Raja Rajamannar is Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Mastercard, and a member of the ANA’s Global Leadership Coalition on COVID-19, established in partnership with Cannes Lions and WARC. He speaks to Anna Hamill, Senior Editor – Brands at WARC, about how Mastercard is adapting to the COVID-19 era, new hope in emerging consumer behaviours, and what marketers should prioritise as they look toward long term resilience. 

Find out more about Marketing in the COVID-19 recession in the latest WARC Guide.

How is Mastercard approaching the COVID crisis from a marketing strategy perspective? What does the ‘now’ look like and what does ‘next’ look like in your scenario planning?

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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The philosophical framework is that this is the time when we will serve our consumers, as opposed to selling to them. So number one: we will serve, not sell. Number two: we will not push too hard, but rather find occasions to enable our consumers, which means understanding and solving for their pain points. Number three, we must try – and encourage our employees to try – to get actively involved in our local communities around the world.

We also identified that the small business segment absolutely needs help. We are putting the full force of marketing behind communicating to this audience that we will enable them to get back on their feet. In many countries, we have campaigns encouraging our consumers to patronise the small businesses in their communities. We're also doing a lot for the healthcare workers along the same lines. Marketing activity that is relevant to the context, and sensitive to the feelings and emotions of people, is how we are navigating through.

The role of experiences is core to Mastercard’s brand identity and the whole ‘Priceless’ positioning for the moment. Are you replacing that branding element or are you preparing to adjust for a new normal with regards to Priceless?

The pandemic does not change our objectives, but it does change our approach. We have pivoted from physical experiences to digital experiences at this point in time: we call this ‘Priceless At Home.’ If you're a consumer, and you want to connect to your passion and have a priceless experience from Mastercard, we’re making that happen; an example could be a cooking lesson with a celebrity chef, or you can have a video chat with a singer or celebrity.

What we are doing is opening a new dimension, leveraging digital platforms to curate these experiences and get into the homes of consumers. We have already begun populating priceless.com with some of these experiences and scaling them rapidly. 

Financial services brands have been hard hit in terms of marketing effectiveness by short-termism. How are you thinking about brand building at the moment? Or does that seem like a luxury in what is a really unprecedented situation?

Brand building never stops. It’s not just advertising – it's everything that you do as a company. It’s not just your product, or your service, or your advocacy in the community. It’s a collective result of all the activities done by a company that drives a brand, in good times and in not-so-good times.

There is this misunderstanding that brand building is all fluff and driven solely by marketing. That is incorrect. Brand building is an absolutely critical function, and a critical objective for every marketer. It can be done by a multitude of ways than just advertising, promotions etc. So, just because your budgets have disappeared, it doesn't mean that your brand building efforts disappear.

You mentioned advertising – have you cancelled or changed any part of your media strategy, as the crisis continued? How do you see your media strategy evolving through this?

Our media strategy underwent a significant change several years back, where we diverted a significant amount of resources away from traditional advertising into experiential marketing. Obviously, we have to find some savings, given the political and economic turmoil that's happening everywhere – some of the topics and themes that we had for ‘the good times’ are (now) not very relevant. We are actually keeping our resources at the ready during this time to make sure that when things open up, we can be fully loaded and ready with full force in the marketplace.

In some areas, we have actually stepped it up – like on Mastercard Priceless Causes – to get the message out there around our activities for social good and also product functionality. The mix itself has moved more towards channels like social and digital – by design – because a lot of people are sitting at home and they're doing a ton of streaming. It's mostly on digital channels, so that's where we are focusing our efforts, but we are not dark on the TV either. 

Many companies that are really large have suddenly discovered how agile they can be. How might you maintain that sort of agility going forward, once the immediate crisis is over?

I think, first and foremost, the tone is set from the top. We always, as a company, tell ourselves that we are not as big as some of our competitors in terms of marketing budget. Therefore we have to punch way above our weight, which means we need to excel at innovation and creativity. We need to out-think, out-create, and out-innovate our competition. That's exactly what we have been doing and we have been very consistent about it. 

You've always been such a vocal advocate of the need for data and technology to transform a business, and particularly a financial services business. How do you anticipate the data and consumer insight that Mastercard has will specifically inform your marketing efforts in the recovery?

We respect the privacy of consumers and always stay fully within regulatory boundaries, anonymise our data totally and it is all aggregated – we don't have any personally identifiable information. But even in this anonymous, aggregated data, we get a ton of insight.

We take input from data analytics, primary research and secondary research to come up with actionable insights. But we don't just convey actionable insights to the company, we conduct workshops to get people to commit to how they are going to use those insights in the context of their work. That's one thing which really makes the whole process work – from looking at data all the way to action in the marketplace in a very impactful way.

We have been very successful in creating a marketing engine which takes insights in near real-time and creates campaigns, promotions or conversations around those insights, then constantly engages consumers and other audiences appropriately.

If brands want to come through the COVID-19 pandemic in a position to grow, what are the foundational elements in your view that they need to understand or have in place?

The most important, foundational element is trust. This is a time of need, and if you are not friends with consumers at this point in time, they are not going to talk to you later. It's very important that brands build trust during this time. Brands are trusted, validated or invalidated during the time of crisis. I would put everything in that element of trust with my consumers and customers.

Number two: you have to be very sensitive to context. You must not be tone-deaf, but rather have a finger on the pulse to understand tone. Communicating the right message is critical, because different communities are going to be affected and impacted very differently by this COVID-19 crisis. Your approach has to be as personalised as possible. In normal times, one size does not fit all. In times of crisis, even more so.

The last point is critical: You cannot be opportunistic at this time. The consumer has to come first in a real way, not just in terms of lip service.

What changes and category specific behaviours are you seeing that you think will end up being permanent, or changing the way that your business operates?

Shopping online at these unprecedented levels will continue into the future. Social norms may have permanently changed – whether it is distancing, or masks, or not shaking hands or a combination of various other things – there'll be a healthy suspicion around the health of the other person. I think that will permanently change our social behaviour. People will start using digital currencies more than they ever have before. Cash, checks and high-contact cash transactions will be dramatically reduced going forward.

What did you learn as a marketer in the 2008 global financial crisis that you'll apply this time? What do you see to be the major differences that brands are facing now, that they may not have had to face 12 years ago?

There were some valuable lessons, as unfortunate as the situation was then. The key thing, from a marketing point of view, is that when there were significant reductions in marketing dollars, we had to figure out how to operate with a lean, mean structure and leverage external resources and partnerships. We also figured out very quickly, when consumers were coming out on the other side of that crisis, what kind of pent-up demand would be acted upon and what kind of demand would permanently go away. I can take some lessons from that and apply them to the current situation.

On the other hand, there are also a lot of things that would not work at this point in time. Today, it is an economic crisis, but also a health crisis. Some of the models that have withstood the tests of the past may not be able to withstand at this point in time. Health is going to be front and centre for many people, and then there will be recession to deal with too. It's going to be a long journey.