'Experiential' marketing has a humongous opportunity: Mastercard's Raja Rajamannar

The global chief marketing officer of the financial services giant talks about their 'Priceless' campaign, the death of advertising, and much more

Published: Aug 17, 2018

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Raja Rajamannar, global chief marketing officer, MasterCard

Raja Rajamannar, global chief marketing officer, Mastercard was recently in India on his annual trip to the country to meet partners, get a glimpse of new technologies and developments in India, and to spend time with his team here. Forbes India caught up with him, and what resulted was an insightful chat on how technology is changing the way marketing is done, how Mastercard is grabbing eyeballs by creating unique experiences for its customers, how the company wants to stay relevant in a digital world, and the evolving role of a marketing executive. Edited excerpts:

Q As a global payments technology provider, how did Mastercard create a generic brand recall for itself, and a memorable campaign 'Priceless', that has remained effective over the decades?

Generic brand recall is a little outdated metric to evaluate the strength of a brand. Instead, we consider different parameters. For example, we look at the brand's strength on the dimensions that matter to the consumer in the space that the brand operates in. We consider the consumers' needs and aspirations. Going by that Brand Asset Valuator metric, Mastercard's strength has gone up by about 22 percent in the last five years. The next nearest competing financial services brand has grown at about 7 percent. We are outpacing the financial services category at a global level.

We also consider the value of our brand and what percent of the business is attributable to the strength of the power of the brand. Several years ago, on the BrandZ study, Mastercard used to be number 89 of the top 100 brands. We have been improving our ranking year after year, and today, are at number 15. Our competitors have either remained steady or have grown slightly.

We feel very good about how our brand is making strides. Harvard Business School and Yale have written case studies on how Mastercard is changing how marketing is done and getting effective results, far outstripping competition in the same category and outside the category.

Q Can you elaborate on 'how Mastercard is doing marketing differently...'? You say, advertising is dead, is it?
As marketers, it’s important to be very sensitive to consumers' needs, desires, and aspirations. However, it’s also important to be mindful about what upsets and annoys them.

We put a lot of sensitivity into our advertising or into promotion. But if you take a step back, you will realise consumers are clearly saying, 'I hate your ads; they are an interruption and annoyance to the movie watching experience’. Fundamentally, the consumers' need is to have an uninterrupted experience.

Last year, the amount of content consumed on digital channels was more than traditional channels. There are 625 million devices activated today with AdBlockers [browser software that lets you block advertisements]. As a marketer, even if I want to reach consumers, they have shut me out. Netflix’s 120 million subscribers -- the crème de la crème of audience that every product wants to go after – watch 1 billion hours of ad-free video every week. Similarly, YouTube launched YouTube Red, Hulu, to provide ad-free content to people who are willing to pay.

As marketers, we are being sensitive to every other aspect of consumers but not their fundamental issue with advertisements. It’s important to recognise that mindset of consumers and change your business and marketing paradigm. That’s when I say marketing or storytelling is dead. It doesn’t have to be dead for everyone today but if hundreds of millions of customers are willing to pay to run away from your ads, hanging on to the old ways of marketing is not wisest of the things.

Q How do you reach the consumers then?
We have shifted a huge chunk of our [marketing] spends to experiential marketing. The idea is to create experiences for consumers to make an impact on them. They can then take that impression and spread the word with their network that doesn’t block them [as opposed to marketers’ audience blocking their ads]. For a brand, it is always more credible for someone else to talk about the brand than for you talking about it yourself. In that situation, experiential marketing has a humongous opportunity. We've taken huge sponsorships across nine passion points identified for customers. We curate and create experiences in millions, at scale and economically.

For example, with ‘Priceless Cities’, you can experience the Louvre museum in Paris in candle night, after it has shut for public. In the mass market category, we provide our customers with ‘Priceless Surprises’. Three years ago, during the Grammy Awards, with it as a sponsor, we targeted our audience with a surprise personalised tweet giving away an unreleased song, and four more copies to give them away to friends; best seats in a concert, the opportunity to meet and greet their favourite star, or getting signed memorabilia. The ultimate surprise was a celebrity coming to their home and spend a day. This builds the viral effect quickly. We are succeeding at doing this at scale. Last year, we did an excess of a million experiences. On the Grammy Awards night, in a single day, we had 47,000 new credit card applications. It drove the brand and the business.

Partnerships under ‘Priceless’ extent to sports championships, film festivals, music concerts, and celebrities to create experiences, across culinary shopping travel tourism, environment, movies. In India, we have Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor as ambassadors. 

Q In India, within the country's payments sphere, apart from enabling credit cards, what else does Mastercard do?
We want to create a digital economy which is cashless, and we want to promote and enable inclusive growth in a country; those are our objectives. In India, the penetration of digital payments is very low, with about 90 percent transactions still relying on cash. So that's a new headroom. When you're creating a new ecosystem, it’s important to convince customers, banks, merchants to adopt digital payments. Ours align with the Indian government’s objectives. We partner with every single part of the ecosystem to study what we can bring to the table. We’re constantly working with the government and share our points of view on policy formulation, execution and infrastructure.

India is a very significant priority for Mastercard. We are investing a lot in this country. We’re building some of the most cutting-edge digital capabilities out of India for the rest of the world, from our centres in Pune [in Maharashtra] and Vadodara [in Gujarat]. In India, we developed the interoperable QR code BharatQR [along with National Payments Corporation of India and Visa]; Citi MasterPass, a global digital wallet, which was deployed from the Vadodara centre; and Safety Net, a product that identifies patterns and detects malicious activity in a matter of minutes.

Q With the world moving to digital payments, how is Mastercard evolving to keep itself relevant?
It's not the world moving [to digital] and you responding to that; it’s about you actually shaping the future as well by creating solutions before people realise they need it. We constantly scout all the digital developments happening for consumer and infrastructure, and try to identify a credible way to bring a solution for the problem.

For example, governments are focused on smart cities, so Mastercard looked at data and came up with solutions deployed enable smart cities. We now provide solutions to 55 cities around the world already. Then, we use our used cases to onboard other cities. Contactless cards for the transport system in London, enables the metro system and buses, doing away with the need to buy tickets or passes. It saves time, and cost of handling cash. It's nothing to do with credit cards but it's enabling the transport system with a payments solution.

We also help tourism departments using corridor analysis, to get them more people from origin countries by deploying our marketing prowess. In the US, we help people in the the healthcare space. We take our expertise in the field and bring it to different sectors. That's how we go beyond just basic payments.

Q How is the role of a CMO or a marketing executive in a company changing in the digital world where the spectrum of focus goes much beyond indoor and outdoor advertising?
The marketing role has been evolving fairly significantly. In the past, marketers were predominantly focused on the creative aspect of a project but today, you have to be a true business manager and a general manager too.

There are new technologies like Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain enabling marketing like never before. In some companies, CMOs [chief marketing officers] have a bigger technology budget than the CTO [chief technology officer]. So, as a marketing person today, you need to have a deep grasp and understanding of technology.

It’s also important to understand finance and your business to explain the impact of the millions of dollars of marketing budget on the bottom and topline of the company. Then, you need to understand public relations. At Mastercard, we have an integrated marketing and communications department. It’s one unified function. It’s also important to have a grasp on data that brings the power of precision marketing, hyper-targeting, and helps you stay hyper relevant, and optimise your campaign and creative in real time, based on the closed loop created by the use of data. You need to have depth and gravitas in that space.

If you consider all this, you're no longer looking at a marketing executive but a general manager who is very good at multiple fields but has his roots strongly in marketing. That's where the future is going. It's not easy to find such talent, so we focus on cross-training our existing people. We've developed 13 training programs and are investing a lot in it so we're better prepared for the future.

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