Mastercard on how it plans to make marketing a revenue generator

MasterCard is shifting money away from traditional above-the-line advertising to focus on real-time promotions as its CMO Raja Rajamannar looks to ensure that its marketing builds not just the brand but the business as well.

The budget shift has slowly happened over the past three years as Rajamannar looked at how and where Mastercard spent its marketing money. He found that too much was going into “warm, fuzzy” advertising that built the brand but not the business.

“We need the brand to strengthen as the card is used,” he explained to a packed audience at a ‘Wake up with The Economist’ event at the Cannes Lions festival in France last month.

And so Mastercard began testing a new marketing model. The idea was to spot commercial opportunities that MasterCard could use to not only get people using their credit cards but that also tapped into its ‘Priceless’ marketing slogan.

As part of this shift to promotions, Mastercard has focused more on real-time marketing. However, speaking to Marketing Week after the event, Rajamannar was quick to point out that didn’t just mean joining a conversation on social media or creating a new piece of content to fit in with an event such as the Super Bowl.

Instead, Mastercard was looking to find commercialisable trends that it could tap into. To that end, it now has a team of people in a ‘real-time marketing lab’ keeping an eye on the latest trending stories and working out if there is a chance for Mastercard to launch a promotion around them.

Read more: Mondelez on its shift away from ‘interruptive TV ads to creating content that makes money’

Tapping into trends

There are some key attributes trends need to fit into in order to work for Mastercard. For starters the trends need to run for at least three days to give the brand time to launch a digital offer and be in the top percentile in terms of share of voice. Plus it needs to make sense for the Mastercard brand to be involved in the conversation, so it won’t be getting involved in social chatter around Donald Trump, for example.

“We are trying to leverage real-time marketing to promote some of MasterCard’s own products. If there is a trend on a particular topic where we feel there is an opportunity to do something commercially that drives commerce for us that is when we get involved. Not every microtrend does, in fact few do. Plus we don’t want a plethora of these campaigns going on. We want to be careful,” he said.


One of the first big successes was in India where it ran a cinema promotion around the film Mary Kom. Mastercard went to the distributor, and in return for being allowed to use assets from the film, offered promotions on cinema tickets towards the end of the film’s run- when audiences typically start to peter out.

Not only did all the tickets sell out, but it actually earned revenue for Mastercard as well. The tests were so successful that Mastercard has run its first real-time campaign in Europe around the UEFA Champions League final and is planning to roll the model out globally.

“Marketing does not typically earn revenue, it is usually a cost centre,” explained Rajamannar. “But marketing has some fantastic assets, which you can use for your brand but if there is a way you can monetise those assets for the benefit of the business, why wouldn’t you?

“If there is a lead that wants help from marketing we can leverage our infrastructure to bring the value to them in exchange for some revenue. Revenue does not have to be the exchange of cash, it can be in kind.

“That is a model we are taking a serious look at to see how we can have marketing not just be a cost centre but also a revenue generator.”

Raja Rajamannar, CMO, Mastercard

Making ‘Priceless’ about engagement

That doesn’t mean Mastercard is not also focused on promoting its brand. Rajamannar said it is still “wrongly perceived” as a credit card company when it is in fact a technology company, something it is trying to change.

One of his first jobs when he joined Mastercard almost three years ago was to decide its marketing strategy going forward and whether ‘Priceless’ should still be part of that. What he found was that while it still worked “because it taps into a deep human truth”, how Mastercard used it needed to evolve.

So Mastercard has cut down the number of platforms it runs from 68 at one time to just four – ‘Priceless Cities’, ‘Priceless Causes’, ‘Priceless Surprises’ and Priceless Specials’. It has also turned it from an advertising platform into a “holistic marketing platform”.

“[Priceless] is not just about what we are communicating to the consumer but it is actually an engagement platform. We infuse Priceless into everything we do as a company and into our company employees too.

“Priceless is the soul and spirit of Mastercard internally, externally, everywhere.”

Raja Rajamannar, CMO, Mastercard

That internal point is equally as important. During the panel discussion at Cannes, Rajamannar highlighted how attracting talent is one of Mastercard’s key challenges as it finds itself in competition with Silicon Valley. That has meant a change in how it compensates staff, but also the culture to make it “more priceless”.

“We cannot afford to benchmark based on the past or pay like a packaged goods company. We have to match or better what they can get elsewhere and change our culture to become more informal and casual. It is about how we bring priceless into our own company and back that up with substance through our benefits and culture,” he said.

Why creativity is not ‘just doing something new’

Bringing in new talent is key for Mastercard as it looks to stay at the forefront of new technology – both in marketing and payments. Yet Rajamannar believes it cannot be left just to new talent to keep on top of emerging tech and that a CMO must also understand the market.

Take virtual reality (VR), for example. Even Google has accused brands of using the technology for the sake of it and Rajamannar thinks that is real concern, hence why top marketers must get involved.

That meant that with VR, instead of making a video “to say we had made a video” Mastercard brought together VR and ecommerce. It shot a film with golfer Graeme McDowell where he talked viewers through how he played a hole and they could also buy what he was wearing or the clubs he was using. And coming next will be VR films where Mastercard can promote some of the experiences it has on offer and consumers will be able to book them there and then.

“I would not be able to do this if didn’t understand what VR is. Our objective was not to create a film for the sake of it but to find the relevance to the brand. My brand has to enable commerce and offer extraordinary experiences so in this case we connected VR to commerce,” he added.

“A lot of companies do not understand that creativity is not just doing something new. It is a question of linking the dots back to the business and the brand and asking: ‘is this something relevant, does my brand have permission to play in this space credibly and authentically?’ If not you’ll be making an ass out of yourself. At Mastercard the philosophy has been to ask if it really helps the business and that is why we are one of the top 20 brands out of millions.”

Not bad for a brand that doesn’t sell direct to consumers.



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