SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Northwestern Mutual tabs GMR for NCAA playbook

Northwestern Mutual has retained Milwaukee-based GMR Marketing to develop an activation strategy for its NCAA corporate partnership.

Northwestern became an NCAA partner in January, which gave the financial planning and life insurance company a quick run-up to March Madness. Northwestern, which advertised heavily on the CBS and Turner broadcasts of the NCAA tournament, as well as ESPN’s coverage of the College World Series, called its NCAA deal the largest marketing and advertising initiative the company’s ever had.

It issued an RFP for an agency of record in the spring, and Chad Dern, Northwestern’s director of brand and advertising, led the search, which started with eight agency candidates. GMR was informed that it had won the business last week. This marks the first time Northwestern has hired a sports marketing agency for such a role.

Northwestern’s only other sports sponsorship is a deal with PGA Tour golfer Mark Wilson, but the thrust of GMR’s work will be around the NCAA deal, the company’s first national sponsorship.

“A lot of what we’ll be doing with GMR will be evaluating the different activation opportunities,” Dern said. “How do we activate our NCAA sponsorship at the local level?”

What that activation looks like remains to be seen. Dern said that Northwestern’s overall outlook will focus on its financial planning and how to help student athletes prepare for the next stage in life after college. But the details of how to bring that message to life are evolving.

GMR has two other clients that also have NCAA partnerships: Hershey’s and Lowe’s. The agency also works closely with MillerCoors, which has a large portfolio of university sponsorships.

“This really continues the momentum we have in the college space,” said Greg Busch, GMR’s executive vice president of client management. “We’ve put a lot of energy and resources behind our work in the college space and this furthers the scale we’ve been building.”

Busch said that senior vice president Steve Dupee will be GMR’s point person on the Northwestern account.

So far, Northwestern has been the presenting sponsor of the NCAA tournament’s First Four games, as well as a presenting sponsor of “Sporting Chance,” an NCAA film that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

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