5 Marketing Lessons From New Rocket CMO Jonathan Mildenhall


As you might expect of a marketing executive with a distinguished reputation, Jonathan Mildenhall landed his new gig as CMO of Rocket Companies because the CEO called him up.

Varun Krishna, who took the helm at Rocket last summer, knew Mildenhall well. When Krishna held the corner office at TurboTax, he’d been a client of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, the shop Mildenhall started after establishing his marketing bona fides at Coca-Cola (where he launched the “Open Happiness” campaign) and Airbnb, whose $1 billion valuation jumped to $31 billion during his tenure.

But Mildenhall didn’t take the Rocket job because a former client had phoned him. Nor did he take it just because Rocket leads its category, being the largest mortgage lender in the United States. Mildenhall signed on for surprisingly personal reasons.

During that phone call, “I thought about my own experience with home ownership, and that it took me out of poverty,” Mildenhall said. “If the world can care about soda and running shoes and travel, I can definitely get North America to care about home ownership in a way that the category has never seen. That’s why I took the job.”

Coming from another CMO, such talk could be dismissed as sentimental or theatrical. But Mildenhall is sincere. In fact, much of what drives him and the creative energy that flows from him is deeply personal. The day after Rocket announced his hiring, Mildenhall spent half an hour with Adweek to talk about some of what he’s learned, his plans for Rocket’s marketing—and why home ownership remains a driving force in his creative life.

Don’t sell a product—sell how it makes people feel

At Airbnb, Mildenhall’s “Never a Stranger” campaign—which showed renters making friends with locals—proved that consumers don’t respond to brands so much as to the emotional experiences that brands create. And while applying that model to mortgages may not be quite so easy, Mildenhall plans to do it anyway, emphasizing the pride of living under your own roof instead of talking about the numbing details of lending. “We’ll develop what I call the umbrella narrative for Rocket Companies, which is about home ownership, financial prosperity and, ultimately, financial freedom,” he said, “this bigger idea of how important home ownership is to Americans.”

Empathize with your customers

Mildenhall recently came across a 2022 Zillow survey in which a majority of young home buyers (61% of millennials and 65% of Gen Z) admitted to breaking down in tears during the purchase process. He made a mental note of another survey from Redfin where 59% of American said that buying a home is more stressful than dating. Statistics like these, Mildenhall believes, point to the need for marketers to remember the stresses of being a consumer, not just the joys of purchasing. In developing a narrative for Rocket’s products and services, then, “I can help people understand that with Rocket’s companies, we will take the friction out of the process—we will make the process less anxiety-inducing.”

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