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Brand Insight: How a Canny Approach to Risk, Data and Purpose Helped Steer Mastercard Through Lockdown



Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer, Mastercard tells LBB’s Laura Swinton that it was crucial that the brand did not go dark during challenging times

Brand Insight: How a Canny Approach to Risk, Data and Purpose Helped Steer Mastercard Through Lockdown
This year has been challenging for brands in all sectors, but for finance businesses like Mastercard they’ve not only had to move fast to adapt for the sake of their own brand and business – they’ve had to help others in their own pandemic pivots. Small businesses rushing to ecommerce, an increased appetite for contactless transactions, and individual customers faced with redundancy and uncertainty.

So it’s fair to say that Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer, and his team at Mastercard have shouldered an enormous responsibility throughout Covid-19. Following his session at the recent Festival of Marketing, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out how a deep sense of purpose and keen application of data gave them direction through the uncertainty.


LBB> Your recent session at the Festival of Marketing was all about being strategic during uncertainty - I'd love to know how you and your team at Mastercard approached strategy at the beginning of the pandemic?

Raja> As a framework, you want to stay course on your North Star and your strategy to get there.  
We would not go dark. It was critical that we communicated with our community to make sure they knew we were there to support them.
We would stay true to our brand and our purpose. We would not drift into the sea of sameness and blend in with the common messaging of the time. We would be there for our consumers unconditionally.  

However, you need to evaluate your tactics in a changed context and make sure that they are adapted and adjusted to reflect the new reality - in this case, the pandemic and its aftermath.  That is exactly what we did and speedily so.


LBB> As a marketer, how did you and the Mastercard team approach advertising - was it a case of pushing pause on an existing campaign? Was spend reduced during the lockdown or increased? What were the key messages you needed to get out there?

Raja> Years ago, we adjusted our strategy from being advertising-centric to being experience-centric. We knew that people value experiences more than things and therefore pulled significantly back on traditional advertising and instead invested more in sponsorships. At Mastercard, we focus our efforts on enhancing passions for our cardholders by connecting them to the things and experiences they love most. 

During the pandemic, we paused on our physical Priceless Experiences, and pivoted to digital. We started At Home Digital Priceless Experiences to ensure people were still able to connect to the things they’re passionate about but in a way that was safe and convenient.  

LBB> And what lessons have you learned along the way? 

Raja> There were many lessons learned along the way, but if I had to point to one, it would be the resilience of my team and the power of collaboration that comes from a global workforce. Without the amazing work from our global team, we would not have been as successful throughout the year. The lesson is that leaders need to keep their employees close and make them feel protected in times of crisis – that’s when they feel empowered to create their best work. 


LBB> The acceleration of contactless payment and e-commerce have been such a big part of this pandemic for businesses - what sort of activities or communications did you put out to help businesses and consumers navigate this?

Raja> As health officials were recommending social distancing and a growing number of merchants were encouraging consumers to pay with contactless over cash to avoid contact, we increased the contactless payment across many regions allowing cardholders to make higher value payments versus limiting them to a pre-defined low-value payment limit. Throughout the process, it was important to us that we used our voice to not sell but to educate consumers and customers about trust, safety and security of contactless payments.


LBB> How useful was data when it came to navigating the ever-changing situation?

Raja> Data is always very useful. At the start of the pandemic, and with the help of data – specifically our Mastercard Recovery Insights data - we noticed where people were focusing their time and how that may have differed between regions. Instead of traveling and going out to restaurants, we noticed people were online shopping for in-home items and exploring new experiences that they could enjoy from the comfort of their home, like cooking. From these insights, we were able to provide experiences through our Digital Priceless Experiences that were of interest to our consumers, and make sure we were reaching and speaking to them in a way that was conducive to their current lifestyle. 


LBB> What Mastercard project from your Covid response are you proudest of and why?

Raja> We recently announced our Mastercard Donate app. In a time where the passion to give back is increasing, we created a platform that allows people to round up on everyday purchases in a simple, secure way – enabling them to purchase with purpose. This app is still developing and will be launched in November, before the holiday season. 


LBB> As a marketer, has this experience changed how you view your role - or has it affirmed any opinions that you have had?

Raja> Two years ago, I created a Risk Management role within the marketing function. I did this because I noticed that in today’s ever-changing world and with the use of social media (where a tweet can make or break your brand), risk management is a crucial discipline to have. Fast forward a few years later, and by having this group we were able to act quickly and in a smart fashion when the pandemic hit. Risk Management should be a role in every marketing department, no matter how large or small the company is – and it will only continue to become more important in this rapidly evolving environment. 

LBB> It's been a really crazy time both for businesses and personally - how did you balance the need to move swiftly with the need to take care of the people under you and be respectful of people working for agencies?

Raja> Focusing internally is and always has been a key priority. There are a few measures we took instantly: we first reassured employees around the world that we will have no layoffs due to Covid-19. This helped alleviate some uncertainty and let people focus on our work, customers, partners and consumers. We increased communication with our employees and were very deliberate about the types of information we share, including business updates, and we also highlighted our employees and shared their unique stories of working from home. We embraced our Decency Quotient and worked to create an environment where people felt appreciated, respected and free to do what they need to manage through their new normal. 
It’s incredibly important to remember that while we talk about the beginning of the pandemic, these are challenges and new dynamics that we continue to face. We’ve learned a lot over the last nine months, but those lessons are still being learned quickly and will have long-term applications.

Photo by Norma Mortenson from Pexels
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LBB Editorial, Tue, 27 Oct 2020 15:04:09 GMT