The NBA’s CMO Kate Jhaveri on Her Marketing Superpower: Building Community

The NBA’s CMO Kate Jhaveri on Her Marketing Superpower: Building Community

Kate Jhaveri does one thing every day that she suggests you try: belly laughs.

The EVP and Chief Marketing Officer at the NBA credits her two kids with much of that levity—"They're very silly and they, at least once a day, make me laugh out loud," she says—though she seeks to make those lighter connections with her team at work, too.

"Especially at this time, it's so incredibly important to have that perspective with everything that's going on," she says.

We sat down with Kate to hear about her career journey, why she left tech to work in sports, how she led her team through the pandemic, and what advice she has (beyond laughing often) for other women seeking to build fulfilling careers—and communities.

Solving creative problems for different consumers

Growing up, Kate always had a book in her hands. "The ability to tell stories and move people with words and images is something that started with me very young," she says. She thought about parlaying that love of stories into becoming a college professor, but her father encouraged her to try something new before committing to that path.

So she took a job in consulting and immediately loved it. "I really, really loved the problem solving and the ability to see opportunities for different businesses and consumers," she says. Those skills translated well to a job at Dell, where she got to go deep on one set of problems and enjoyed the energy of her fast-paced team of coworkers. "I fell in love with the velocity that was happening in the tech industry and...really getting to know who you are interacting with."

But having focused on English and Spanish literature in college, Kate wanted a chance to shore up her business skill set, so she got her MBA at Tuck, Dartmouth's business school. "It was a good way to refine all of the different ways I could think about business problems and solve them," she says. It also helped her define the kind of job she wanted post-graduation: one as a marketing leader.

"Marketing is where the two halves of me come together: this ability to really think about and problem solve combined with this love of art and creativity and storytelling," says Kate. "I wanted to run a marketing team for a brand that I cared about," she says.

Finding her community with the NBA

When an opportunity to be the NBA's CMO popped up, Kate knew it was the kind of job and the kind of company that aligned with her values. "It's a brand that really seeks to unite people," says Kate of the NBA. "Whether that's through the sport of basketball, or the values we hold around diversity, equity, and inclusion, it's about how can we bring people together and do so with something that makes people feel really joyful."

Her role as CMO includes every aspect of marketing, and Kate likes that challenge. "Marketing is really changing; it's super exciting now, this amazing blend of art and science that gets me excited and gets me out of bed in the morning, thinking through how to talk to consumers in ways that matter to them."

And even though she switched industries from tech to sports, and picked up new lingo to go along with it, Kate has found the transition to be a smooth one. "The organization has been super open to a lot of the ideas that I bring from a different industry and is already super innovative, [so] it wasn't that big of a change," she says.

Kate's approach to marketing, whether for a tech product or for professional basketball, is focused on communities. She's long been fascinated by how communities are created and how they develop, and in her current CMO role, she draws on her own experience feeling part of sports communities, from rooting for the Celtics as a kid in Baltimore to living in Chicago during Michael Jordan's heyday with the Bulls.

"There is no better community than the community of NBA fans," says Kate. "The NBA has done such a great job of building that community and bringing fans in to feel close, not just to the players or the game, but to what the NBA stands for."

Pandemic pivot: standing up with the NBA community

Kate joined the NBA in August of 2019. Seven months later, the world was put on pause—and so was basketball.

The whole NBA found themselves reimagining how a season of professional basketball could look. Kate felt like they had a unique opportunity to bring people together, and that figuring out how to do that in new ways would serve their audience now and in the future, especially since she says that less than 1% of basketball fans ever make it to an arena to see a live game. "One of the most interesting things about [this last year] is that we're all craving community in some way, and whether that's in person or online, we all want human connection," she says.

That community was especially important last summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off after a string of extrajudicial police killings of Black Americans. "The absolute tragedy and horrific loss of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor was a moment where we really could stand with players …[and] our fans," says Kate. As NBA players chose to wear jerseys with social justice messages and the league painted Black Lives Matter on the court, Kate saw it as " incredibly powerful and values-driven."

The NBA's transition to a bubble with games played without live fans meant new opportunities for the marketing team to share content and interact with their communities. "[I'm proud of our] ability in that time to tell a really compelling story about how we had changed the game and how fans could interact with the game specifically to bring them closer," says Kate.

Those new ways of telling stories included professional games of H-O-R-S-E, The Last Dance documentary in partnership with ESPN, trivia games, reruns and new commentary of classic match-ups, and the first-ever 2K Players tournament, not to mention tons of social engagement with the NBA's community of super-engaged fans.

"We really tried to meet what fans needed and wanted, and we learned a lot about what content is super interesting and what platforms are particularly great for individual pieces of content," she says.

So far, her favorite innovation—and one that she plans to bring into the post-pandemic world—has been the digital fans. The NBA created a virtual fan experience where more than 300 fans each game were invited to appear live on the "Michelob ULTRA Courtside" 17-foot-tall video boards surrounding the court, allowing for an atmosphere of cheering (and occasional jeering) even with otherwise empty seats. "It's such a great way to bring people closer," says Kate.

Paying it forward: tips for building your career

Kate has four key tips for other women looking to build careers—and communities—that work for them:

  1. Remember that your dream role might "hire on hustle." Kate is a builder: "I like to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty," she says. Leaning on her ability to get things done, even with a scrappy team or a limited budget, has been how she's gotten several roles, she says. Focus less on what degree you have or who you know and more on a track record of making things happen.
  2. Before accepting an offer, ask "Do I want to have a beer with these people?" That's the question Kate makes sure she'd say "yes" to before starting a new role. "You're spending a good portion of your life, whether on Zoom or sitting in the office, with these people. If you aren't really enjoying [them], it makes the job less fun. It's about the passion and the people," she says.
  3. Once you're in a new role, make sure to speak up and share the ideas that got you there. "For women especially, it is deeply important to not lose your voice. There are times when you may be the only woman in the room, and there are times when that room could be fairly large. It's still really important that you know that you belong there," she says. "Everyone has a little bit of doubt about what they're doing, but don't lose your voice. Have every confidence that you belong at that table. And your ideas are welcome and needed. Otherwise you wouldn't be there."
  4. As you take on new roles and responsibilities at different companies, be kind to everyone you come across. "Marketing is a small world," says Kate. "You will have the opportunity to cross paths with people again." She says that now, her community of peers is her biggest source of inspiration and continuous learning. "I see where they've gone, they see where I've gone, and we have a connection," she says. "Focus on relationships and individuals, because they will stay with you far longer than you think."

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