If everybody has your attention, nobody does. That's a problem — but it also paves the way for 2020s new currency: meaning.
Join Paul Campillo, Typeform's Director of Brand, as he explores why becoming a meaningful brand is more critical than ever — not just for your business, but for society.
Paul visited Mark DiCristina in Atlanta. Follow Mark’s journey as Mailchimp’s VP of Brand and learn the value of genuine intent and rooting for the underdog.
Want to watch the full interview? Head here.
If you're looking for the transcript, keep reading…
Paul Campillo (PC): Hey, I just flew in from the Bay Area and we're here in beautiful Atlanta, Georgia on a goat farm, where they shot The Hunger Games. And today, we're talking to Mark DiCristina, VP of Brand for Mailchimp. Mailchimp is one of the most beloved B2B brands in the world with an annual revenue of over $700 million.
Mark DiCristina (MDC): We wanted people to know that there are human beings on the other side of this thing. It's not just a digital sort of void.
PC: Let's see if Mark can share some of their secrets on how they build a Meaningful brand. Enjoy the conversation.
Dealing with a pandemic
PC: Hey, it's good to see you again.
MDC: Good to see you too.
PC: Have a seat.
PC: I know how I'm gonna start these shows from now on, so I'm gonna kick it off with you. Who is Mark DiCristina? How would you respond to that? How would you answer that?
MDC: Gosh, I don't know. It feels like a deep question.
PC: It is. The show is called Meaningful, by the way.
MDC: You know, I don't think it has anything to do with work. I don't think it has anything to do with Brand. I'm a husband and I'm a dad first. One of the things that's been really nice about the pandemic is that having a lot of time to spend with my family, a lot of time to spend doing domestic things, it's been really grounding.
MDC: There's probably a time in the first three or four months of the pandemic where I got really anxious about it and claustrophobic, you know, never leaving the house. And I tried to reframe it, like I'm just gonna settle in. When this is over, I hope I can look back and, you know, miss this time. Like I think there was a time where I felt like I really wish this was over. I wish I could travel. I wish I could have any other stimulus other than things that are like right in front of me and really try to stop and appreciate that I got this unique time to be at home with my family.
MDC: I'm significant and worthy and special and more than enough just without my title or my job. And yeah, this last year has been a good reminder.
PC: How did your company, how did Mailchimp actually support people through this whole, does that mean they're figuring it out too, right?
MDC: Yeah. Mailchimp has always been a very sort of office-focused culture. I mean, we've not been a remote culture at all. We used to have one day a year. Prior to the pandemic, we had one day a year where the whole company would work from home just like a sort of disaster scenario, like what if there was an ice storm?
PC: Not one week, but one day.
MDC: Yeah, one day, literally one day.
MDC: And we were basically sort of trying to just replicate the office culture in Zoom, so like the same number of meetings it just was like, and that burned everybody out pretty quick. So we had to figure out how to balance communication and getting our work done, staying connected, trying to have some sort of team, a feeling of team and community. I don't think Mailchimp's culture will ever be the same in terms of the expectation of being in the office, which is probably true to a lot of companies. But I think that's a positive thing.
PC: So, what's the future of work then at Mailchimp? Are you moving to a hybrid model?
MDC: Yeah, I think we'll just do sort of a hybrid thing. Running into someone at the coffee maker and talking about what you did this weekend or this project you're working on that you wanna get their perspective on, like all of that stuff is, it's really valuable. Those are really valuable conversations that make you feel more connected to your colleagues, makes you feel more invested in your work, makes the work better.
MDC: But I think some people will probably be in the office all the time. Some people will be at home all the time. And then there will be some people who are in between where they might come in a couple of days or week. Have more of like a floating desk type situation.
Making philosophy work
PC: Let's go back to your, actually your personal background. Well, I mean, we could just start with college, like what did you study there? How did that lay the groundwork for what you're doing now?
MDC: Yeah. Well, I studied philosophy at a liberal arts college.
PC: Why philosophy though?
MDC: I just really enjoyed it. I thought it was an interesting subject. It felt like these are important questions and none of them have any answers, but it's fun to think about that stuff, to debate it, and then to see how people have interpreted those things or how those views have evolved over time.
MDC: I learned pretty quickly when I graduated that it was not a marketable degree. I couldn't get a job and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. So I spent probably a handful of years just like probably a lot of people in their early 20s, trying to figure out who I was, what I interested in.
PC: The only question that didn't fit within the philosophy frame were like, who am I, what am I figuring to do? Oh, yeah, but I need to make money.
MDC: In terms of my career, it helps me think more clearly, it helps me write really well. I can articulate my thoughts. I can think critically about things. Those are kind of fundamental job skills that I think are really underappreciated and undervalued.
MDC: And when we were early in my career at Mailchimp, we sort of built the early marketing team around that idea to like, let's not just hire copywriters who spent two years at ad school, let's hire a journalist instead. Let's not, you know, the other marketing people came from backgrounds in music or backgrounds in nonprofits, things that were not, and these are like, they're really smart people and making them apply their experience to this context in a way that is very different and, you know, I thought more valuable to the company.
PC: How much of that was influenced by your founders? Like what role did they play? Because it seems when you kinda look back on things that your background, like say, your interest in that, it kinda matches, meshes well with your founders, right? Can you talk about them a little bit and like kinda what drew, what attracted you to them?
MDC: Yeah, yeah. Well, initially what attracted me to Mailchimp was like, I just desperately needed a job. I was working at an independent media company, a print magazine that was a... It was 2009: financial crisis. Everything, all of print media, was already on its way out. And then all the advertising dried up in the financial crisis. And we had just had our first daughter, we were pregnant with our second and I was like, I just, this is too unstable. And it doesn't feel like it's really leading me anywhere.
MDC: I was very interested in technology. I was interested in joining an early stage company and helping it grow. Did not think that email was a particularly interesting or exciting part of the tech industry. They hired me without any marketing experience. I had an MBA, I was like, sort of doing a part-time MBA at night and they must've seen that I was doing that and I don't know, maybe I just said some smart things in the interview, but they hired me.
PC: And they hired you as what?
MC: As a brand manager. So I was as a first marketing hire or me and one other woman were hired around the same time
PC: The first marketing hires. Oh, wow.
MDC: And so I was doing like all of the prior to my arrival, Ben was writing a blog. And so I took over a lot of that stuff, started writing guides, trying to help, like social was still pretty new at the time. So doing that, lots of just very sort of tactical boots on the ground, marketing stuff.
Building a tangible brand
MDC: Mailchimp sort of got started way back in 2001. So it wasn't like it was this brand new company, but they hadn't really become Mailchimp yet. The thing that we had was we didn't have any investors and we had a much more innovative approach to the product. Like we were developing it much more quickly, introducing features nobody else had. Then we had the free thing, which nobody else had.
MDC: And I think that the sort of special sauce was that Ben just really had this intuitive sense for the power of a brand and for the value of a brand. Like he just knew that we would be successful if we were as different as possible from everyone else in the county.
MDC: We had this weakness that the others didn't have in terms of our funding. We didn't have a ton of money. And so we had to be much scrappier and we had to sort of behave more like guerrilla warfare than just go and spend a bunch of money to get customers. We had to think about, how can we use what we have to our advantage?
PC: What's an example of that?
MDC: T-shirts were like a really big thing back then. We decided we should take that idea and then do it differently. So we got really, really nice soft shirts. We printed them with a different method than everyone else, made them feel like a shirt people actually want. They cost a lot more money, but they were really premium and they didn't scream Mailchimp either. Like we would just have Freddie the mascot on there, but he sort of was faded into the shirt. It didn't feel like you were wearing an advertisement for the company. It just felt like this was a nice shirt.
PC: Digital, like the space where we play is very this abstract thing. And now you're tying it to like physical, tangible things that people can, I guess, relate to in a more substantial way. Were you aware of that?
MDC: Yeah, yeah. We talked about it a lot. Ben talked about it. I mean, trying, making physical objects, people could touch. I felt like it was an opportunity for us to communicate brand values through touch, which is hard to do for digital brands. So we've made collectible toys and then did like 100 different colorways of the toys that were all sort of collectible and cool.
PC: When you say toys, is it like a stuffed Freddie? Stuffed animal Freddie?
MDC: No, it's like an action figure.
MDC: It's not a very novel idea, but it was like, let's make them feel like this is a gift we're giving them. It's not just totally sort of selfish, like a cheap pen with our name on it. It's like, this is a thing that we think, like we put a lot of heart into that. And I think that the intention really came through to people. People actually set up a website to trade these toys, like Mailchimp didn't do this, some person out in the world created a Freddie trading site.
PC: But people were collecting them in a sense?
MDC: So people would collect them or they would just sell them. And people, they can go eBay and find them. Some of them were selling for quite a bit of money.
PC: When you say quite a bit, you mean, like a 100$ a pop or...
MDC: Like $150 or something, yeah.
PC: Oh, wow.
MDC: It's pretty, pretty wild for a thing we just made and gave away to people.
Exploring creative avenues
PC: How do you determine, I guess that the crazy thing you wanna do, like, what's that process like?
MDC: It's changed over time. I mean, the way that we did this when we were teeny tiny, it's different from the way we would do it today. But a lot of those things that ended up becoming part of the Mailchimp brand and part of our reputation as a creative brand were things that we were just doing for ourselves. And then someone sees it and is like, hey, that's an interesting idea. What if we added this and changed that, and then, you know, made a thousand of them.
MDC: And then that rolls into, just sort of as a snowball that we're kinda always, always tinkering and always experimenting. And we had this concept at Mailchimp called the parts bin, which is like our creative.
PC: Parts..., what is it?
MDC: Parts bin like, you know a parts bin-
PC: Oh, things that end in a bin.
MDC: Yeah, like a bunch of things that are, like leftovers from a project or an idea that someone had that didn't end up going the distance for this project, just because this great idea that someone had, didn't make it to market in its original context. We could actually take that or take a part of it and put it, recontextualize it, and suddenly it's really valuable in this other way.
PC: Where's the parts bin? Is that in a Dropbox folder or Google Drive? Where is it?
MDC: I think it's just sort of an idea that we have in everyone's mind. I mean, yeah, we have, I mean, we try to never throw anything away and it's really just a metaphor we use, but it's over the years really, really been helpful for us to think about the value of creative work and the value of exploration.
PC: Yeah, it feels iterative, right? Or it could be maybe not so iterative. It could be the thing at the end, but it's so extreme right now, we can't do that, right? And so you kinda have to bring it back a little bit.
MDC: And just going through that process, good ideas are usually just the result of a process. They don't usually just sort of magically manifest themselves fully formed. It's usually like.
PC: It's chisel, chisel, chisel.
PC: How do you know when something's working? Like what kinda signals do you get when you put something out there and not performance, but, you know, brand marketing.
MDC: I mean, I think the clearest indication that it's working is when people are talking about it without us asking them to talk about it or paying for them to talk about it.
PC: Is that a metric though that you like track?
MDC: Yeah, yeah, and we watch it really closely, yeah, conversations, and who's having the conversation too.
Being there for the creative friend
MDC: I mean, we realized pretty early on how important creative people were to not just our brand, but to our growth as a business 'cause our customers were mostly very small businesses, entrepreneurs, and people who were not, you know, they were not professional marketers. They didn't know how to, like, they knew how to roast coffee or make a beautiful handbag. But when it came to selling it, finding an audience, they needed help.
MDC: And they would usually turn to their creative friend, their designer friend who could help build their website or someone who could code for them, code the email. And so, our thought was like, let's make sure that every designer, developer, sort of creative person in the world loves Mailchimp, thinks of Mailchimp and recommends Mailchimp.
PC: That's, yeah, that's a subtle nuance though, because like most companies might say, well, we're going after marketers. If I'm an email marketing company, we're going after marketers and we're going after founders. And that's the extent of that persona, right? That you really like, no, we're going after creative founders and creative marketers and people who are even connecting them to these services, which are the devs and the designers. That really paid off then.
MDC: Yeah, but then, in the last few years, we've really started to think about: let's really tell that story on a bigger stage. And so a lot of our advertising starting in 2017 was all about being true to yourself, being as sort of expressive and weird as you need to be, to be fully yourself. And that's what people react to. That's what they love. That's what will make you successful.
Becoming a media company
PC: Let's talk about Presents and the move that you made there. Because when I look at Mailchimp Presents, it looks like an entertainment company made this. Or as most people are saying now, a media company created this.
MDC: Yeah, yeah.
PC: Is Mailchimp a media company? Like what's going on here?
MDC: Yeah, yeah. It feels like it's just the latest iteration on what we've always done, which is to try to create valuable, meaningful experiences for people. And part of where that came from was this feeling that we're spending more and more money on brand advertising, but the advertising, you just have to keep pouring money into this thing. And then it doesn't, there's no sort of intrinsic value to the advertising, like it just sorta, once you see it, you've seen it, you don't wanna see it again.
PC: Well, it's good, the first exposure is nice, but after that, it's like, oh, now you're getting on my nerves.
MDC: And that's how I knew it was sort of doing the opposite of what you want it to do. And what's cool about it too, is that whether you use Mailchimp or not, whether you're a customer or not, it's a way that Mailchimp can have something valuable to give you no matter who you are or what your relationship to Mailchimp is.
MDC: And it is a great first touch. I mean, for someone who doesn't know about Mailchimp, has never interacted with us, or maybe doesn't need a marketing platform. You know, this podcast we made may actually be really cool and interesting and useful to them. And then who knows maybe somewhere down the road, they want to use our products.
PC: But what kind of thought process or deliberation goes into creating, like one of these films?
MDC: What is the emotional experience of starting a company? Like what does it feel like? What does it feel like when you're just stepping out, quitting your job, having to figure out how to make payroll, not knowing whether or not your product is gonna stand up under the traffic that's coming to it. Like all of those things that are like the middle part of the story,
PC: But that’s what’s interesting, the conflict, the interesting part, yeah.
MDC: Yeah. And so that started to feel like an interesting place for us to explore, partly because no one else seemed, no one else was really doing it.
PC: Well, no one wants to talk about that stuff.
MDC: Yeah, but it's also where all the good storytelling is. And so that's where we really started to focus. And we also thought it would be interesting to really tell stories that speak to the whole person. So not just, you know, the person at work, but like their whole everything about them and what they bring of themselves to their work.
Rooting for the underdog
PC: But if you think of your ideal customer, is it something that this is who they are right now? Or is this an aspirational view of what they could be?
MDC: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, literally from the day that I joined Mailchimp 12 years ago, there has always been a very strong belief in and commitment to helping underdogs succeed. And so that's really, that's baked into the DNA of the company everywhere. And we talk about it a lot. It's not just sort of a thing that is on a plaque somewhere at the back of the office. I mean, I feel like that comes up.
PC: What advantage can we give our customer today?
MDC: How can we help them succeed? How can we help them be successful? The fact that it's baked into the DNA is part of why that intention comes through, I think. I would like to think it does. And I think when we're sort of firing on all cylinders, there's sort of a purity of intent that I think can come through and that's really special, but it's hard. You can't just sort of create that overnight or create it for a campaign has to be a thing that you sort of live and breathe.
Showing up with your whole self
PC: We're gonna wrap up, but I was reading something that your father said to you, and I don't know if he said this to you all the time or whatever, or maybe I heard it somewhere, but he said, "Remember who you are," right? "and what you've been given." When you think of those words, "Remember who you are," like what comes to mind?
MDC: One of my favorite songs is from Mr. Rogers. It's called, "It's you I like." Are you familiar with that?
PC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I actually just watched a documentary a couple of weeks ago.
MDC: So I watched it a lot when I was a kid and I watched that documentary when it came out.
PC: An amazing documentary.
MDC: It's an amazing documentary, and that song, it just cuts me straight to my core. And it sort of brings me back to that, what my dad used to tell me, and what he actually said was he said, "Remember who you are and use what you've been given." I have a lot of things to offer. I have ideas, I have resources, I have privilege.
MDC: I have all of these things that I can bring to any situation I'm in and to really remember that and think about it and to show up with my whole self and to show up with all my tools and to be of service. And so, those are not things that I was necessarily thinking about when I was jumping out of the car in seventh grade. And my dad was saying that to me. But it stuck with me. And over time, it's taken on a lot more significance and yeah, and they're really wise words and yeah, it's good, Good to remember that stuff.
Defining your brand
PC: Finally, Jeff Bezos said, "A brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room." What do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?
MDC: That I am kind, thoughtful. I wanna be someone who gives more than I take.
PC: And who said that philosophy degree wouldn't have an impact on you, Mark?
PC: I appreciate your time.
PC: There are many lessons from my conversation with Mark today, but probably the most important takeaway for me is to have more than just a transactional relationship with your customer.
PC: Mark gavee plenty of examples on how Mailchimp does this through brand marketing activities. But just remember, the brands of the future will not just focus on the user experience. They'll focus on the human experience as well. Thanks for watching this episode of Meaningful. And don't forget, let's make every interaction count.