunciations, including iterations such as JailBlimp, WhaleSynth and KaleLimp, to capture the creative and fun spirit behind Mailchimp.

That decision beautifully illustrates the spirit of Mailchimp – a yellow banana in a sea of blue, as Klein calls it in his interview for PHD and Eatbigfish’s 2019 publication, Overthrow II – 10 strategies from the new wave of challengers. “It was a digital love letter to the creative class,” he adds now on the subsequent podcast.

Reflecting real and human challenger traits with Mailchimp Presents

Mailchimp featured in the Overthrow II publication as an example of ’real and human’, one of 10 different challenger archetypes used by brands to drive disproportionate growth. Real and human challengers are categorized by their desire to appeal to consumers on a more personal and emotional level, and often present themselves as a group of people, not a brand.

This thread of humanity runs unbroken through Mailchimp’s strategy, particularly in how it speaks to consumers as human beings – a “stroke of genius”, as Morgan calls it, but which Klein says is a very effective vision from Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp’s CEO and co-founder. Humans, by nature, are both emotional and rational. At any given time, we might listen to one side of our brain (emotional) or the other (rational); therefore, Mailchimp seeks to speak to the whole person.

Mailchimp has continued to look for ways to communicate with their consumers as people (“not robot-like businesses,” Klein contrasts) throughout the past difficult year of the pandemic, at a time when a human angle is perhaps more desired than ever.

When the pandemic cancelled the SXSW Film Festival, Klein and his team created a new home for SXSW’s Official Short Film Program on Mailchimp’s ‘business entertainment platform’ Mailchimp Presents. A curated series of short documentaries, films and podcasts – free to everyone – promotes the emotional journey of the entrepreneur and what small businesses encounter along that journey.

One example is the Bafta-winning short, 73 Cows, which tells the story of a vegan cattle rancher whose conscience prevents him from remaining in the business. To Mailchimp, it felt essential to tell this story in a very human way.

“Every entrepreneur, every business, is going to experience something like this,” Klein elaborates. “You can’t point to any business that is exactly the way it started. At some point, you hit a wall and you have got to change or drop out. Speaking to the emotional aspect of that has universal appeal.”

He adds: “I would recommend it to anybody. You cannot watch it and come away unmoved.” It is a deeply human story, meant for a wholly human viewer – for both the emotional half of the brain, and the rational.

Understanding the customer

Following his conversation with Klein, Morgan asks Olivia Douglas, global business lead at PHD US, what strikes her most about Mailchimp’s story. Douglas highlights the fresh approach of a B2B speaking to the emotional side of the customer.

“Too often, we go into work mode,” says Douglas, “and you write things down on a piece of paper, and human beings become audience descriptions or targets. [There’s] this realization that it doesn’t matter what I’m selling, to business or to consumers – I’m always selling to people. People who behave like people.”

As a B2B company, it is still essential to get people’s attention and make them like the company and feel something about it. There is a wonderful sense that Mailchimp understands its customer as a complex person and is rooting for them; it understands the customer’s problems, what they’re trying to do, and want the customer to succeed.

Douglas concludes that for brands looking to be real and human, it doesn’t matter what product the brand is selling; it’s about how the brand sells it and how it communicates with its customers in the process. While Mailchimp is a B2B company, it thinks of its customers, first and foremost, as people.

“No matter what you’re doing, be ’consumer-grade’,” says Douglas. “Be delightful, be beautiful and be easy to use – and you will be able to successfully engage with and connect with your audience. They are people, after all.”

To hear the full story of Mailchimp, how it makes its communities feel ‘seen’ and how accepting failure sets your creativity free, listen to the sixth episode of Overthrow II: Challenger Strategies for a New Era, which is available on Spotify, Google, Apple Podcasts and Audioboom. To purchase a copy of Overthrow II or to find out your challenger type, click here.

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