Five Lessons Jonathan Mildenhall Taught Me About Trust as a Marketer

By Ashley Walters, APR

"If I had my wish for the industry it would be (to) get back to work that shapes culture for the better," said Jonathan Mildenhall, internationally renowned marketing expert and former Airbnb CMO.

 Ashley Walters, APR

Ashley Walters, APR

You could feel the goose bumps on the arms of the thousands of people who witnessed Jonathan Mildenhall's keynote speech at PRSA's 2018 International conference.  After sitting down with Jonathan to reflect on his career and our ever-changing industry, I walked away with five lessons in trust, for us marketers, to use to improve ourselves, our teams and our results.

1.) I've Got Your Back.  A common four-word phrase improv comedians use before getting on stage, means something even greater to Jonathan. As leaders, we have to build trust with our teams and one way Jonathan does that is by being the protector of his people and their ideas.

"If the creative idea works, they get the glory. If it fails, I take the bullet. Creativity is a scary and chaotic process and it just takes one person at the table to show confidence and enhance the confidence of the group," said Jonathan.

Executive Tip - Say these four simple words the next time you brief your teams. When you eliminate the fear of failing, revolutionary ideas emerge.

 2018 PRSA International Conference keynote

2018 PRSA International Conference keynote

2.) Have a clear purpose. It's a known fact that purpose-driven companies attract and retain talent at a much higher rate than those who haven't clearly articulated their purpose. Particularly with millennials, which is the largest generation in the US labor force today. (More than one-in-three American labor force participants are Millennials according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.) Brand purpose drives performance and ensures the right kind of growth. For example, Coca-Cola's brand purpose is to be, "the antidote to modern day woes." When your purpose is so personal, like Coca-Cola's, it gives you permission to address the hard issues facing our society and to be a driving force in shaping culture.

"If the ad industry would just understand you can create hugely valuable brands by doing your part to shape culture rather than just flog the next transaction. The advertising industry has lost its confidence. It's lost the thing it can do better than anyone else which is insert  brands at the heart of the cultural zeitgeist."

Executive Tip - Set a purpose for yourself, one that's deeply personal. A personal purpose is what you build your legacy on. It's the way you show up as a human and guide your key decisions. 

3.) Dig into your brand archives. That's where brand truth lies. Jonathan spent a portion of his onboarding at Coca-Cola combing through the archives to understand how the brand has communicated and evolved over time. His vision for the brand came into crystal clear focus when he came across this single piece of creative from the late 1960's titled, "Boys on a Bench." Yes, it features African-Americans and whites together in Coca-Cola advertising for the first time. But hidden in this message is the fact that the boys are sitting shoulder to shoulder, with their arms touching on a segregation bench. This, "work with purpose," became Jonathan's rallying cry. That mindset is responsible for culturally relevant campaigns like "America the Beautiful and an effort to bring Pakistan and India together." 

While tackling some of our world's deepest issues works for Coca-Cola, it doesn't work for every brand. Jonathan offers advice for brands who aren't sure if they should insert themselves into politically or socially charged issues.

Executive Tip - Jonathan said it best, "Unless the issue is an existing part of the company's narrative, you shouldn't lean into it."

4.) Trust disruption when it offers value. Not only is Airbnb disrupting the hotel and travel industry, but it's also disrupting marketing. When faced with a challenge or roadblock, don't turn around. Trust that there's an alternate route. That's exactly what Jonathan's Airbnb team did when they were shut out of Hollywood's biggest night, the Oscar's. Between big budgets they didn't have and a competing sponsor raising red flags, Airbnb had to find a different way into the Oscars conversation without stepping foot into the actual event. #LiveInTheMovies is a case study for those who have all odds stacked against them, minuscule budgets, and the ability to succeed without permission or access to the very thing you need. Because Airbnb had cultural relevance and consumer trust, it found its voice within the Oscar's conversation and become the most talked about brand of the night.

Executive Tip - Trust your gut.  When faced with a No, turn it into a Yes, And. Another improv principle, Yes, And is about embracing the power of positivity and building on possibilities.

5.) Consumer trust is the only KPI. Airbnb learned this lesson early on. When the brand realized some customers were being discriminated against, they immediately took a zero tolerance stance and had to rebuild consumer and community trust. This meant removing the bad characters, managing growth expectations, and telling the world about the true values of the company. As a result, Airbnb launched this deeply personal "We Accept" message during the Superbowl.

"Trust is something you only have once with consumers and once with a community. If you do not bake a clear trust narrative into your business then you can end up making decisions that completely compromise the company purpose. It's expensive to repair trust and it's hard to survive when trust has been compromised," said Jonathan.

Executive Tip - Start measuring trust. In fact, Jonathan would add, "Invest heavily in measuring it." We have to hold trust measures like conversations, loyalty and transparency at the same weight we hold awareness, conversions and sales.

So what's your responsibility as a modern day marketer to build and maintain trust? I'll leave you with these three core tenants:

1.    Be transparent in all your communication, inside and outside of your organization. Honest communication is the only communication.

2.    Bring in external stakeholders to hold you accountable. They can be objective and remove emotion from the equation.

3.    Have the confidence in your team and the confidence to be creative in your response.