Jean Chatzky, AARP Brand Ambassador: How to Work with Brands

#FinCon18 Keynoter Jean Chatzky, the longtime AARP Ambassador and CEO of shares her experience and advice.

Plus: A contest to win a spot on my podcast and a personal brand consultation.

I can’t remember the first time someone referred to me as a brand. But I can remember that I didn’t like it. “I’m not a brand,” I pushed back, “I’m a person.” Or something to that effect. Well, I’m over it. Over the past decade, as I moved from operating within a big personal finance enterprise like Money to having a series of standalone projects, engagements and gigs, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with being a brand. I’ve also put considerable energy into understanding what my brand stands for – reliable, relatable, money advice in plain English – and put thought into the fact that my brand has value well worth protecting.

That has meant figuring out not only how to show up when I’m doing a Today show segment (well-enough prepared to answer questions I’m not expecting) or holding a Q&A after a keynote (which, by the way, I’ll be doing from the AARP booth on Thursday at 1:30 pm because there’s not enough time on the main stage. I hope you’ll join me.) It has also meant learning to forge relationships with other brands that are, yes, profitable, but about much more than money. Over the years, I’ve gotten good at figuring this out – and so I’ve decided to give away a one-hour branding session to a FINCON attendee. But before I get to that, some brand partnership basics.

In search of symbiosis

When my son Jake was in first grade, he came home all excited about symbiotic relationships. These are, for those of you as far removed from in-school science as I am, cases in nature where two species help each other in a way that’s mutually beneficial. For example: sea anemones and hermit crabs. The hermit crabs let the anemones hitchhike across the ocean and provide a food supply in the form of their leftovers. The anemones keep predators away from hermit crabs. Everybody wins.

When a brand alliance is working well, the relationship is symbiotic. You give a lift to the brand you’ve teamed up with – perhaps by bringing them something tangible like an appeal to women or youth, or by lending them an element of cool or personal style – they help you reach a larger audience and give you gravitas. You both benefit.

Being selective

To me, that has meant choosing partnerships extremely carefully. As an individual (with a single assistant) for many years, I was limited by the amount of work I was able to do as well as the number of days I wanted to spend on the road. But those were just logistics. My real goal was to find partners whose work and mission I not only believed in today – but projected that I would for years. As the longest-lasting contributor to the Today show (23 years and counting), I am well aware – an exceedingly grateful — that my brand has grown not just because of the incredible strength of Today’s, but because of the endurance of that relationship. The more people see you in context with a particular brand, the stronger the association grows.

I first became aware of AARP’s ambassador program about a decade ago from my friend Peter Greenberg, their travel ambassador at the time. Peter offered to make an introduction. AARP wasn’t interested, but I kept my hat in the ring — speaking at their national conference and to employees at their DC headquarters – and about five years later, they became interested in me as well.

Growing together

This partnership – like many — started with a simple question: What can we do together? Initially, we decided I would write a column for AARP The Magazine, appear in short tip-oriented videos and speak at events organized by or important to the organization. Over time, however, because we’ve made an effort to share what’s on our collective plates, the list of what we’ve been able to accomplish has expanded. I never would have expected to find myself in Washington, DC moderating a bipartisan panel of female senators and congressional representatives on the high costs of caregiving. Or in Albany, NY sitting with representatives to ask that Secure Choice, a program that makes saving by paycheck deduction available to small employers, remain in the 2018 budget. (It did, by the way.)

Which raises an important point: Where’s the line between ambassador and endorser? I have always approached all of my partnerships as educational. It’s my job to provide quality information on a topic at large rather than to recommend product. Does lobbying in Albany broach those boundaries? I thought about it and I decided that for me it doesn’t. I’m a fan of automatic retirement saving solutions because everything I’ve learned through my years of reporting and research has taught me that they work. They may be the only thing that does. And so I wanted to speak out. But, I am also sure that if I had decided I didn’t feel that way, my partners at AARP would have found another way to come at this particular task.

1 + 1 = 3

In early September, I was one of the lucky ones – sixth row center at Springsteen on Broadway watching a masterful Bruce hold an audience in his hand for nearly three hours without an intermission. He rolled out of Thunder Road and into the vamp for Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and started talking – as he often does — about what happened when he and Danny and Steve and Max and Nils and Garry and Patti and “The Big Man” came together. When a partnership works like Springsteen’s with The E Street Band, he says, “1 + 1 = 3.” I think that’s what we are all looking for.

Which brings me back to that contest. If you’d like to have a chance to be a guest on my podcast and sit down and brainstorm your brand with me, sign up for our contest. I’ll see you in Orlando!


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