‘People asked if I was smoking something’: Mastercard’s CMO on developing its new sonic branding

Mastercard’s new sound identity took two years and a “big” investment from the brand, but its CMO Raja Rajamannar believes its development is key as consumers increasingly use devices such as voice assistants and smart speakers where there is no visual real estate.

Barely seven weeks into 2019 and Mastercard has already given us two major branding stories. First, the company dropped its name from its logo, becoming one of a small number of symbol brands that can rely on people recognising its brand without the name written.

Then it launched its sonic brand identity, a melody that will play wherever the Mastercard brand shows up whether that is in advertising, sponsorship or when customers make a transaction.

Both the steps point to a branding future in which grabbing attention within a few seconds will become key. The decision to drop the name from the logo was aimed squarely at devices such as smartphones that have much smaller real estate, making colour and recognisable symbols increasingly important. And the sonic brand aims to keep ahead of the move to devices such as voice assistants and smart speakers, where there is no visual real estate.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Mastercard’s wordless logo shows the power of distinctive brand codes

“[Consumers] recognise a brand when they see it, but in a situation where consumers have stopped interacting visually, whether it is searching for products or buying products, they are doing it through voice. Alexa, Google Home, smart speakers, you ask them something and then go ahead and buy it and there is no visual real estate at all to showcase my brand. Then how do we register our presence? That is a huge challenge,” said Mastercard marketing boss Raja Rajamannar, speaking at an event in London last night (18 February).

“So we decided we needed to rethink our branding strategy totally. How do we show up?”

The sonic brand took two years and a “big” investment in terms of both time and effort to develop. It is comprised of a distinct melody that is about 30 seconds long that can be adapted to work across genres and cultures, ensuring it is relevant both locally and to the situation where it is used, while maintaining Mastercard’s brand voice globally.

It will be used as the background music in ads, as well as in sponsorship, Mastercard’s call centres and as a ringtone should people want to download it.

The sound identity also includes a ‘mogo’ – a musical logo – that lasts for three seconds and will be used in situations such as point-of-sale, both online and in-store.

Developing a sonic brand identity

Rajamannar admits initial reaction to the brief was mixed. He describes agencies asking him “if he was smoking something” when he told them the plans, but says he was able to bring together people from the brand, its agencies and musicians that were “good at music and good at brand”.

“I had a core group of people who understood the brand and also had music sensibilities. That was critical,” he told Marketing Week. “And we told ourselves this is a very important project, we have to be really ahead of the game.”

The sonic brand starts with a DNA – a core melody that is the basis of the sound. But coming up with that melody was not simple, it had to adhere to a number of characteristics while working across genres and locations.

“The melody has to be simple, neutral, likeable, memorable because that’s how recognition happens, and memorability happens when a melody is hummable by normal people, not classically-trained musicians,” explains Rajamannar.

“At the same time, we operate in 210 countries and this melody has to resonate across all these countries, yet be adaptable. And it has to cut across genres; whether opera on one extreme or electronic dance music, it should be equally at home.”

I pulled money from other places, from my own budget, and brought it here.

Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard

The investment also had to come from somewhere, and Rajamannar says in this regard he is lucky at Mastercard because the marketing function has “built credibility” that allows it to decide where it invests and how best to use people. That has been developed over time by focusing on three pillars – to build the brand, to drive the business and to build a sustainable competitive advantage – and by measuring ROI consistently.

That means he has autonomy to decide where budget is spent. And in the same way that five years ago he and his team decided to move money away from traditional advertising and into experience marketing, now the team decided to invest in the sonic branding.

“What we did [five years ago] was shift money from our left pocket to our right pocket,” he said. “In the same way, what we said is we have branding as one of our three main pillars. Today, this is how we are building our brand, but is there a better and a smarter way to build and protect our brand, and gain that competitive advantage?”

He added: “So I pulled money from other places, from my own budget, and brought it here.”

Taking a long-term view

The process of rolling out the sound identity will not happen overnight. It was first launched in the US at the start of the month through a collaboration with singer Camila Cabello to coincide with the Grammy Awards, which Mastercard sponsors.

Mastercard has since introduced it to markets including Italy and Berlin, before bringing it to the UK for tomorrow’s Brit Awards (again the brand is a sponsor) and then heading to Spain for Mobile World Congress. And initially it has launched only a few examples of the identity, with more in the pipeline before it opens up its development to local markets within brand guidelines.

The journey to make its sonic identity as recognisable as its visual identity, which 80% of consumers worldwide recognise, will take at least three years, says Rajamannar.

“Optimistically, [it will take] three years [for this to become ubiquitous]. Realistically, maybe four or five years. With 210 countries around the world, and we deal with about 50 million merchants and then 1.8 billion consumers around the world, it will take time. We are not wanting to do everything by tomorrow, we want to test it carefully and roll it out, and go deeper.”

READ MORE: HSBC launches ‘sound identity’ in next phase of global brand refresh

This focus on the long-term is also why Mastercard believes it can win in this space even if other brands follow its lead, as Rajamannar believes they will, and develop their own sonic brand identities.

“Will more brands jump into this? Yes, particularly if they see one brand do it successfully,” he concluded. “The key thing is how do you get into the space of consumers without annoying them. We feel that it requires a lot of thoughtfulness, a lot of focus and investment, as opposed to screaming in people’s faces. And you have to do it ubiquitously across all your touchpoints, you cannot do it in one or two places. We’ll see which brands have this staying power, not financially but in terms of strategy.

“If you look at the number of ad campaigns, for example, Mastercard is one of the rare ones where for 20 years we have continued with ‘Priceless’. You don’t find too many brands like that. This is a long-haul journey, it is not going to happen overnight. And we are up to it.”