MasterCard boss on the Champions League, innovation and adapting to survive

With the UEFA Champions League final taking place this weekend, we caught up with Ann Cairns, MasterCard’s president of international markets, to discuss the power of sponsorship, innovation and the importance of marketing within the company.

MasterCard’s sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League originally started in 1994. As part of this year’s Champions League sponsorship, the brand launched a new creative platform called ‘Some call it madness. We call it priceless’, which began rolling out three months ago. Last summer, the brand also revealed it was extending the sponsorship for the next three seasons through to 2018.

On the eve of the Champions League final, we spoke to Ann Cairns, MasterCard’s president of international markets, to find out more about the brand’s sponsorship strategy and the importance of marketing.

Why are sponsorships so important to the brand?

As a big consumer marketing company, the Championship fits incredibly well from our point of view. [The matches] happen throughout the year, every year. And when you think of the product and services that we offer the general public, we want them to be used for everyday things as well as unite people with their passions, which is why it works well for us. That’s the consumer view.

On the B2B side, the event provides us with an opportunity to meet with some of our board members, as well as some of our big European customers such as the big banks and retailers. This is a chance for us to meet them, to talk about our innovations, technology and really showcase what we can do in terms of giving consumers priceless experiences. It is all of those things combined which is why it works from a B2B point of view.

When it comes to sponsorships, the public doesn’t always immediately associate an event with a particular sponsor. Is that an issue?

It’s really all to do with how well you connect with the consumer. We’ve been doing a lot of work on social media, where we’ve been linking our event to priceless surprises, cities and linking people with their priceless passions. What we’re trying to do is bring together consumers having experiences rather than just buying things, because we feel experiences matter a lot in life. That’s how we can connect, and make people remember that MasterCard connected them to the Champions League.

Ford was also a long-term sponsor of the Champions League and ended that relationship last year. Can you see a time where it might not be as relevant to you?

No, I don’t. We are trying to be relevant to as many people as possible. When you look at a sport like football, hundreds of millions of people connect with that, I do think that this is an ideal sponsorship for us to have. It’s a priceless passion, no matter what age or country you are from, what god you worship, football is a pervasive passion for millions of consumers.

MasterCard is still the number two provider behind Visa, so how do you ensure your brand is top of mind?

First of all, competitors make you strong. The world has never been a monopolistic place. Sometimes our competitors are also our customers. The world is a very interconnected place. The things we do to keep top of mind in our cardholders’ minds, or to keep our card top of wallet, are exactly events like the Champions League. It has fabulous cachet, millions of people connect to it and watch it. Being associated with it in a positive way, where the public is enjoying the experience, and remember it and connecting it to MasterCard as a priceless event is how we drive usage of our products and services.

Financial services have faced a lot of criticism since 2008 and banks are still trying to undo the wrongs. How long do you think it will take for the public to see financial services in a different light?

Financial services are truly an important part of the economy, whichever way you look at it. People still keep their money with banks, because they trust them to keep it safe. That’s at the heart of it. In terms of the consumer experience, banks have some way to go to keep pace with the level of change that’s happening in the [banking] environment. If they can give consumers experiences they love and link to them to their passions, they can establish that report and bring them back to front of centre of people’s minds. I think that’s what banks need to do these days. Technology, innovation and marketing are as important to banks as they are to MasterCard.

You have quite a diverse background, what do you think your early experience has taught you that you can apply at MasterCard?

I was always very interested in innovation. I was originally a research scientist when I started work, so this idea of constantly learning, seeing how the market is changing, delivering the best experience to consumers – that has been with me from a very early age. Also, I love to change a lot during my career. I think Charles Darwin said the people who survive are not necessarily the strongest or the most intelligent but the most adaptable. I think that’s very true post the internet in the business world. This view has stood me in good stead.

How closely do you work with the marketing team?

Very closely, because marketing is a huge area of MasterCard and marketing touches what we deliver to some of the big banks, we design how they’re going to deliver their programmes, roll out their cards, connect with digital players, what is the look and feel and how it works. All of these things infringe on marketing, so it’s a huge area for us.

Are there any particular areas of tech that are of interest to MasterCard going forward?

We already use artificial intelligence (AI) in some parts of our business. We bought a big data analytics company called APT in the US although it works in 26 countries in the world. They have patented algorithms that use AI that really test and learn which products will sell best to the consumer and looks at reconfiguring bank branches.

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