How Ryan Reynolds' Mint Mobile embraces fear to turn ads around in mere days
As a challenger brand in the wireless telecommunications space, Mint Mobile faces stiff competition from giants like Verizon, T-Mobile and low-cost carriers like Cricket, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. But being smaller means it can also use its nimbleness and speed to quickly lean into cultural moments and produce ads and marketing messages that often go viral—in large part because brand owner Ryan Reynolds appears in many of the ads, and the actor uses his own social platforms to promote them, but also because they resonate.
Aron North, chief marketing officer at Mint Mobile, says the key to success in creating viral moments and hopping on cultural conversations is embracing fear. On the latest episode of the “Marketer’s Brief” podcast (listen above), North says he’s a “huge preacher” of failing because it means his team is pushing boundaries needed to break through the mold.
North has first-hand experience in facing fear in his professional life. Before coming to Mint Mobile, North was the director of advertising and branded content at Taco Bell and a VP at ad agency Y&R. Moving from established marketing and advertising giants to a brand new startup took gumption and ambition. Between all that, North started his own premium cocktail mixer business, an experience he calls his “PhD in marketing.”
“When you have no money you have to get very creative, so that experience forced us to look at interesting ways to try to drive consumer appeal, and it was very hard,” North says. Despite getting distribution in restaurants like Benihana’s and PF Chang’s, it became too difficult to continue its growth. No matter the setback, he says he takes the lessons learned and applies them to every opportunity he gets.
The following conversation is taken from the podcast and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you think every marketer should start their own brand at some point?
No, because there are other things that can get in the way. But I do like to say to everyone who comes to the team that I think, broadly, people are afraid of failing now, and that’s a really big miss for today’s young and more-seasoned marketers. I think this fear of failure equates into a failure of taking risks, so I’m a huge preacher of “fail all the time, fail fast, fail smart, fail forward.” We talk about it all the time in my organization because we know if we’re failing, that means we’re pushing the boundaries of what we’re used to. While maybe starting your own business isn’t the way to go, I think a lot of marketers need to be willing to push to keep the edges sharp and have programs that fail. It’s ok to make mistakes. You learn from them.
That sounds like part of the fast-turnaround, quippy ad strategy Mint Mobile has going on ... to not be afraid to fail sometimes.
Mint is a brand that plays in culture. We play in the now, and we are very strategic and thoughtful in what we do with the brand, but that doesn’t mean the brand doesn’t make mistakes. We ran an ad [at the] end of 2019 and it reached over in 2020. It was called “finger-dipping” and was centered on people not believing you can get high-quality wireless for $15 a month. We created an ad campaign around “that’s not right” moments and one of them was at a dinner party where a guest dipped his fingers into a queso bowl. That’s obviously not OK in today’s sanitary world where we have to keep our distance. That ad ran and people could look at that as a mistake that we kept it going and couldn’t get it down fast enough. But we learned our lesson and now we’re able to move much faster in pulling creative down.
Was the chunky milk Super Bowl spot also part of the ‘That’s so wrong’ campaign?
Yeah, I saved the chunky-style milk ad because I was like, “this spot is so good, there has to be a moment when we use it.” Well, in January 2019, we were at CES at a buffet for breakfast, and my TV company comes over and they’re like, “Hey, we can get you a Super Bowl spot.” And I was like, “The Super Bowl is in three weeks you guys ... are you kidding me?” I texted our CEO, and at breakfast we decided to buy a Super Bowl commercial—and had three weeks to get everything written. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done.
What is the fastest turnaround you’ve worked on so far when it comes to ads?
The fastest one is not so much an ad, but a tweet. A week and a half ago, Texas had this extreme cold front. We were approached by a consumer on Twitter who said “we’re struggling down here in Texas, is there anything you can do to help?” Ryan sent me the tweet. Within 53 minutes, I had worked with our cross-functional teams and built an entire program to create a relief offer for Texas. We basically gave all of Texas free data from February 14 to the end of the month. That certainly shows how we act with speed.
Mint Mobile’s ad last September, featuring Rick Moranis and Ryan Reynolds, was a good example of something that was a quick turnaround but also went viral and started trending on Twitter. Just how beneficial is it to go viral for a brand like Mint Mobile?
When they came back with Rick, I honestly didn’t know or see how big it was going to be. The interesting thing about us as well is we don’t put a ton of paid behind our organic videos, so when you look at one of our releases, you’ll see they get millions of views but they also get tons of comments and lots of likes. The business impacts are phenomenal. I think you’ve seen it with Ocean Spray this last year with TiKTok, and how you can’t even find the cranberry juice on the shelves. So it’s been amazing to be on the winning side of some of those viral moments. It’s just really incredible to see how much lift and energy they can give your brand.
Just how much is Ryan Reynolds part of the creative process?
He’s very involved in creative and strategic marketing opportunities. We talk about growth, we talk about where we’re headed. While we might not sit with him a lot and do lots of videoconferences because he has a busy schedule, we operate through text messages. There are various group text chains we’re constantly on, kicking around ideas, working on the work and seeing cuts and edits. It’s really exciting to work at that feverish pace and with that kind of speed and trust in each other to bring it to life. It’s almost like the best agency-client relationship you’ve ever had, with all the red tape removed.
How do you think his purchase of the brand has affected or improved the brand’s voice?
Ryan absolutely adds a megaphone to what we’re doing. We believe the wireless category is tired and ready for change. His mindset was that wireless mobile is the most essential of all technology and it shouldn’t cost hundreds of dollars. When your owner is aligned with the brand vision, there’s not really a change in overall delivery of message. You might tweak your tonality ever so slightly because it’s coming from his voice versus the core brand or our brand mascot, the Mint fox. We’ve really been able to leverage the smartness of the work he’s able to produce by tapping into what’s culturally relevant and bring those moments to life.
For example, we saw during the election that our competitors were big campaign donors. Mint does not make political campaign donations so we saw a moment to have some fun. We found that the mayor of Idyllwild, California, is a dog named Max so we made a donation to Max. We saw a moment in culture, decided to tap into it and create that piece of content. We were not doing that in the past and this adds a whole new level of experience to our marketing and our communications.
How do strategies like that play into being a challenger brand?
We know we can get scale but if there’s a way we can benefit the consumer at the same time, we will. Our Super Bowl ad in the Wall Street Journal—where we said we’re not spending $5 million for an ad, we’re making the data buckets better—was a big decision for us, and the decision to launch an unlimited plan at $30 has a massive business impact to us. It’s a very aggressive price point, but we know if we can enter into this space and have a breakthrough offer, overall the consumer will benefit and the brand will grow in time.