CMO of the Week: Northwestern Mutual’s Lynn Teo

CMO of the Week: Northwestern Mutual’s Lynn Teo

Northwestern Mutual’s new chief marketing officer Lynn Teo had an unusual path to the chief marketing role. While many CMOs get their start in marketing, Teo began her career as a user experience designer, an atypical path which she says gives her a unique approach to the position. Teo is always thinking through the user experience and how that can form the company’s overall approach to marketing.

“A consistent thread in my life is asking what is the user experience and what will the customer understanding be,” she explains. “This could be a digital product or a campaign or even how we shape marketing in the field.”

In this new job, which Teo started in September, she sees herself as being a coach to the marketing team. “I am a believer of servant leadership, as a theme and a philosophy,” explains Teo. “This role gives me a wonderful platform to build out what marketing could be and can be for Northwestern Mutual. But at the same time, I’m doing it in a way that helps lift my team. That’s very gratifying to me as a leader.”

Northwestern Mutual wants to be a brand that helps its customers realize their dreams by helping them create the financial stability they need to make their visions a reality. The company recently ran a brand campaign with this message called “The Great Realization.” The effort spotlights the need for personalized financial planning to help people live life on their own terms.

Teo was attracted to the job because of the “wonderful convergence of my natural proclivities.” She said the brand’s mission merged with her personal goals to add value and have a meaningful impact on the community and help people in the world gain financial freedom.

“There is no question that Northwestern Mutual is a very purpose-driven company,” remarks Teo. “We exist to free Americans from financial anxiety. When we look at the climate of change that’s going on right now, there is really no better time to connect with that message of how do you help someone who’s feeling uncertain and anxious. There’s a bigger purpose here and it’s a pretty noble mission of helping someone achieve their dreams, through better financial planning. We’ve established a long history of helping people do that.” 

This applies to both the clients the company attracts, as well as the 20,000 plus financial advisors in their network. Teo says these advisors have a calling to help their extended networks manage their financing. “We have a wonderful career path,” she says. “We want to bring people into the network because they can be our spokespeople, and be our helpers reaching into the community.” 

Prior to joining Northwestern Mutual, Teo served as chief marketing officer (Legal, Government, and Global Print) at Thomson Reuters, and also held senior management positions at Wolters Kluwer, CA Technologies, McCann Worldgroup, AKQA and Sapient. Brand Innovators caught up with Teo from her office in New York to talk about her new role, leading with purpose and helping millennials realize their dreams. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What attracted you to this role and what are you hoping to accomplish in it?

A lot of it was being part of a company that has such longevity. To be founded 165 years ago, and to still be relevant today is remarkable. The culture of collaboration and partnership is one that came through in spades, when I started speaking to people. Whenever I take on a new opportunity, I run towards change. This was one opportunity that was very clear that the marketing function would be a revenue driver for Northwestern Mutual. I saw it as a way to add to the narrative of Northwestern Mutual to help grow the company’s revenue line in a much more direct way, while at the same time furthering the discipline of marketing in the world out there. Because we all know, marketing has changed dramatically in the last five to ten years. 

What is your brand’s purpose and how does this show up in your creative?

The first thing that I respect a lot about the approach of Northwestern Mutual and our corporate strategy and our marketing strategy is that alignment of culture and insights, and those two things coming together to inform where we’re headed. It’s important that serves as a foundational grounding. As we look at where we want to move the needle, we are going to create this environment where planning becomes a cornerstone. You’ll hear a lot about that from us, because we have the expertise, as well as the years of knowledge to help consumers get there.

Can you talk about the audience you’re hoping to reach?

Millennials are a key focus area for us, because we want to start them early. There are also very different ways in which millennials want to interact with brands. Those target audiences are looking for a purpose-driven company that has values that align with theirs. 

Linear TV is not the way to consume information now, so we are working in other channels like TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest. These are examples of the kinds of platforms where consumers spend their time, and there’s a nice synergy between the types of content being shared and the channels being used to discuss it. You get little clips about financial advice on TikTok, but also you get spaces in social media, where you’re dreaming about your life and what your life could become. That becomes a very organic way to meet them where they are and also to help them understand the relevance and the value that we bring. If you have a dream, how are you going to get there? The Great Realization campaign was just a wonderful platform for us to connect the dots between dreams, anxieties and how you’re going to get there.

That’s interesting. I don’t often connect Pinterest and financial planning.

When you think about a vision board, you are actually creating a dream, right? You’re creating a someday in the future. The great realization campaign was definitely a reawakening and a recalibration of things that you do in your life. When I think about areas in our lives, where we spend time dreaming, and imagining, Pinterest comes to mind. We have to be attune to where culture and insights intersect. 

We’ve done a collaboration with Gretchen Rubin, a New York Times bestselling author and happiness expert. We want to marry the concepts of happiness and readdressing the values that you hold near and dear to you and your life and financial planning and financial security being a path to that happiness and then unlocking the doors. 

She’s co-hosting a show with Northwestern Mutual on Instagram Live. We invite people to come speak with us about their pursuits of happiness and how they’ve gone about achieving those dreams in their real lives. That is another example where we’re using platforms that are already in place and leaning in heavily on purpose-driven values. 

Can you talk about how your background gives you a unique perspective in this new role?

The breadth of industries that I’ve had experience in is going to be an area that I will contribute to Northwestern Mutual’s mission the most. That background lends itself to a systems thinking, taking lessons that you learn from other business problems that you’ve solved before and figuring out what is a custom playbook for Northwestern Mutual. It’s one of the best things about being in an agency, as you get to work in different verticals. 

My background in user experience is probably what differentiates me as a CMO. It allows me to really look at the challenge with a very custom lens. We have a huge distribution network of financial advisors, and any marketing strategy that does not think about the network of advisors would be missing a large part of our corporate strategy. So I think solving problems and bringing the best of what I’ve seen and done is probably the part of my background that’s going to serve me the best.

What are your predictions for 2023?

My predictions are that we will continue to hone in on the links between culture and insight, because that’s how you get a message to resonate with the public. It can’t feel as if it was isolated from the realities of life. That will continue to be an area of focus. We will continue to be attuned to the emotions of the general public and we will continue to check ourselves for the relevance of our message.

Another prediction I have is the importance of data, and analytics. As we automate knowledge about our consumer base, the way we would put a more relevant message in front of someone is sometimes understanding how the consumer interacted with you as a brand. They might have visited They may have attended a webinar that was hosted by a financial advisor in the field or they may be a current client and have already purchased, say, an insurance policy. Data is going to be an area that is going to provide differentiated messaging to our prospects or clients, it’s a way to let them feel we know who they are and that we understand the unique challenges that they face in their lives.