Life, Well Spent: 5 Questions With Northwestern Mutual’s Aditi Gokhale

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Northwestern Mutual #SpendYourLifeLiving

Northwestern Mutual used to be known as “the quiet company.” But that was a generation ago. Now, the Milwaukee-based insurance and investments giant is scrapping noisily with all sorts of competitors for the retirement financing business of baby boomers and the needs (and dreams) of millennials.

The brand is making a lot of noise with the launch of “Spend Your Life Living,” kicking off 2018 with a new ad campaign and brand activation around the Rose Bowl, its fourth year as the presenting sponsor, on New Year’s weekend.

Northwestern Mutual 2018 Rose Bowl Tailgate party

The game’s telecast on ESPN garnered a massive 14.8 rating, while a tailgate experience got fans (and Tia Mowry) dancing and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation sponsored a camp-themed float in the Rose Parade, called “Letting Kids Be Kids,” which celebrated a future in which children and families can move beyond the fears of cancer, an ongoing cause for the brand.

Northwestern Mutual 2018 Rose Bowl parade

Aditi Gokhale“We wanted to make the most of this partnership and create a major campaign,” Northwestern Mutual’s Chief Marketing Officer, Aditi Gokhale, told us. “Everything is super-promising. We’re talking about a massive boost in traffic and in social sharing and in brand sentiment” from the Rose Bowl campaign, “all of the basic KPIs you look at from a marketing perspective. It’s a home run.” Or, in this case, a touchdown.

“Spend Your Life Living” sees Northwestern Mutual differentiating itself by emphasizing that its advisors can help customers meet their retirement financing needs tomorrow while simultaneously helping them figure out how to get more enjoyment out of life today.

The “Backyard Bliss” spot, for example, shows a dad mowing his lawn in the heat as his daughter pops into the backyard to tell him she’s going to a friend’s house, the draw being her pal’s backyard pool. Next thing you know, Northwestern Mutual has helped the family install its own pool and enjoy good times in their backyard, without jeopardizing their retirement plans.

Other spots celebrate family vacations, starting a business and college savings for the kids in tandem with retirement savings.

We spoke with Gokhale about her role as the company’s first CMO, the Rose Bowl and new campaign—and her plans as she looks ahead to 2018 and beyond.

Aditi, you became Northwestern Mutual’s first Chief Marketing Officer last May, after serving as CMO of its LearnVest subsidiary. Why did the company need a CMO?

Marketing over the next 10 years is going to be a very integral aspect of our corporate strategy. [CEO John Schlifske] is a big believer in innovation moving the company. Marketing has as much importance as the technology work we’re doing and work on the advisor side. That’s why we need a marketing leader to have a seat at the table.

I live in New York City. Half my team is in New York City, in Union Square. The other half of my team is in Milwaukee, and I’m there every other week. Part of my job is to travel. I was at the Rose Bowl and will be [traveling] for March Madness. And in this day and age with video conferencing, it’s very seamless.

How would you sum up the Rose Bowl activation?

It was fantastic. Given the exciting game that we had from a ratings perspective, it was one of the bigger games—a 39% improvement in viewership from last year’s [College Playoff Series] semifinal at the Peach Bowl.

What we did was fairly unique and different from what we did in our prior years. The [Spend Your Life Living] campaign was launched on December 29th with the Cotton Bowl, and also for the first time we had six spots in the Dick Clark New Year’s Eve show. There were a few firsts that we had this time. Beyond college football, we added to the mix a lifestyle component and worked with our partners at ABC.

Then at the Rose Bowl we created a 360-degree approach with social and digital marketing that we amplified starting December 29. For the first time we had two events: the Rose Room, a way for people to come in and take photos and share them; and we also took part in the tailgate [festivities] and created a massive “end zone” and had viewers do touchdown dances.

How did you land on the new campaign’s theme?

I’m heavy on the creative side and also a data-driven person. Both of those things have to come together. For the first six months in this role I did a lot of qualitative and quantitative research. We found this tension, this constant tug of war, regardless of demographics—people feel they have to sacrifice today to save for the future. That was the foundation of our idea. When you work with Northwestern Mutual, you’re able to make the most of every single ‘today.’ That’s different than what’s happening in the category, because we’re talking about the future.

How do you contrast your message against the “financial insecurity” message of some other financial services brands?

At the end of the day, even though the economy is the strongest it’s been, what we’re seeing in terms of the messaging from our competitors is that you’ve got to [worry] about the future. They’re driving that anxiety.

Consumers are anxious [about financial planning], it’s a highly emotional category; the other one is health. We did find consumers feeling anxious, but we didn’t want to feed into that anxiety.

We recognize there is anxiety, in part because financial planning isn’t taught in school. It’s not driven by not having enough money; it’s a lack of education. I do believe the category is feeding into that. We wanted to break through the clutter and talk about it in a meaningful way with storytelling.

The other idea that’s going on is very confusing—”invest in these investment products”—but people don’t know what they are and how to get there.

Our job was to really simplify the message and show them realistic human truths through storytelling: “I’m a middle-aged man and I have a family,” for instance. We have four different spots that talk about four different life stages, and we want to tell the story that you can live that life for the future and for today, and you can do it with our advisors.

Our advisors can help you plan not only for the future but in terms of meeting your goals for the next five, ten, 15 years. There’s a lot of anxiety—people are trying to feed into that—and the future is very abstract.

Are the new Northwestern Mutual headquarters in Milwaukee another branding opportunity?

We would possibly do that over the course of the year. Right now we’re trying to drive home a consumer message. But over the course of the year for recruiting, talking about things from a talent perspective, yes—but it is not part of this campaign.


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