5 questionsnerdwallet

5 Questions with NerdWallet CMO Kelly Gillease


NerdWallet is on a mission to provide clarity for all of life’s financial decisions. The brand’s goal remained strong during the pandemic and while some companies decreased their marketing and communications spend, they decided to double down on their biggest, boldest campaign to date. Andrew Stewart, Senior Director of Strategy at Interbrand talks with Kelly Gillease, CMO at NerdWallet about the challenges the company has faced during this turbulent time and the importance of taking smart risks.

NerdWallet is an amazing brand name. Is there a story you can share about how it was created? 

Our CEO Tim Chen founded NerdWallet in 2009 when his sister asked him for help finding  a credit card. He did some research to make  a spreadsheet with all the pros and cons of various credit cards on the market. He  found a lot of marketing materials but not the unbiased data he wanted, such as APRs or rewards. Talking to his sister about his  research process made him think about  how he was nerding out on this exercise and the phrase stuck around. At the end, he had this great spreadsheet of information that  he wanted to share with others and was thinking about what domain to put it up on. He was still  thinking about nerdiness and how people really value nerdy expertise for their finances… NerdWallet was available – and was also inexpensive. That’s how the name came together! We really embraced it as part of the company culture. We all call each other nerds – marketing nerd, content nerd, etc. It’s really a part of who we are, how we talk about ourselves and the value that we bring as individuals.

You saw the COVID-19 outbreak as a “bat signal” for NerdWallet. For a brand committed to consumer trust and providing financial clarity, what challenges did you face during this turbulent time?

COVID-19 is obviously a huge health crisis and also a big financial crisis for many people. As a business, we were thinking about how we needed to pivot to serve our consumers in this critical moment when they need personal finance help the most. Google searches for financial support went up 200% that was the “bat signal” for us. People really needed help, and this was a big opportunity for us to lean into our nerdiness to offer advice and to be there for them.. We wanted to deliver on our promise to  answer as many questions as we could, especially in this unpredictable environment, so we changed our content strategy to keep up with  consumers’ dynamic needs. For example, at the onset of the crisis, we launched a very comprehensive guide to COVID-19 which has been updated daily since the start of the outbreak. It keeps readers up to date on  things like the Care Act, unemployment, everything related to financial impact, etc. We even have a tool to calculate how to expect in your stimulus check. 

Then we looked at our national brand campaigns to see how they  could be adapted. We have an ad called ‘Money Questions’ which shows  vignettes of different life moments. But  we realized that some of these scenarios  weren’t relevant anymore – like showing people in a restaurant eating dinner together talking about rewards points for a credit card – nobody cares about that now, right? We made some changes to the ad to reflect the new topics on people’s minds. Instead of thinking about credit card rewards points, we focused on  good rewards for food delivery, for example. We didn’t pull back on our spend like many advertisers because we have a long term brand objective to become a brand of choice. And more importantly, going dark was not going to help consumers either – we wanted to be there for them.


How does NerdWallet balance emotional storytelling and analytical rigor?

As a business scales, it’s important to master the art of balancing data-driven processes and results with the emotional element required to build a meaningful brand. The primary purpose of brand marketing is to build relationships with customers and doing so take time and consistency. 

I started my career as  an economist for the federal government and majored in both English and Economics, so I like being very quantitative and analytical but also very creative. I’m always thinking about the KPIs, the right benchmarks and how to  test to learn smartly, but I’m also thinking about the emotional side of things and how to  connect with our customers personally. I think our latest brand campaign ‘Money Questions’ is a great example of this, it’s very emotional and speaks to something that people don’t really talk about. For example, am I saving enough for my kids’ college? We feel like it really resonated emotionally andt because we did a huge amount of customer research ahead of the launch to make sure we were addressing consumers’s specific needs, we can still tie it really well to quantitative models and performance.  

What big, bold bets is NerdWallet making to leap ahead of competitor and customer expectations?

Taking risks and making bold moves is really important. I really try to encourage my team to think big and think through questions like, What are the risks we could take? What is the worst case scenario that will happen if we spend a lot of money on a campaign and it doesn’t work? What’s the probability of that happening? Most likely the answer is that we’d be disappointed and that’s not a very bad consequence. Going  through this spot exercise with people eases their minds so they think about the big picture. What’s the risk of us not taking an action? It would speak against our culture as smart risk takers. That’s why this year we decided to invest more in brand during COVID, when all of our competitors essentially went dark. We did it in a very calculated way and got a much larger performance than we thought we’d see.

For the work that we do, hearing that an investment in brand is your biggest boldest move is really exciting. As you look at how you might assess those campaigns from a brand perspective, how do you balance and determine what success looks like?

I think it’s really important to set up the fitness function for campaigns ahead of time. For a brand campaign, the primary KPI is to make sure that NerdWallet is being associated with the right things, like being trustworthy or being  helpful… These kinds of attributes are important to our business. If something drove a lot of money for the company but didn’t drive awareness , that’s not a success for us. 

 The second way we evaluate success is by looking at the results in terms of investment. Are those aided awareness points translating into the kind of business results we want to see? NerdWallet sees that success materialize through other channels like SEO, SEM, click rates, etc. We have a MMX model that we use on a quarterly basis to evaluate our campaigns to differentiate what can be  attributed to the brand campaign vs the rest. Brand building is a long game, and we know that our  investment will take a few years to fully pay up. We’re actually setting  higher benchmarks for ourselves, so I am excited for our journey.

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