Surekha Ragavan
Sep 19, 2019

'I’ve moved money—a lot of it—from traditional advertising to experiences': Mastercard CMO

"Advertising is dead. Advertising is all about storytelling—so I say storytelling is dead. The future is storymaking," says Raja Rajamannar.

Company replicated Tanzania's iconic restaurant, The Rock, in New York City.
Company replicated Tanzania's iconic restaurant, The Rock, in New York City.

We live in a bleak reality where consumers are fatigued from the constant reminders of opportunities to purchase.

To circumvent this, Raja Rajamannar, global chief marketing and communications officer with Mastercard, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that experiences are a way in to connect with consumers who are irritated and fed up with the polluted digital environment.

“People are willing to pay money to be in an ad-free environment," says Rajamannar, who also serves as president for healthcare at Mastercard and as president of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA). "These are prime audiences and as a marketer, I cannot reach them.

“So six years ago, we decided that we’d twist and change our entire strategy and not rely on advertising as a primary way of connecting with consumer. We provided exclusive experiences to consumers that are available only through Mastercard, and not available through other means.”

Six years later, the brand now puts on between 750 to 800 experiences globally at any one point.

The experience economy is thriving—and marketers need to jump on it

“What I have done is move money from traditional advertisinga lot of itinto experiences,” says Rajamannar.

“To be very provocative to my team, I keep telling them advertising is dead. Advertising is all about storytellingso I say storytelling is dead. The future is storymaking. If I have to fast forward 10 years, the marketing and advertising mix is going to be completely different. Experiences will be predominant.”

The decision to shift spend to experienceswhile controversialhas been well-received by higher-ups, he says.

“We’ve done it very thoughtfully; we’ve been measuring the ROI very consistently. And the proof of the pudding is what it’s doing to my brand and business. If you look at our brand way back, it used to be ranked 87 in the list of top 100 brands around the world. Today, it’s at 12,” he says.

“The brandits characterisation and valuesis moving in the right direction.”

Raja Rajamannar


On the business side, he’s also able to connect the dots through the ROI mechanisms employed, and able to prove that the brand’s business is actually improving by way of experiences.

His manifesto for unconvinced marketers? “You need to find alternate ways of connecting with the consumers and impressing them, and experiential does a brilliant job at that. Start trying it out,” he says.

The conundrums of scale and economics

But of course, experiences don’t create themselves. Spend is high; they’re resource-heavy; production timelines tend to be long; they’re difficult to scale across markets; and not all brands are tracking ROI well enough.

On the matter of ROI, Rajamannar says it’s not a problem for Mastercard because of “proprietary methodologies” employed in a clear manner. The issue for him, rather, is creating economical experiences that are scalable, especially for a brand that operates across 210 markets and territories globally.

For context, the brand’s experiences may be targeted directly to consumers, or to banks and merchant partners that, in return, offer those experiences to their consumers. (The latter is often known as B2B2C.)

It’s also important to prolong the customer journey by ensuring the experiences don’t stop in the physical space.

“You have to keep them fresh. Otherwise, consumers think the experience is done and they don’t come back to the website. What we want them to do is to engage with the brand on an ongoing basis and therefore we keep changing these experiences all the time,” says Rajamannar.

“And most importantly above everything else, when you are promising consumers that they are going to a priceless experience, you have to make sure the experience is priceless. Which means the quality of fulfilment has to be top-notch.”

Kill them with passion

If you’re tearing consumers away from their busy lives, the experience in question must tap into their inherent concerns and cares.

“We call them passion points. We were very cautious about it and we asked ourselves ‘Does my brand have permission to enter this space?’ And does my brand have the width and breadth of applicability to multiple areas and will it resonate well with them and appear native?” says Rajamannar.

“What we discovered to our joy and surprise is that so long as you’re giving consumers exactly what they want, and doing it in an authentic and consistent way, they’ll accept it.”

This, he says, is because consumers are not always compartmentalising their lives to separate their passions from brands. “We’re not necessarily selling a product, we’re selling them an experience in which the product is an ingredient. That’s how it works,” he says.

A clever way Mastercard is tapping into passion points is by converting their assetsof which they have manyinto intangible experiences.

“We have acquired the assets which can be converted to experiences for a period of time. So we got a big headstart in our category at least compared to anybody else,” says Rajammanar.

An example of this is the Cannes Film Festival. A film enthusiast may not be able to simply buy a ticket to walk down the red carpet with Hollywood stars, but because of the festival’s partnership with Mastercard, fans are able to sit in exclusive dialogues with powerhouses such as Werner Herzog and Julianne Moore.

And because Mastercard has a heavy presence in assets across all its passion points (sports, art and culture, health and wellbeing), the experiences are often diverse while managing to be distinct.

Another perk of experiences is that competitors are not able to riff off ideas easily. “If you look at experiences, they’re very difficult to replicate. Running experiences at scale and economically with top-quality fulfilment is not easy. We have built that expertise. We have built that infrastructure,” he says

Mastercard’s partners and merchants that want guidance to put on an experience, Rajamannar is also open to collaboration.  

“Marketers with our client organisatons can always come to us and we’ll be very thrilled to help them out with experiential marketing and give them the entire infrastructure – all they need to do is just plug and play,” he says.

“And if it’s not a customer of ours, we’re always happy to share our learnings with them.”

Ticking off the five senses

One passion point that Mastercard is paying close attention to is culinary, particularly through their Priceless Tables experience. For instance, four experiences kicked off in New York this July that transported visitors to three iconic restaurants in Tanzania, England and Japan.

Each restaurant was created as an identical replica of their real locations—from the cutlery, tables, chairs down to the exact smells and sounds. The ‘digital windows’ in the restaurants provide diners with the actual views from each location, and the window displays change from day to evening to night.

Stretching the culinary passion even further and overlapping with its multi-sensory marketing strategy, Mastercard also partnered with famed French patisserie Ladurée to create two macarons—one red and one yellow—to reflect the brand’s colours. These ‘Mastercard-flavoured macarons’ will be released next month, starting in the US. 

It doesn’t stop there. You may have heard that Mastercard has been aggressively pushing its sonic identity.

“It’s not a simple jingle or a simple sound at the end of your add. It’s a very comprehensive, multi-layer sonic architecture. It could be a 30-second melody, it could be a three-second sonic signature that plays after a point-of-sale when a transaction goes through whether in a physical or digital environment,” says Rajamannar.

“We had a lot of neurology research. We had worked with musicians and musicologists and composers and agencies. And we hope our first music album will be launched in March next year. This is not a corporate anthem; this is popular, regular music. However, there is a subtle connection back to Mastercard.”

But do consumers want more noiseliterallyin their lives? Especially from a brand?

“This is one of the biggest concerns. Particularly imagine if you are a checkout clerk at Walmart. You’re checking out hundreds of people everyday. And you keep on hearing the sonic acceptance sound, you might go crazy,” he says.

“That’s why we did a lot of research to see what kind of sounds consumers like. What kind of sounds fatigue people the least? For example, if you’re sitting in a park and listening to the birds chirping, or the water flowing, you don’t get exhausted. It’s actually very relaxing. Why is it that you find birds chirping relaxing and you find the cawing of a crow annoying?”

These sounds also vary merchant-to-merchant and experience-to-experience. If one was making a purchase from Tiffany’s, for instance, the sonic signature would be different to that in a gaming store.

And how long will a sonic signature take to become instantly recognisable to consumers?

“Optimistically, it will take three to five years. We are here for the long run. We have 48 million merchants around the world. And with very single merchant, we want like the acceptance sound to play,” he says.

With four senses down pat, is Mastercard also planning a branded scent to come full circle on its multi-sensory strategy?

“Watch this space,” he says.

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