Dan Hulse
Dec 7, 2022

I wish I'd thought of that: How Mastercard created something priceless

The financial services' pre-digital viral hit is now 25 years old, but remains irritatingly clever.

I wish I'd thought of that: How Mastercard created something priceless

Briefs are what you make of them. On paper, the client brief from Mastercard back in the late 1990s could have seemed a bit whiffy. 

It’s financial services, which hardly gets most creative teams rubbing their hands in anticipation.  

The brand had chopped and changed campaigns every year or so, with no track record of famous work. And anyway, who even notices or cares what logo they have on their card? 

Mastercard didn’t have the prestige of a market leader, nor the excitement of a plucky challenger. Worst of all, it was for credit, fighting against centuries of cultural stigma around debt and borrowing.

Yet from this brief, the agency and client managed to make one of the most famous, enduring, adaptable brand ideas of all time. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with financial services brands, and the longer I do, the more jealous I get. It really does have it all…

First, an irritatingly clever bit of thinking at its heart. The brand knows that people were uncomfortable with buying stuff and sticking it on credit. That feels materialistic and irresponsible.

Rather than fight this head on, the brand actually agreed. Yes, you can buy almost anything with your Mastercard, but none of that really matters.

It’s the things Mastercard can’t buy that are priceless. Of course, when it comes to creating those priceless experiences, the things you can buy with a credit card are pretty handy. It completely reframes the role of a credit card, from borrowing in order to buy things, to investing in what really matters.

By seemingly dismissing what the brand can do, it lets Mastercard tap into something much more powerful. That’s some top-notch strategy judo.

Second, this is an idea that quickly found its way into culture. When they researched the campaign before launch, it was beaten by another idea.

But the client and agency recognised they were on to a winner, and the rest is history. Ask 100 people to complete the sentence “there are some things in life money can’t buy…” and you know exactly what they’ll say. It is endlessly parodied.

The "grocery list" device from the ads is an easily repeatable format that seems designed for people to create their own. It went viral seven years before the launch of Facebook.

Third, it travels like few other ideas have ever managed. The human truth behind "Priceless" has allowed the campaign to run in more than 200 countries.

Most of the time when we talk about "universal" human truths, we’re really talking about a Western, developed world insight that struggles to cross every border. But priceless is priceless in every language.

Next, the idea has shown an enviable ability to move with the times. What started out as a great advertising campaign has become one of the best experiential platforms of all time.

Of course, most big brands have an experiential side to their marketing, but often the link to their strategy is a little flimsy.

They do cool stuff that makes people like them more. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Mastercard has seamlessly translated their brand idea from broadcast to participation.

They don’t just observe priceless moments, they enable them. Mastercard connects customers all over the world with genuinely "money can’t buy" experiences… and every time, we feel a bit more inclined to turn to the brand for those things that money can buy.

And to top it all off, the thinking has stood the test of time. "Priceless" (McCann Erickson) is 25 years old this year.

How many campaigns can you think of that are not only still going, but as relevant today as they’ve always been? 

It helps that the brand has grown market share, generated billions in incremental revenue, and collected awards aplenty. But success alone doesn’t keep a campaign alive.

Our industry is obsessed with the new, always looking for an excuse to throw away even the most successful work so we can start again. 

The longevity of Mastercard speaks to decades of CEOs, marketing directors, ECDs and strategists who had the wisdom and humility to know a good thing when they see it. 

But more than that, it speaks to the brilliance of a handful of people who took the brief 25 years ago. 

While others might have turned their nose up, they saw an opportunity, and created something priceless.

Dan Hulse is chief strategy officer at St Luke’s.

Campaign UK

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