The Insights Blog

From Campbells to Starbucks to Zillow Group: key learning for marketers and agencies (The Aimee Johnson Story)

From Campbells to Starbucks to Zillow Group: key learning for marketers and agencies (The Aimee Johnson Story)


What can a modern marketer learn from CPG brands? From the Starbucks experience? From modern data driven marketing at Zillow Group?

Aimee Johnson, CMO at Zillow Group, knows! She knows because Campbells to Starbucks to Zillow Group is her story. Aimee has been making quite a few waves recently. She was recently named to Ad Age’s “leading Women” list as well as Business Insider’s Most Innovative CMOs.

I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with Aimee for close to twenty years, and we caught up recently to specifically discuss what modern marketers can learn from her journey.

People often think of customer centricity when they think about great CPG marketers. Was the importance of understanding your consumers the main learning you took away from your CPG experiences at Campbells?

Aimee: Great CPG companies are certainly focused on their consumers. It’s in their DNA. I think that is a part of what makes the CPG experience so special at places like Campbells and Procter & Gamble. We were trained on the importance of understanding the audience and that audience’s problem to solve. That is a core CPG philosophy.

But in my experience that is not the only – or even most central – aspect of the CPG experience.

The biggest thing I learned during my CPG days was how to manage a P&L while maintaining that customer focus. The fact that marketers run P&Ls blows non-CPG peoples’ minds. The CPG brand manager is more of a mini general manager. They may not have all of the key functions report to them, but they were accountable for the overall results. This requires a wide view of the business; constant balancing of priorities; an in-depth understanding of functions that did not report to you; and skillful negotiation.

This is a unique experience for a twenty-five or thirty year-old. You aren’t managing a marketing or advertising budget – you’re responsible for that business. Your job is to make sure the brand is growing its market share, achieving its profit and sales targets, and is innovating and well positioned. You lead the agency and your partner functions. You need to think broadly and deeply. The buck stops with you.

The CPG experience is an incredible growth crucible for young marketers because it expects them to be general managers as well as marketers.

By the way – I also think I learned from being a SAS/SQL programmer earlier in my career. There I learned to really hone in on what the actual problem is that you’re trying to solve. Back then it took a lot longer than today to execute a program. So if you didn’t want to waste time, you really had to know what people wanted from you before you started. That has helped me a ton with understanding hypotheses, what’s the customer problem we’re really trying to solve, etc.


The Starbucks experience was of course quite different. What marketing magic did you learn there?

Starbucks has proven that great marketing is about the entire customer experience and all the touchpoints – not just ads or products. The third place. Green aprons. Baristas that know your name and favorite drink. The instore experience. The loyalty program.

Think about it: can you remember a major advertising campaign from Starbucks? The company certainly has run advertising, but those campaigns generally announced new products and were not really the centerpiece of the brand experience.

And at Starbucks it is second nature to appreciate how all of the touch points are amplified by the Field. It all has to come together. And today, the “field” is both physical and digital. The ideal combo of physical and digital are really important to understand, including how they complement one another.

Starbucks taught me how everything must fit together to deliver a truly holistic, authentic and enduring brand experience.

You’re CMO of Zillow Group. Zillow Group is a native digital business – so different from lattes and canned soup! What have you learned about marketing at Zillow Group?

My Zillow Group experience has highlighted how important data is to truly actualize customer centricity and customer experience. But that isn’t the most important learning…

The key thing I’ve learned is the “how”. Everyone talks about data driven marketing and yet few firms really do it well. Why? Because it is HARD. My Zillow Group experience has highlighted that to unlock the power of data you need the right people, processes and platforms. You have to have all three spinning in harmony.

I also continue to learn, and in fact re-learn, about innovation. One of my favorite books right now is Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

He talks about the need to approach business work like a scientist, with humility and confidence. Reading this book, I deeply believe this to be true as without doing this, you can’t see innovation, flaws, needs for change and are constantly trying to convince people of things instead of simply talking to them and getting them to come on the journey.

This was the approach I took with getting Mobile Order and Pay off the ground at Starbucks. No one but me wanted Mobile Order and Pay to work. Adam was passive – but he let me do with it what I thought I could. The rest is history! We’re approaching innovation the same way in marketing at Zillow Group.

What words of advice do you have for new CMOs?

I think the ability to blend the best of the worlds that a CMO has experienced in their career – as I’ve been lucky enough to do with my education at Campbell’s, Starbucks and Zillow Group – is essential. It’s how you synergize such a breadth of experiences that gives you your own unique point of view. Its these experiences that prepare you to quickly develop a vision for success and to help you effectively partner across the C Suite and the company.

A few other keys include a number of key items your team at Mercer Island Group has helped us with:

  1. Goals & Budgets: Make sure your goals are directly connected to your marketing staffing and investments – both in house and your agencies. If you don’t do this, you might as well not have a vision as CMO – because it won’t be achieved. This is the hard work of prioritizing how people spend them time and how you spend your budget. This is really hard to do and it helps to have a process and resources committed to making sure this happens.
  2. Marketing Workflow: Marketers often expect their agencies and staff and other partners to produce great work without enough time to do so. This results in inferior work, re-work and higher costs. Clear workflows are one of the ways that a CMO ensures that sound work is operationalized. Workflows need to be clear, documented and trained. The timetable needs to make sense. The entire workflow needs to be evangelized across the organization.
  3. The Right Agency Roster: You can’t be a great CMO with great partners. Selecting the FIG and AMP agencies after very competitive agency reviews, and partnering them with Universal McCann, our media agency, was an important turning point for us.
  4. Briefing: Great briefing is critical to success. The marketing team needs to produce a concise yet deeply strategic marketing strategy brief to make sure all partners know what is expected. This s a critical step if we expect the agencies to develop exceptional creative or connections briefs. This is job #1 in being a good agency partner.
  5. Creative Evaluation and Feedback: If you started your career in CPG at one of the “marketing academies”, you may have been trained in how to evaluate creative and how to deliver effective feedback. Most marketers are never trained in these critical skills. Want a more productive agency relationship? Make sure your marketers know how to evaluate the work and to provide direct and respectful feedback.

Aimee Johnson is Chief Marketing Officer of Zillow Group, leading the company’s marketing organization, including customer and partner experience development, brand strategy and marketing, insights, and product marketing. Aimee joined Zillow Group in 2018 to spearhead customer advocacy and integration as the company embarked on a new era of building a seamless real estate experience with the customer at the center of the entire journey.

Prior to Zillow Group, Aimee served as senior vice president of marketing programs and digital innovation at Starbucks. In previous Starbucks roles, she ran customer relationship and loyalty programs, mobile order and pay, customer analytics, the beverages division, and corporate social responsibility marketing. For 10 years prior to her work at Starbucks, she ran several businesses at Campbell Soup Company. Before that, Aimee was a computer programmer at Sallie Mae. Aimee sits on the board of the Seattle Symphony and participates in various women’s leadership forums.

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.