Five Questions with Rajamannar, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Mastercard
Customer behavior surrounding finances has changed dramatically this year. What are some of the changes that you’ve seen and what has Mastercard done to empower customers to use Mastercard technology in the past 12 months?
First and foremost, many of our customers are under severe revenue pressure. When you look at payment products, unless people are spending a lot, we don’t make our money as well. So, in that situation, there’s been a tremendous pressure on revenues across the ecosystem. It was more pronounced in some sectors, like the travel, hospitality, car rental sectors but on the other hand, there have been some categories which have gone through the roof. Things like home improvement, e-commerce, home deliveries, streaming services—all the usual suspects. But what we’ve also found is that customers don’t expect you to go dark. I realized that during these times, particularly when your customers are living through a time of stress and crisis, they really appreciate you. This is a trust building opportunity between the client and the customer. That was something that we really started focusing on. We’d call our clients and check in on them to see how they were doing, was everything okay, was there any way we could support them. And to make sure that we followed through. We also needed to ensure that our clients didn’t feel like we were trying to sell them anything.
There are times to sell and there are times to serve and this was a time to serve. When we stick with our consumers during the troubled times, they will stick with us during the good times. With this philosophy and approach we have seen a phenomenal response from our customers. However, we also had a tremendous amount of pressure on us as far as marketing dollars were concerned.
This was happening because we were seeing so many brands talk about the same thing, whether that was Black Lives Matter or frontline healthcare workers, which made it more difficult for the consumer to recognize which message was coming from what company. Therefore, we had to carve out a very different path for ourselves because these topics are relevant. You cannot be silent about them, you have to speak up, take a stance and more importantly, take some action. We started with some significant concrete steps to help small businesses: like creating a fund of $250 million for small businesses; we set up an objective of bringing in roughly 25 million women entrepreneurs into the financial system; as well as supporting a substantial number of black entrepreneurs. Some of our support to small businesses include, free cybersecurity services for the whole year. Unfortunately, in hard times, small businesses are attacked because they are seen as vulnerable — this is something we’re working to stop. And we tried to destress our own employees too. Our CEO at the time Ajay Banga said in a global employee webcast that nobody at Mastercard will be laid off in 2020 due to COVID-19. That was a humongous factor to help employees feel more secure in their lives, because whichever way they look, they’re seeing people lose their jobs and we wanted to assure them that that wouldn’t happen to them. Ultimately, our strategy, mission, and objectives don’t change, and we are there to support and serve.
How did Mastercard pivot to think differently about the brand story?
About two or three years ago, I started a risk management function within marketing whose job it was to identify what all the risks are for the office. We mapped out everything under the sun including cybersecurity risk, data privacy risk, compliance risk, reputational risk—the list goes on and on. This allowed us to have a contingency plan for each risk if it materialized and thank god we did. Because of the contingency plans laid out by the risk management team, we had all the building blocks in place. It was a seamless transition to go from the physical experience to the digital. As a result, we had some of the best employment satisfaction scores we’ve ever recorded.
Those contingency plans also laid out how we would pivot if travel was to freeze up, which it did. Instead of a flight, we have a number of value propositions which are centered around travel. We created auxiliary value for these products by giving offers and discounts and promotions in other categories like groceries, online purchases, and home deliveries. So, from the point of view of the bank, the merchant, the life partner, whoever it is, we have been really trying to play around with the variables to make sure that whatever their travel benefits were, they were being compensated with what mattered to customers now. Some of our events like, like Champions League, we had to convert those digital assets and make them available to our partners so that they can actually make it available to their clients, so we had to constantly keep an eye on not letting the consumer lose interest or lose a perception of value in the product that they have with us.
There’s been an explosion of payment services of late. What’s your sense as to where the payments category is going? Do brands need to respond to and evolve to the newcomers in FinTech? Or are you going to always be a complimentary partner to those sorts of services?
Firstly, we continue to partner with companies from Silicon Valley and/or FinTech companies. We benefit when the category develops and also it gives us direct revenues. We do it across the board, whether it is large or smaller companies, we have partnerships with them and enable them to succeed in every which way we can. If you look at the bigger picture, we are seeing an increase in contactless penetration and the use of digital payments. Ultimately, we all benefit. When everyone is joining the fray, all of the tide rises, and the boats rise with the tide. So, our main competitor aren’t other financial payment systems but cash or non-digital forms of currencies.
Mastercard has been a pioneer in many of the fronts, from sonic branding to contactless payments enabled by technology. What’s the next frontier in terms of where payments will be embedded?
Payment capabilities are being embedded across multiple touchpoints. We launched a biometric recognition program three years ago where you look at it then you wink it will recognize you. But it would need a real three dimensional presence of a human—if you tried to do it with a video, it wouldn’t accept it. So, the ways in which we authenticate payments is really evolving. We recently invested in a wristband company that tracks the unique patterns of your body, whether that’s your heartbeat or your sleep patterns.
They are as unique as a fingerprint. It therefore becomes a biometric authentication modality that is embedded inside the device. So we foresee areas around authentication and digital identification becoming very big. Eventually—and I think we’re starting to see the first waves of this—payments are starting to move to the background in a very non intrusive way. Like the new Amazon Go stores where you walk in, pick up what you need, and walk out. No active payment needed. It happens frictionlessly and extremely easily in a very non intrusive way without any action on your part.
Does that change the way that the brand needs to show up?
I think so. We’ve already started talking in a completely different way than we used to seven years ago. So we pivoted to experiences because we feel that priceless needs to be tangibly experienced, not just in the philosophical abstract sphere. You need to bring it to life. Irrespective of which device you’re using and which kind of payment mechanism that you are adopting, you as an individual have passions. You’d like to have unbelievable, priceless experiences in the areas of your passion. That doesn’t change that’s very fundamental human trait. And we tap into those because that doesn’t change. On the other hand, we’re staying ahead of the technology and trying to see how we can bring those experiences to life. We have developments in AR and VR to give you a much more immersive and interactive experience or digital experiences at home. Those manifestations will constantly keep evolving and we feel that we know exactly where we are going. Even our new incoming CEO, Michael, has been at the company for 10 years so everyone is on the same page. We’ve all been indoctrinated into the Mastercard way and the Mastercard strategy. So, he’ll take the baton from Ajay and pursue the solid direction that we are on. We’re no longer just a payments company. We’ve expanded into bank-to-bank transfers and blockchains and other areas that move us beyond just a card payment company. And Michael has been at the forefront of that and an integral part of it. At the end of the day, everything we do is absolutely embedded in technology. Cutting-edge technology is the root of every single sphere that we operate in. The companies we buy are born and bred tech companies. We’re heavily investing in these areas because we know that they are going to define the future in our various industries. So, we’re very much a technology company delivering technology services enablement. But as a brand, we are a lifestyle brand. It’s an interesting dichotomy to say the least.