Aron North: If you're going to evaluate creative, you need to do it from the lens of the consumer, not the lens of self. Quite frankly, I don't give a shit if you don't like red or you don't like that music or that font. We're talking not to you, we're talking to the consumer.
Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get smarter and stronger. I'm Greg Stuart, CEO of the nonprofit MMA Global. That voice you heard at the top is Aron North, the CMO and commercial owner of the prepaid wireless brand Mint Mobile. Now Aron has way more power than a lot of marketing leaders. He is the single person accountable for the business performance of Mint. It's been a busy year for him. In March, T-Mobile said it would acquire Mint's parent company, Ka'ena Corporation, for up to $1.35 billion. Aron's past roles before Mint, include Young & Rubicam, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell.
GS: Today on Building Better CMOs, Aron and I are going to talk about letting the best idea win, why marketers have lost sight of a key part of the process, and why your opinion of a product as a marketer just really doesn't matter. Now stick around to the end because Aron has a burning hot take on why AI is over-hyped. This podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Aron North from Mint Mobile is going to tell us how he did that right after this.
GS: Aron North, welcome to Building Better CMOs today.
AN: Thank you very much, Greg. Good to see you.
GS: Good, good. Where'd I catch in the world today? Where are you?
AN: Well, I'm on a little vacation out in Palm Springs, California, and because we're a work from anywhere workforce, you just bring the laptop with you and you could keep going.
GS: Oh my god, don't you love that about today? You know what I don't know? I don't know why I don't take more advantage of that. For some reason, I saw a YouTube video come up on my feed last night, it was about digital natives working out of Bali. I mean, I don't really think I could do that, but it was very... I watched the whole damn video for some unknown reason.
AN: I mean, if you can handle the time change, that sounds pretty incredible to me.
GS: I think that's it. I think I just didn't really think it through.
AN: But look, we're a couple of ex-agency guys. We're used to working all night. Maybe we're really messed up here.
GS: Maybe that's really what we could do. That's for damn sure. I know that'd be sort of crazy. Well, listen, I appreciate you joining us here and for the listener, just in case you didn't catch it, Aron here is actually now chief marketing officer and commercial owner at Mint Mobile. That's your exact title, correct?
AN: Yes, that is correct.
GS: Okay, so what's the commercial owner part mean? What does that mean? That seems unusual.
AN: The fastest way to summarize what commercial owner means is I am the single person accountable for the business performance. You combine that piece with the marketing component, and I think you really have the recipe for what a direct-to-consumer business and brand should be all about. You still have major accountabilities and partnerships with your CEO and your CFO, but so often... I've read numerous articles where it feels like the marketing side has to constantly defend what they're doing because there's no business accountability. In my role, I have absolute business accountability to the organization. So I am what we call the CO and the CMO of Mint.
GS: So certainly marketing would be a huge driver of what the Mint Mobile business from a business performance. What else is included in that? I mean, you're not manning a store.
AN: Correct, correct.
GS: Running a team, I don't know. Are there salespeople involved? How does that work with your business?
AN: Broadly speaking, the way we've done this is obviously custom to us, so you'll hear hints of marketing in the commercial owner's aspect of the business, but again, that's because it's a D2C business. So it's forecasting and budget. Not just the marketing forecast and budget, but subscriber growth, churn, channel compensation, retention budgets, like retail offers, strategic planning for the business, business analysis and tracking, partner management. That's not just agencies and advertisers but other critical partners, critical business analytics.
AN: We use the Looker platform. So as it turns out, I'm the number one consumer inside our organization of Looker dashboards, and I'm constantly looking at business dynamics, whether it's growth... We have not sub-brands, but we have offerings that are quite a bit different, so we have family plans. We have the various types of wireless plans within our business. I'm looking at mix, mix shift, longevity, LTV, et cetera, et cetera. So it is basically the whole consumer and the whole subscription business as well as the marketing performance angles.
GS: Just for the listener, what's a Looker platform? Just so everybody knows.
AN: Looker is basically a data visualization software. So you've got oodles and oodles of data now, and the Looker platform is specifically built for our business analytics. So our enterprise information management team inside, which is a really robust group, is constantly looking at subscriber performance is the way I would describe it. So what happens to customers after they come to Mint Mobile, and how are they behaving? I'm not looking at minutes of use or data, things like that. I'm talking about longevity, things like that. So I have about 11 dashboards up, and each morning I refresh them all and I "read the news" so I know what's happening within the business.
AN: I often talk about this because it's such an immense amount of data that I say, "I don't see the code anymore, I just see the matrix." So I can go in there every morning, read through the dashboards, and get a really good lens of what's happening within my business. If there are any anomalies or deviations, I can react very quickly and get information directed to me if is there something happening within the business that's going to take immediate attention?
GS: This is interesting, Aron. In fact, I didn't even expect to have this conversation with you, but it's somewhat unusual for the CMO to have that kind of business responsibility. I don't know that I hear that from everybody.
AN: Yeah, it is quite a bit different. I like to use both the right side and left side of my brain. There's a lot of math that goes into marketing nowadays. There's a lot of science, and there's also a ton of creativity. I don't want to discount the creative side. We sort of started the conversation here, but I am incredibly passionate about brand as well. I think I'm not a unique marketer from the standpoint of having both an MBA and having passion for the creative side. But I spent half my career at agency, half my career client side, and the agency really sharpens your marketing and creative chops. Then I went out and got my MBA to really make sure I was smart and savvy on the business side.
AN: I don't love reading financial statements, but I can. I know just enough to make me dangerous. But I find that particularly in a D2C business, you are constantly marrying math and science. We use a phrase that came from my time at Taco Bell, it's "Sales overnight, brand over time." So how are you managing both? Then within sales overnight, of course, that gets more sophisticated when you're looking at pay before the sale, advertising, classic brand, media, and then pay after the sale, which could be your affiliate or performance partnerships and angles in that way as well.
GS: I definitely want to get to the whole brand side, and you're right, we're going to spend a lot of time talking about that today and the importance of that. But you didn't come in there as a CMO. You came in, I guess, a rung below CMO eventually got appointed to that role, correct?
AN: Yeah, that's absolutely correct. I was recruited to join as the SVP of marketing, and the task for me was to build a professional marketing organization inside this company. At the time... It's such a fun story, I was getting recruited out of Taco Bell and I said, "Look, I've got arguably the second-best job at Taco Bell." The sports and music guy had the best job. I mean, I love sports, I love music, and he was going to everything. But I said, "I just can't see myself leaving." They said, "Well, how would you like to build a marketing department for the fastest-growing company in America?" I couldn't believe the fastest-growing company in America was right down the street in Costa Mesa.
AN: So Ultra Mobile was the flagship brand at the time. I came in and on day one was presented sort of the blueprint, if you will, or basically a website that was going to be Mint Mobile. It was called Mint Sim. At the time, I said, "Oh, this is incredibly interesting. Unfortunately, this is never going to work the way you've laid it out. There's no chance this succeeds."
GS: Wait, was this day one, week one, or month one?
AN: It was literally day one. I was meeting with the president, and our head of the agency and I started the same day. Her name's Tanya Song. Tanya and I were laughing because she's like, "Are you going to make it to day two? That's really bold on day one to say, 'Hey, this thing you've been working on has no chance.'" But we didn't even have a Fiery printer at the time.
GS: But what were you convinced was wrong, though? What did you immediately look at that and say, "This is all wrong"? Was it the name Mint Sim that you went after?
AN: No, no, the consumer proposition was nowhere to be found and unclear. So I printed the website out, taped it up on a wall, and just red-penned the whole thing. It was very confusing. I don't want to call it haphazard, but it was nonlinear. It didn't make a lot of sense. I couldn't understand what the consumer benefit was, what the consumer proposition was, and more importantly, I didn't know what you wanted me to do once I got to the homepage. So I immediately dove in. What I got so excited about was nobody was selling wireless on the internet. I kept saying and pounding this mantra for years, "Do you believe there will be less digital transactions tomorrow or more digital transactions tomorrow?" Of course nobody will say less, so I was looking at this and going—
GS: Yeah, the answer's obvious, right?
AN: Yeah. Holy shit, this is a big idea. Then it became, well, everybody who has ever done it has failed and we're going to try and do it and be successful. I'll be honest, one of the things I think that really set me on a course to success here was having never worked in wireless before. So I was able to come into this category and view with a lens, like a very fresh lens, and say, "Well, why are we doing things this way?" "Oh, it's always been done that way before." I'm like, "Well, let's break that rule. Let's break that tradition. Let's be the quite literal disruptor of the space." Of course now today you can buy wireless online with every brand. Every brand has created flanker brands, and you'll see imitators all over the place of Mint Mobile.
GS: Okay, so Ulta was a low-end service phone, as I recall, right?
GS: Ultra. Sorry, sorry, Ultra. It was a prepay, I assume, right?
GS: That was sold just in retail at the time?
GS: Then Mint was the one to be sold direct? Is that what you're saying was the difference?
AN: Correct. So, it's really interesting. I came in, and like I said, Ultra was the fastest-growing private company in America. What Ultra did that was great was it sold wireless, obviously prepaid wireless, to the immigrant diaspora in America. What Ultra's secret sauce was: one-touch international dial. So you used to call a number on a calling card, then call the number you wanted to call. Ultra put everything like that into a wireless plan so you could just dial international and then had just incredible rates. So Ultra was famous for the $19 per month plan that allowed you to call up to 80 destinations internationally for free.
GS: Mint was to be the DTC version, in some regards, it was just different. Is that what that was?
AN: Yeah, so Mint very much was a domestic business. So a business that was predicated on within the United States talk, text, and data and sold exclusively online. We still don't own a single retail store. We are sold in some major big-box carriers like Best Buy and Target, but we don't own a single store.
GS: Hey Aron, I got to come back to one thing. So why did you go there if you didn't believe in what they were doing or how they went at it?
AN: Well, no. So I got brought in to build Ultra and build a marketing department for Ultra. Then I, on day one, was presented Mint Sim and I was like, "This is crazy interesting, but I don't think we're going about it the right way." I shaped it and was able to help build it into something with a team that is phenomenal today. It's like the preeminent D2C brand in the wireless space. I'd argue we have one of the best D2C engines in all of direct-to-consumer.
GS: Yeah, so interesting. By the way, the thing that I think all entrepreneurs really want to do is to build something of value, create value from nothing, and somebody gets to put a price on it, which T-Mobile has now done because they're in the process of buying Mint Mobile, correct?
AN: That is correct.
GS: Yeah, congratulations. That's a very big deal. I am a huge... Having come from the Valley myself and been around a lot of entrepreneur business, I just love the idea of that concept of what am I doing to create value? Then somebody gets to say they think they can either do more or just wants to buy it for whatever reason. That's great. Congratulations there. That's amazing.
AN: Thank you very much. Appreciate that.
GS: Well, listen, let's get to the big topic here, though. So let's get to the core of what Building Better CMOs is all about. So let me set up this way: Marketing's a bit of an imperfect science, it's changing a lot. There's a lot of questions out there about where we're going as a business. In fact, I think it's as dynamic today as it was back when I started in the agency business back in the '90s. I mean, it just feels like it's just an unrelentingly changing business today.
GS: But as I always like to ask guests, especially people who have been successful in some regard like you have: in your experience in the longstanding time that you've had in marketing and advertising, what do you think the business doesn't get? What do you think maybe either other CMOs or marketers don't get? If you were to put a fine-tooth focus on it, what does that look like? What do you think is most important for them to keep their eye on the ball that we don't fully get now?
AN: This is the opening line on my resume. We were talking about coming to Mint Mobile, I went and pulled it up. It's that I believe great marketing, great advertising, great communication starts with a single human truth known as an insight. I feel like today, marketers have lost sight of this. A human truth or an insight is where you need to start before you begin your marketing campaign. We use a thing called an integrated communications brief, and it starts with "What is the habit, perception, belief I am trying to build, change, or reinforce?" That is the centerpiece of what you are doing with marketing and the most critical nucleus within that is the insight. People need to answer the insight or know clearly what the insight is. And for Mint, for a long, long time, it's "How can it be any good if it's this cheap?" It's the classical colloquialism of you get what you pay for.
GS: Yeah, so that's what you felt like you most needed. That was the consumer's predisposed opinion. How do you overcome that? If you didn't overcome that, then the whole business is toast at some level, I guess.
AN: Absolutely. Because if you can't get people over that mental hurdle, they have no chance. You might be able to get them a trigger. They might see the brand, but they won't go into active evaluation or any of those next steps before you purchase.
GS: We need them to sign up and get the damn thing delivered to home, yes, got it.
AN: Correct. So I feel like most marketers today just start doing work and just making ads or creative or whatever haphazardly without understanding what they're solving for and without an understanding of what the consumer's trying to overcome in their mind. I think it's super exciting that anybody can advertise today. So with the social media platforms and your ability to buy ads right from your laptop and have a media budget and things like that, anybody can be an advertiser. But what it's really done is it's produced a ton of shit. I got to call it like it is. There is so much junk garbage marketing out there today. My social media feeds are full of it. I like to go into the work and go, "Okay, I'm looking at this, what is the insight they're solving for?" Oftentimes there is no insight.
AN: I think the second biggest problem we have in marketing today is the marketer themselves. That is people within marketing organizations or marketing groups believing their opinion matters and their opinion is a personal input on the creative process.
GS: I love this, exactly.
GS: Oh my god, if I think I like the product, I'm very suspicious of what my conclusion is.
GS: If I feel attached to the product that I'm trying to work for and I have an idea, I'm like, "Let's go check and make sure, because I don't want to bank this whole thing just because I've got a random dumbass opinion." At whatever age and whatever socioeconomic profile I am, that's just probably not the customer.
AN: Right. First off, if you're going to evaluate creative, you need to do it from the lens of the consumer, not the lens of self. We train this. We talk about this all the time within our groups, whether it be the brand marketing team or the direct-to-consumer team or the retention team. We are always talking about the lens of the consumer. You have to do that because, quite frankly, I don't give a shit if you don't like red or you don't like that music or that font. We're talking not to you, we're talking to the consumer. So separate yourself and put yourself in the lens of the consumer. Now give me constructive, strategic, creative feedback that will add a penny to the brand bank or will add more transaction volume to the program. That is it.
GS: Now, I think I read somewhere or heard you somewhere in another podcast say that there was no research department when you showed up at Mint.
GS: Share with the listener here a little bit about how you figured out how to get to the insight that you did. What's the insight you were solving for Mint? How did you know? Because at some level that does sound intuitively correct to me what you said. I don't know if it's the number one objective, but I wouldn't be able to bridge that. But how did you get to that as an insight and then know that was the insight to bet? Then at some point, I'm going to talk to you about how you solve that. We'll do that later on. But just how'd you get to that insight?
AN: I mean, when I was at Taco Bell, the head of consumer insights at Taco Bell, his name was Tom Wagner. Wags, as we call him. Wags used to drill this into us time and time and time again that all of our marketing needed to be insight based. Taco Bell launches a new product roughly every six weeks. So you are constantly mining and we call it, there's the five why's. You just keep asking why until you get to the root or the core human truth. Wags would continue to push us, push us, push us. So when I joined Mint, as you noted earlier, there wasn't a fully developed marketing team. So I used to hop on the train from Orange County down to San Diego and spend the day with Tom. And we would just whiteboard session, what is Mint doing?
AN: He was not in the wireless category. I had never been in the wireless category. He kept asking questions, questions, questions. Ultimately, we ended up hiring Tom as a consultant, and he helped me build the consumer insights group we have here today. But Tom is still on my team and a trusted, trusted voice that I looked to a lot. We just kept digging and digging and digging until we found out what it was. With a digital business, you're able to do things that allow you to test. When we started, I told you Ultra was the fastest-growing company in America, okay. Mint was an idea that nobody had ever been able to do: sell wireless online. So the company resources were very much focused early on on Ultra, which is what you should do. But what I was able to do with the marketing department was really start testing messaging.
AN: We tested, tested, tested, tested, and then retested, tested, tested until we really keyed in and had the proof we needed that this is the right insight. This is the place we want to develop work around, and the performance of the brand and the transaction performance is telling us that. Then we just went all-in. We didn't have a research department. It's very small today, but we do measure once, then cut. But the great thing about a D2C brand is that you can be out there and you can test and fail infinitely, and it won't destroy your business. You just test small. You fail small. I'm a huge fan of failure. Everybody on my team, the marketing group is over 130 people now. I pound it into them that if we aren't failing, we aren't trying hard enough because I want people who are going to push, push, push the limit and push the boundaries.
AN: So I tell them that the lens that they need to work through is, "We fail small, we fail fast, we fail cheap, and we fail forward." You're not really failing at that point. You're learning. Failure is really a synonym for risk here. That's really what I'm talking about. I want small, calculated risk all over the place, and then when something works, we invest heavily in scale. That has been the Mint Mobile way.
GS: How far can you go to actually assessing that as a D2C? Are you going all the way through signup? Are you going all the way through lifetime value? You're not looking at just clickthroughs obviously in ads, I hope not, right?
AN: No, and one of the things I was, and still am, a huge proponent of is that you have to measure what is appropriate. So we didn't start with television. Television came years later. But I was very, very clear to both the television agency and my D2C team, the job of TV is not to sell product. How can you expect one 30-second spot or one 15-second spot to get someone through the entire consumer decision journey? The object or the objective of TV is to get someone interested. So we look at Google search query. We look at interest. We look at website hits. But I don't expect the television spot to then be judged on a person's ability to go through the purchase funnel on the website. That's a gross, inaccurate way to measure efficacy. So we measure based on its objective. Yes, so when we're doing testing, I'm testing the ability of a message to drive a click to the website or the message to drive a Google search query.
GS: So you're not evaluating... How do you evaluate your TV creative then eventually? How do you know that that's sort of doing the job that you need it to? Are you pretesting those ads or are you—
AN: Absolutely not. I hate pretesting and I hate consumer groups. I mean, I love consumers, but give me a break. They know they're looking at work and evaluating it and marketers are looking at what they're saying. So what we do is... I mean, I think this is the job of the marketer is to look at the television before it goes on air and make sure it's good. You have to have a gut instinct. But the way we test it is we run television spots and we have an excellent agency partner who... They actually brought this to us. This is why we selected them. The TV spot runs, they are able to measure search queries and interest on the internet within a two-minute attribution window of each airing. So we use that.
AN: Then today, because of connected TV and because of just video-on-demand platforms, and of course YouTube, we will run spots and we will get an analytics package there. But we'll also look at analog television — if there is such a thing — versus connected TV versus video on YouTube. We'll evaluate because we have some spots that perform much differently on a big-screen TV during a football game versus someone watching on their Android or iPhone device seeing a YouTube pre-roll on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. So we do constantly measure, but we measure within realms that evaluate the vehicle itself.
GS: So can I take it then that you're not a big fan of influencers coming up with ads, the creator economy, influencer dynamic?
AN: Absolutely not, because I have arguably the biggest influencer on the planet. Ryan Reynolds is an owner, so huge fan of influencer creative.
GS: Well, but he also runs an agency, so let's assume that he's also part advertising guy. He's not just...
AN: Yeah, I mean, no, we still use micro-influencer and it is something we're always testing. ABT, always be testing.
GS: But you were saying earlier that social media ads aren't really done well. You can tell they're not really done with an insight. There's a lot of garbage out there. So maybe I misunderstood where you were going with that.
AN: Well, that's because I don't think people are being briefed properly.
GS: Oh, okay, okay.
AN: So when we work with micro-influencers or folks like that, what we will do is... I like to work with people as if they're a partner in my business. So if we're going to work with you, I'm not going to give you a blank page assignment. I'm going to share with you what's happening in our business, what we're trying to solve for, and then I give them an ICB, an integrated communication brief, that outlines what we're looking for. I think that gives them... Look, I'll be honest with you, I think creatives love a well-defined box. They want to know what the box is, they want it clearly articulated. Then let them create freely within that box. To me that is sort of like secret sauce, if you will, really. Define the issue, then let them be as creative as they want to solve the issue.
GS: Okay, yeah. I mean, listen, I think that's what most people, a lot of people, have understood or misunderstood about advertising marketing over time is that... it's not just coming up with clever. It really is tying it specifically to what the consumer insight or knowledge would be. I mean, listen, there's two things you have to get right. You have to get the right strategy, which is what your insight part was all about. You got to get the right strategy. If you don't have that, that shows. Then you have to figure out how to communicate that clearly. Those are equally difficult tasks to come up with. I think what you were saying earlier, if I heard you, Aron, is that too many marketers sometimes neglect the necessity for that two-stage process, I guess. I'm not sure. I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but yeah.
AN: I could not agree more. I think you've nailed it, like bull's-eye.
GS: Yeah, we'd see too many things. I did a bunch of work for Colgate a number of years ago, and what they did is they had a thing... It's been 20 years here, so it's way past its prime. They had the right strategy. It made a lot of sense, and we were able to evaluate that and know it. But what they did is, if I remember right, they put people in white lab coats and it just reinforced how negative we are about our teeth sometimes, and the process of dentists that went with that. The ads failed. They didn't figure out how to communicate properly what was otherwise arguably the right strategy at that time they determined. So some of that, it really is a two-part thing, which is what you're saying. The creative need for how to take that strategy and really communicate that powerfully.
AN: That is both the art and science of great communications.
GS: Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back after this with Aron North.