‘The weird one wins’: MailChimp’s CMO on the company’s off-the-wall advertising

MailChimp launched "The Brain" campaign before the holidays last year

MailChimp’s description of itself as a “marketing automation platform” is a bland way to describe a company whose advertising is anything but.

The brand managed to make its way into pop culture four years ago when it serendipitously found itself as the sole sponsor of the breakout hit podcast Serial. MailChimp’s ad, which featured a child mispronouncing the company’s name as “MailKimp,” quickly became just as popular as the podcast itself.

In the years since, MailChimp has raised the B2B advertising bar with a series of campaigns that are more about the brand’s sense of humor than what it actually has to offer, a strategy it says is resonating with its target audience of small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Post-Serial, the Atlanta-based brand’s first big splash came in the form of “Did You Mean MailChimp?”, an elaborate campaign that cleverly played off of the “MailKimp” mispronunciation. Bizarre products like FailChips, a series of short films with names like JailBlimp, and an anti-aging facial treatment called SnailPrimp were all brought to life in order to pique the interest of anyone who stumbled upon them. Of course, each bizarre activation eventually pointed back to MailChimp.

The campaign, which earned its agency Droga5 a Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes last year, is one that its chief marketing officer Tom Klein admits was “reckless.” Even so, he says the distinct personality the campaign helped cultivate for MailChimp is what differentiates the brand from others and makes it stand out. As a company that specializes in helping people build their own businesses, Klein says it's important for MailChimp to lead by example when it comes to brand building and cutting through the noise.

How would you describe MailChimp’s advertising strategy?

Generally speaking, we are really looking to model the behavior and inspire the behavior in our customers. Given that we have millions of customers that we're really looking to inspire to become great marketers and build brands in their own right, a lot of our strategy is essentially ‘teach by doing’ if you will. But also, like I said, inspire them in their own business to think about how can they connect with their own customers and stand out.

Your "Did you mean MailChimp?" campaign was an elaborate effort with a lot of moving parts. Can you explain why MailChimp wanted to go so big and do something of that scale?

It sounds crazy, right? Our account director, when we finally landed on what we were going to do, said something like, ”This sounds reckless." I said, “Okay, I know we're in the right territory." It felt right.

I think while “Did You Mean MailChimp?” was the thing that was really stood out the most, there was a campaign that preceded it that was really a set-up signaling where we were going to go. The insight there was largely, "Hey, the thing that we want to inspire in customers is that being yourself makes all the difference.” It's really a message about differentiation. It was mostly a print and outdoor campaign that just felt like it was getting that message out there.

I think people a lot of times get into marketing or sales and they feel like they either want to copy a competitor or they get really sales-y, which is uninspiring. So, that campaign that preceded "Did You Mean MailChimp?” was sort of our signal [that] we’re going to be ourselves and we're going to stand out.

What sort of feedback did you get from “Did You Mean MailChimp?" after it launched?

People went nuts, in a good way. They loved it. It wasn't a hard sell. There wasn't a big buy button. We were really just trying to connect with people and inspire them, and they got it, which was gratifying. I think people enjoyed the discovery process.

You’ve since followed up "Did You Mean MailChimp?" with two other campaigns, "Black Hole" and "The Brain." Can you discuss how these two efforts have built upon the MailChimp brand?

In so many ways, “Did You Mean MailChimp?” established an aesthetic in a completely weird world. And so when we thought about the “Black Hole” campaign, we wanted to actually say a little bit more about things like marketing automation. But it was intended to, artistically and aesthetically, feel like you could have turned the corner in the MailShrimp film and there you are with the Black Hole. So it was very helpful creatively to sort of establish this weird world.

Then “The Brain” campaign was largely even more detailed - it was practically at a product level - but still trying to make what can be fancy-sounding marketing jargon accessible and fun. At that time of the year, we're really trying to help our customers discover the things that we think will make them successful, because it's really a make or break time. And people really reacted well to “The Brain.” They liked the idea that if there's something that you don't want to do, don't know how to do, [or] don’t have time to do, there's something that will take care of it for you.

MailChimp hasn’t shied away from humor or whimsy in any of its campaigns, two attributes that B2B companies aren’t typically known for. Why has the company chosen to play up its quirkiness?

I think that's part of what a brand is - creating an emotional connection. We're a company of people and we know our customers as people. We're trying to connect with them at a human level as opposed to just this collection of features made by anonymous strangers. I feel like that's also the lesson we try to impart to our customers.

What advice would you give to B2B companies that are struggling to break through or reach their core audience?

Put your heart into it. Whatever you're crafting, think about - maybe even make up a person in your head - your grandmother, your mother, [or] someone you love so that you're not impersonal or boring or too guarded. This sounds really strange as I'm saying it, but that is really our advice.

The other thing beyond that is test. Please test things. Internally what we say is, "The weird one wins." We'll do a whole bunch of different versions of things, and it's the weird one that wins. So make sure there's a weird one when you're testing.

What's next for MailChimp?

I think you can expect us to continue to try to connect with our customers where they are. One of the things that's exciting about media in general is that it's on all the time. And so we're thinking, "how do we sort of be more present in our customers lives in lots of different ways?" It's a challenge that our customers have and we have just like them, as consumers consume media in different ways, We're trying to figure out where are we relevant and what makes sense for us.

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