Northwestern Mutual’s First CMO on Partnering with March Madness

Posted on by Evan Vladem

Northwestern Mutual’s CMO Aditi Javeri Gokhale is sifting through the numbers coming out of March Madness. The financial services company has had a NCAA partnership since 2012 and she is seeing major traction coming out of the tournament despite all the busted brackets. Gokhale was appointed as the first CMO of Northwestern Mutual last May, and being a MIT grad, she has a data driven approach.

In fact, Northwestern Mutual saw a 47 percent lift in social engagement in the first week of the tournament, compared to the week prior. During the first two rounds, the brand aired 63 TV ads and saw an average 158 percent lift in social media engagement in the two minutes following each ad, according to 4C Brand Compass, a global data science and marketing technology platform.

After rolling out a new campaign, “Spend Your Life Living,” the initial numbers should be positive for Gokhale.

Aditi Javeri Gokhale
Aditi Javeri Gokhale

Ahead of the last weekend of college basketball, Gokhale sat down with sports sponsorship consultant Evan Vladem to discuss the new campaign, “Spend Your Life Living,” and how she’s marketing March Madness in her first year as CMO.

VLADEM: As a longtime NCAA corporate sponsor, this year you updated your campaign and messaging. Why?

GOKHALE: We had a campaign that was in market for several years before I joined. I wanted to make sure we had looked at that campaign to see what was working and what was not working. Very quickly, my team and I realized that we had to bring a fresh perspective within the category. When we went to our qualitative and quantitative research, we learned that consumers want to live the best life today and tomorrow. Tomorrow is important, but they really want that balancing act. That is our value proposition with our financial planners—helping you plan and realize your goals as you go through your entire life journey and not just retirement. We wanted to develop a campaign that really differentiated ourselves from a brand perspective. That’s why we launched “Spend Your Life Living.” With our partnership of the NCAA and March Madness we get a wide mix of consumers, men and women and households.

EV: You launched the new campaign ahead of your title sponsorship of the Rose Bowl, rolling it out with the Cotton Bowl to set the stage. How are you activating it around March Madness?
AJG: What we’re trying to do is make the most out of the timeframe of March Madness. On March 11, we unveiled a March Madness 3D bracket that’s 15 feet tall to celebrate the announcement of the tournament. This is a consumer activation where people can take selfies front-and-center at the site of the Final Four, the Alamodome. Beyond that, we are maximizing the partnership in the media that we placed throughout the tournament. We rolled out a media schedule with CBS, TBS, TNT, ESPN, truTV. We aired commercials around every game.

In addition, given our partnership with CBS, we extended it to CBS News and CBS Entertainment programing. We also added premium cable networks to reach specific targets, life affluent women with channels such as HGTV, Food Network, E!, Bravo and CNN. We are also pushing digital throughout the tournament. This is different from how it was done before. We wanted to have a halo effect throughout that time period.

EV: Has the Rose Bowl or NCAA basketball tournament been a stronger platform so far?
AJG: It’s too premature to make that decision. To me, the conversation of what event is more powerful doesn’t matter. Both of these partnerships are very meaningful to us in different ways and the audience may be different. We want to make sure we come with a 360 approach to both partnerships, with the potential to reach the right target. So far, our partnerships with both the Rose Bowl and March Madness are promising.

EV: How will you determine the success of your March Madness sponsorship?
AJG: The success comes in different forms. I want to be sure our brand is being amplified in a meaningful way. For it to be a win, positive impressions are the KPIs that I look at. Marketing has to have a high degree of coordination to business growth. That is a change from when I came on as CMO. It’s not just about building brand awareness—it’s about brand activation. We are tracking numbers on our website, engagement on our content and social channels. What does it mean to lead generation? What does it mean to existing clients wanting to interact and engage more with us? We have about 40-50 KPIs that were tracking as we move through the tournament.

EV: According to a recent IEG sponsorship report, 54 percent of your sponsorship spend in the sports category, 30 percent is in cause marketing and 18 percent is in entertainment. Will sports continue to be a leading platform?
AJG: I wouldn’t say let’s go down a single vertical. I want to go where the consumers are and wherever my core target is. Whatever vertical that may be, I need to be there, be relevant to them and engage with them. It’s similar to saying, ‘I’m only going to do TV, or I’m only going to do digital.’ That’s not how you should think about it. You should think about where the core target is most interacting and which channels to engage with them to help them realize the value of Northwestern Mutual. We have had great success with our partnerships within sports, but we have also for the first time tested New Year’s Eve, with a sponsorship of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC.

EV: What advice would give to other female marketers?
AJG: I take a great deal of honor with who I am as an individual and what I bring to the table. What is also important to me is carving out a part of my career in something I am very passionate about. There are two areas in my life that matter to me most as a human—health and financial planning. When I really connect with a product, I have been more successful then when I have not connected with a product. For me, keeping that mindset of a consumer is super important. That’s the advice I would give to any CMO. As far as being a woman CMO, for me, I have always been very open and honest about my career aspirations with my leaders. I have been mindful of who I report into. For me as a leader, my higher-up has to be someone that connects with me both personally and professionally. Philosophically, we should be on the same page.

EV: What about work life balance?
AJG: For women, especially moms with kids—I have been asked the question. I think work life balance is what you define it to be. It’s a very personally choice. I am very open and honest with my team about where I am and what I am doing. If I have to go to a parent-teacher meeting, I go to the meeting and I don’t hide it. I live my life. If my son is sick and my son wants me to be with him, I will be with him. Those are just as important moments as my professional life. Personally, that is fulfilling. That has worked well with my team in being very transparent and being a mom, a wife and a professional.

Evan Vladem leads the sports and entertainment division at Associated Group and is a sports sponsorship consultant at rEvolution.

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