6 Things I learned about the future of marketing from Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar

By John Koetsier May 26, 2021

Mastercard is a global enterprise with a market cap of over $350 billion, tens of millions of merchants, and $6.5 trillion in annual payment volume. This is a very significant company. You would expect the chief marketing officer to be similarly impressive.

And you would not be disappointed.

Raja Rajamannar is an MBA with a history of executive leadership at Citi, Diners Club, Humana, and WellPoint, and a bucketful of directorships. He’s been the chief marketing and communications officer for Mastercard for eight years, and is also the president of Mastercard’s health care business unit.

He’s also what I call a “push play” podcast guest. In other words, push play, and out flows relevant, structured, and digestible awesomeness. (There have been literally five or six guests like this in my podcasting career.)

Here are six things I learned from Mastercard’s CMO:


1) Forecast for the unthinkable

Can you imagine being prepared for the first global pandemic since 1918?

“Three and a half years back, I put in place what they call a risk management function within marketing,” Rajamannar told me. “And they look at all the risks that marketing faces from cyber threats to data security risks, to privacy risks, to brand disintermediation risk, financial risk, everything across the board, and then put plans in place to either avoid those risks from materializing or if the risks do materialize, to do something very quickly about it. And one of those risks we forecast at the time three and a half years back was probably there’ll be some natural calamity or a manmade disaster, because of which people will not be able to go outside their homes. So that was a fortuitous forecast I would say, though unfortunately, it has materialized, and so we actually had our contingency plans and the building blocks in place. So when COVID hit us … we could actually quickly cut over to our contingency plans without missing a beat.”

Now, granted, Mastercard has a lot of resources at its disposal, and can probably prepare for things that perhaps your 7-person marketing team can’t. And maybe you can’t prepare for the zombie apocalypse, or global collapse due to impending gigantic meteorite impact. 

But just maybe, the principle holds, and there are micro “pandemics” that could hit your app’s niche, or the platform you target most, or your specific userbase … and having even a draft contingency plan in place would help when the unexpected but not impossible happens.


2) Diversify your advertising

As mobile performance marketers learned painfully over the past year and are experiencing live at this very moment, things change. The way that worked before is not guaranteed to be the way that will work in the future, and the advertising identifier that sits at the center of your data-driven growth machine is not certain to remain.

In fact, you could argue that the history of technology and marketing over the past few decades declares precisely the opposite: things are guaranteed to change.

“About seven years back, we started moving a lot of our budget away from traditional advertising into experiential marketing and into influencer marketing,” Rajamannar says. “Advertising has become extremely crowded and people hate advertisements. They’re [using] ad blockers at scale  … and are going in droves to ad-free environments like Netflix and Amazon Prime … so where there are lots of hours consumed, our people are spending tons and tons of hours in front of those, in those channels where we cannot put advertisements. So it’s a narrower inventory of attention, humongous amount of clutter, and reduced span of attention of people … so we have moved a lot of money away from traditional advertising into experiential marketing, where you are not telling stories, but you are helping consumers make stories by giving them experiences that money cannot buy.”

The reality is that we are moving into the age of privacy-first marketing. Kicking and screaming, perhaps. And not without established players making moves to preach privacy while instituting targeting methodologies that privilege their existing positions, sure.

But privacy first, nevertheless.

That’s a good opportunity to reconsider channels and partners. To look at advertising and marketing methods you wouldn’t necessarily have picked pre-iOS 14.5, and re-examine what might work. Low tech doesn’t necessarily mean low effectiveness, as Mixtiles has discovered, and everything is measurable given the right technology.


3) Hire for IQ + EQ + DQ

We want smart people when we hire. We also want people who can effectively work with others: listening, understanding, communicating, and activating.

That’s IQ + EQ, or emotional intelligence.

Rajamannar suggests that marketing leaders also hire for DQ: decency quotient. The need for this has become painfully obvious in the past year as we’ve seen executive after executive felled by untimely comments, unkind words, or imperfectly hidden prejudices. 

“We keep talking about when you are selecting candidates that they should be very intelligent, that they should have learning agility,” Rajamannar says. “They should have the right attitude, and they should have the cultural fit and they should have interpersonal relationships and all those kinds of things … essentially IQ as intelligence quotient and emotional quotient as in EQ. So these are the two we keep talking about, but when you talk of culture and if you want to create a culture, which is based on people being real, people being decent … we don’t want people to stand on other people’s dead bodies and then sort of keep rising and play politics. That kind of a thing is not really a place where you attract the best of the talent and you keep the best talent out there. 

When Covid hit, Mastercard’s CEO told the company that he didn’t know what was going to happen, but that no-one would lose their jobs. That settled everyone’s nerves and gave them the quiet confidence to work through the storm of 2020 and the ongoing trials of 2021.

That’s DQ: decency quotient.

And that’s something that becomes visible outside the company to customers and prospects as well. For those worried about the costs … imagine the costs of becoming internationally known as a company that does not have values and standards. It can literally break a brand.


4) Build da Vinci marketing teams

The marketing of the future is one of those rare disciplines that will call for extreme right-brain creativity and innovation at the same time as high-end left-brain analysis and computation.

In other words: melding the left brain and right brain together.

“If you look at the traditional marketers, they have come from the qualitative side of the house, which means they’re very creative, they’re intuitive,” Rajamannar says. “Their appreciation and sensibilities around aesthetics is fantastic. Right? And that’s how they come up with beautiful ads and beautiful communication and wonderful packaging … now, on the other hand, when you look at the new ways of doing marketing, it is heavily technology driven. It is data driven. It is analysis driven and that kind of approach, or need is through the left brain. The left brain actually is the part which processes these kind of things, the data, the numbers, the analytics, and so on and so forth.”

You simply can’t market at scale without technology today, he adds. That’s true of both traditionally performance marketing and traditionally brand marketing.

Leonardo da Vinci was known for both being an artist and a scientist. He painted probably the most famous painting in history, the Mona Lisa, and was the first to formulate the laws of friction, as well as invent the concept of the helicopter, the parachute (presumably to be used when the helicopter failed) and numerous other machines. (And he was also, few remember, at one time employed as an engineer.)

Da Vinci marketers can at once create and analyze. Invent and refine.

“To survive and thrive, you need left-brain thinking,” Rajamannar says. “And in future, in addition to left-brain thinking, you also have to be immensely right brained.”

The challenge, of course, is finding both in the same individual. That’s rare, something that Rajamannar acknowledges. The solution is to build in aggregate what you cannot find in isolation, and grow a team of marketers that collectively embody both mindsets.


5) Build trust into every customer experience

Rajamannar has said that the concept of “brand” needs rebranding. 

Interestingly, when you come right down to it, the difference between a brand that wins and a brand that loses is generally trust: do you trust that the brand you’re selecting will deliver on its promise? Will offer the service or functionality that you’re seeking? Will provide an experience or product that meets expectations?

Marketers have some make-up work to do here.

“Trust is very critical,” Rajamannar says. “Marketers have been consistently breaking that trust, unfortunately, and that’s what has landed us in this place … when all the products will look similar in functionality and capabilities, with the impending technological transformation and tsunami that is going to happen … the one big differentiator from brand to brand will be trust: is this brand trustworthy? Are they doing good by society? Are they doing good by me as a consumer? Are they respecting my privacy? Are they deceiving me or are they being transparent? Even if they’re at a disadvantage, are they being transparent?”

People remember when trust is broken, and every time that happens, trust dies just a little bit more. In our modern social-media-is-the-ultimate-water-cooler world, it’s not just one person you have to worry about. How you treat the one is how the many might see you.

My son recently had a 4-month old tire blow up on the freeway, and when I posted about it on Facebook, a friend said he would never buy that brand again.

That’s for as potentially major items as tire safety and vehicular accidents to as seemingly minor details as the packaging for your snack is 3X bigger than it needs to be, essentially tricking customers into thinking they’re getting more than they actually are. 

Or when your app marketing promises a particular functionality, only for installers to find that they need to buy a subscription to make it usable.

“You have to shift your focus to more long term as opposed to how can I maximize my sales for today, for this month, for this quarter,” Rajamannar says.

Serving and selling are not mutually exclusive, he adds. And here’s where the more performance-minded marketers need to listen to the more brand-focused marketers and built middle ground.


6) Redefine “customer” loyalty

Marketing communities spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on loyalty programs, Rajamannar says. But in an age when more than half of people in long-term committed relationships admit to cheating on their partners … what does loyalty mean?

Perhaps we have it backwards when we talk about customer loyalty.

“We as brands rate so low in people’s hierarchy of needs and hierarchy of things that matter. Why would they be loyal to us?” Rajamannar says. “It is the brand which should be loyal to the consumers, not the other way around. And if you ask consumers, that’s exactly what they’ll say. So I think we got loyalty wrong … we expect that we are running loyalty programs to enable consumers to be loyal to us, but loyalty cannot be bought.”

Now there’s a thought grenade.

Customer loyalty is a brand being loyal to its customers by doing what it says it will. By privileging their experience over an extra dime or two. By making decisions that benefit customers, not just your app, your subscription service, or the metrics your boss will review in the morning.


The future of marketing

The future of marketing contains a lot of technology. It isn’t technology itself. At heart is a very old mindset that puts customers or “users” first, focuses on brand, delivers on implicit and explicit promises, and combines qualitative and quantitative thinking.

Sure, maybe that’s easier to do when you have billions in revenue and massive market share. But just maybe that’s how some of the biggest companies of our time became that way in the first place.


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