Raja Rajamannar is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Mastercard and the president of its healthcare division. In the past, Raja has held management roles at multiple Fortune 500 companies including Unilever, Citigroup, and Anthem. He’s been with Mastercard for the past seven years.

Raja has also been named as one of the Top 5 World's Most Influential CMOs by Forbes, a member of the Campaign Power 100, one of Business Insider’s 25 Most Innovative CMOs in the World, a Top Branding Power Player by Billboard, a member of The CMO Club, and of course, one of PRovoke Media’s Influence 100.

Recently, Raja has been an incredible thought leader on the obligation that brands have to do the right thing during Covid. He’s specifically been outspoken in saying that “Now is not the time to sell, but to serve”--very wise words from a very wise man. In this conversation, Raja delves further into this concept and also discusses the evolution of Mastercard’s “Priceless” campaign, the magic of comms-led creativity, and the fascinating world of sonic branding.

Below are key takeaways from this conversation with Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar and Lippe Taylor CEO, Paul Dyer.

To listen to the full conversation, check it out on Lippe Taylor’s Damn Good Brands podcast below. 

Hire a Chief Risk Manager for your marketing cabinet. 

Many brands faced downturns during Covid, but Mastercard was one of the few brands that was able to thrive, and Raja attributes this to the work of his Chief Risk Manager. This position was created only a few years ago, originally to monitor risks in security, brand reputation, and finance, but its framework enabled Mastercard to immediately jump into action in the face of the crisis because they had a team at the ready to craft solutions. When crises arise, most companies assume an “all hands on deck” position and loop in key management to find solutions. As effective as it may be, this approach disrupts business as usual by pooling the collective brainpower AWAY from the day to day work and responsibilities of some of your most crucial people, which can de-stabilize a company. Establishing and nourishing a risk management position and team function is critical for creating a culture of stability. 

Use comms as a force multiplier. 

Raja is very enthusiastic when discussing the structure of his marketing team, and specifically how thoroughly integrated communications is throughout the entire marketing function. This level of integration has been such a breakthrough that Raja refers to it as a force multiplier. The comms and marketing functions increase each other’s efficacy by quantum leaps when they’re working in tandem as opposed to separately. This integration has allowed for a free-flowing supply of well-rounded ideas that have serious media legs.

Case in point: when Mastercard's comms team discovered that many transgender people faced uncomfortable suspicion from checkout tellers when using cards that had their outdated names on them, they not only solved this problem, but executed a highly successful campaign that documented the struggle with a happy ending. The campaign was fully integrated between comms and advertising, which enabled it to be both creatively compelling and culturally relevant.

Use creative risks to discover more about your customers.

Raja and his team wanted to find a way to create an engaging virtual event that sports fans could participate in, so they came up with the idea of the largest “fan wave” in history, whereby consumers all over the world would record themselves performing a wave (when groups of sports fans rhythmically recreate an oceanic wave by standing up and sitting down in synchronicity). The problem was, the marketing leaders didn’t know if their adult customers would participate. In the end, the program was a smashing success; over half a million people participated with over 1 billion video views and a new world record.

As crucial as it is to consult data and analytics to inform creative concepts, sometimes you simply have to test ideas on the market directly to uncover new insights about your customers. In the case of Mastercard, they discovered that the majority of their customer base were kids at heart. 

Raise your DQ (Decency Quotient).

Raja believes that IQ and EQ are important for success, but an ingredient that is often missing in many corporate cultures is the DQ, or Decency Quotient. Raja elaborates on how there are many paths to success, but the most meaningful and sustainable paths are paved with ethically sound decisions and conduct. Raja further stipulates that being a good human being should be a precursor to being a good marketer, as values of empathy and humanity are critical for effectively reaching and benefitting your target consumers.

With this concept in mind, Raja has been very outspoken about how this time period is not the time for brands to sell, but to serve. During uncertain times when consumers are nervous, it is easy to exploit their fear for short-term gain, but this approach ruins loyalty. Serving customers during difficult times in favor of short-term gains not only strengthens brand loyalty and profitability in the long term, but it’s the right thing for brands to do. 

Paul Dyer: Raja, welcome.

Raja Rajamannar: Thank you very much, Paul, I appreciate it. 

PD: One of the things that I was hoping we could start out with is related to the evolving marketing mix. You were quoted as saying last year at Cannes: "Advertising, as we know it, is dead." There are a lot of people who conflate marketing and advertising; so how do you, as Chief Marketing Officer, distinguish between those things?

RR: Advertising is just one solid pillar within marketing, but there are so many other elements of marketing; and when I say that advertising, as we know it, is dead, I mean it. Say I'm a consumer myself and I am watching something on YouTube, for example. Every three minutes, there is an interruption. It is so annoying that I stop watching it, right? And there are people who say, "I'm actually willing to pay money just to keep this advertisement out." People hate ads because ads are an interruption of the experience, number one. Number two, there are anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 commercial messages that consumers are bombarded with every single day, which is humanly impossible to process. 

Three, because of the fragmentation of the various screens and so many distractions for consumers, their span of attention is less than eight seconds. Now put all these three together. You've got a low span of attention, which means a narrow window which the 3,000 or 5,000 ads are trying to get through and connect with the consumer, in a context where the consumer says, "I hate your advertisements." So how can the situation continue? Therefore, I say advertising, as we know it, is dead, because the consumer is vehemently hating it, paying money to keep it out, or installing advertising blockers. Marketers have to realize that this is something which is not sustainable.

PD: The Reuters Institute publishes a survey every year where they interview major publishers and people that work with them. This year, one of the big takeaways was that the publishers, for the first time, were more focused on getting revenue from readers than from advertising.

RR: There you go.

PD: You have to work with publishers and media outlets in order to get your message out there in some way. Are there examples that stand out to you of brand marketing within a media outlet, or with a publisher of some kind, that's a better consumer experience than the advertising you're describing?

RR: From a consumer's perspective, there are three things. Number one, an advertisement should not be an interruption. It should not be an annoyance. Brands are trying very hard to define and design a beautiful, seamless, frictionless experience for their consumers. The publishers should also focus on that. If their content is being constantly sprinkled with these interruptions, they should know that their product is going to suffer.

Number two, there has to be relevance. How many times have I received ads that I don't care about? It's not only wasted money for them, but it is a further annoyance to me. You are not only interrupting my experience, but you're telling me something I don't even want to hear about and don't care anything about. Why would you want to do this to a consumer?

Number three, as a brand, you're anxious to get in front of consumers and tell your story and inspire the consumer to make a choice in favor of your brand. 

But it doesn't all have to be through only that media at any given point in time. There are various steps and the whole timeframe is there. 

You need to find out which are the right moments--as Procter & Gamble calls it, the right moments of truth. Which are the moments that truly matter? Do consumers want to buy a product when they’re watching some beautiful ad, or do they want to buy it when they’re actually searching for the product?  Amazon and other e-tailers have become gigantic advertising revenue generators essentially for this reason.

Marketers need to understand which part of the lifecycle or the product journey or the purchase journey cycle that consumers are at. 

PD: One of the things that you mentioned in that same conversation was the emphasis on experiential marketing/ad-free environments. But nobody could have predicted COVID and the need for social distancing. What is your vision for a future where we're more focused on the consumer experience while not necessarily being with the consumer in person?

RR: At Mastercard in 2013, when I started looking at the craziness in the advertising ecosystem, I said, "We really need to pivot to another way of connecting with the consumers." 

We’ve had this longstanding “Priceless” campaign that started purely as an advertising campaign. It would observe moments in people's lives that are truly priceless and then highlight them and celebrate them. Like the father and son going to a baseball game, and it says, the price of baseball ticket: so many dollars, the price of soda: this many dollars, the price of candy: etc., time spent with your 11 year old son: priceless…for everything else, there’s Mastercard. Brilliant ad, brilliant. One of the best I have ever seen.

When you keep playing it repeatedly, again and again and again, for fifteen years, there is a little bit of a routine and it gets seeped into the culture; it stops doing anything different. It doesn't cut through in a new way. The impact, we felt, could be far, far bigger if you move “Priceless” from being just an advertising platform and make it into a holistic marketing platform, which means “Priceless” is infused into all the four Ps of marketing, if you follow Phillip Carter's model. So you’ve got “Priceless” in your product, in the way you distribute the product, in the way you promote the product and the way the pricing is actually set. So that's something we said we had to do.

“Priceless” was the soul of our brand and we were highlighting it only through advertisements, so we said, "How can we do it better?" And that was through experiences. So, let’s not talk about things being Priceless, but let’s actually enable people to experience Pricelessness. Instead of observing Priceless moments, we enabled Priceless memories. So that's how we transitioned, and that started working very well for us. 

We pivoted from traditional media pretty significantly to the sponsorships space. And once we were in the sponsorship space, there was no looking back. Our brand started marching forward very fast. And today, we are a top-10 brand in the world as measured by Brand Z, for example. A few years back we were at number 87 or 89. So we are gaining ground pretty strongly.

And if you look at aspects like Brand Asset Valuator, a third-party study we did, they actually can show that Mastercard's growth in strength of the brand is much, much faster than many of our competitors. So that's all pretty good for us.

The thing is, when the world collapses the way it did during COVID, and all our experiential marketing was based on physical experiences, the question was: “What do we do now?” So this is where I keep thanking our stars for our preparedness, which was unintended. 

About three years back, I asked my chief financial officer to assume the role of head of risk management for marketing. It's a newly created function within marketing. Marketing has many risks — cyber security risks, reputational risks, financial risks, data privacy risks, etc. There are so many risks that you're dealing with. Should we not have someone whose dedicated focus is risk itself? I thought it was important enough and significant enough that we needed to. So my CFO became my chief risk officer.

And then she started putting together strategies based on hypothetical risks: contingency plans, crisis management plans for every single one of the risks. Every quarter she does a heat map of risks that includes the likelihood of a risk materializing, and if it does materialize, the impact it can actually create. We started putting all that together and then started all the building blocks for the risk management and the training of our people and so on. And then coronavirus came. Sure, we did not foresee coronavirus, but thankfully we had all the building blocks. So we quickly pushed them into action and did not miss a beat. 

We said, “If physical experiences are interrupted, we will immediately pivot to digital experiences.” For example, we had had a cooking class with a chef where you go to the chef’s kitchen, and you learn hands-on. So we said, "Can we bring the chef into your home?" So we started actually doing that, along with backstage experiences with various artists and professional athletes. Now an athlete can come to a customer’s home and have a one-on-one chat with them on Zoom. 

A lot of experiences which were happening outside of homes, we started bringing into people’s homes. And today, at any point in time, we have more than 500 experiences in any given country. And that is extremely powerful. 

We learned a few lessons, too. We never realized that digital was going to be so powerful as it turned out to be. The scalability is instant, on one hand. The economics are much better, on the other hand, and you can involve many more of your consumers. And not just consumers themselves, but their families, their children, and it's a whole experience for the entire family. So I'm delighted how we have pivoted in this COVID situation.

PD: It's a fantastic example. It feels very much like Red Bull, back in the days where they were becoming a publisher, pivoting away from just doing events where you had a hundred skateboarders live at an event to doing events where you spent five years planning on a guy jumping through outer space while the entire internet watches him.

RR: True.

PD: One of the things that stood out to us recently was your Priceless Wave which is a program that Mastercard just ran on TikTok. Would you be willing to share a little bit about that program? Because I feel like it could be really a great example of what you were just describing.

RR: It's interesting, right? So typically you observe, at various live events in stadiums, people rising up to make fan waves. That builds a lot of energy, involvement, and engagement. So we asked ourselves, “What would it look like if we were to do that digitally? Can we ask actually people to tape themselves standing and jumping?” We then wondered, "Can we create the biggest wave and get it into the Guinness Book of World Records?” So we started thinking in very crazy ways.

What we had a little bit of an apprehension about was whether it'd only be the kids who would be participating or if the real consumers would also jump in. It was heartening for us to see that everyone is a kid at heart. They all want to engage. It really worked very, very well for us and it gave us some very nice learnings in terms of the things that we could do to bring people together by connecting them in some virtual way. And they can see the result of that action immediately. So there’s that instant gratification.

PD: You're giving me a touch of nostalgia. Whenever I went to sporting events growing up, my four-foot-eleven mother was the one always trying to start the wave, which at the time was embarrassing. And now, I remember it fondly.

You are also responsible for communications and PR at Mastercard. And in some ways, depending on the organization, communications can be seen as brand protection. Although, in some cases, it's also seen as brand promotion. I'm curious how you rationalize those two things and the role you see for communications.

RR: For me, actually, marketing and communications are on the same continuum; they’re two sides of the same coin. So when I look at the entire mandate, or mission, for marketing and communications as an integrated function, it is three-fold. First, it is to build and protect your brand. Second, it is to help drive the business. And third, it is to create platforms that will give you a sustainable, competitive advantage.

Today, communications is involved in all of these three pillars for us. 

On the one hand, when you look at standard, typical publicity, public relations is all about brand reputation management. But what I also see is that when communications and marketing come together, and the two of them are working in tandem, they become a force multiplier for the business. 

The same goes for establishing a competitive advantage — I'll give you an example. We found out that, years after taking a stance on a slightly sensitive societal issue that’s not necessarily mainstream, and doing so in an authentic and consistent fashion and sticking with that commitment, it can make a huge difference with the perception of that brand and of that company over time. 

A few years back, we noticed that LGBTQ+ is a very important topic and not enough people talk about it. We took a stance and we started being a part of the pride parade every year around the world, starting with Manhattan. 

Last year, we hit upon an idea which I feel very proud of. When a transgender person goes to a shop--say the individual's name was originally Lucas, but now Lucas became Lucy--but they haven’t yet changed their name because changing the name officially, legally, is a huge issue. But when this person goes to the shop, the shopkeeper asks for their card. Okay. The person looks like one gender, but the name suggests another gender, and then they get suspicious looks and the shopkeeper feels that this person has stolen this card or is a fraud or whatever.

We realized we actually could solve this very simply just by putting the desired name of that individual on the card and putting the legal name in the fine print. So you're taking care of the law and you're giving a pragmatic solution for these individuals. It seems like a very small thing, but for the transgender person, this is a humongous change. We call it the True Name Card and we depicted actual people going through this. The entire launch was not done by marketing, it was done by communications. Comms handled it, A to Z, and we got terrific visibility.

And so, it's not a matter of marketing having to have the original parts while innovation and communications executes it. The ideas can come from anywhere. And when you've put all these things together, it becomes like crowdsourcing: somebody somewhere in the organization has a great idea and the teams run with it. In this case, we didn't even have big marketing budgets, so comms was actually most effective and they drove the initiative.

PD: What an amazing example of authentic brand purpose toward something you could actually improve. 

So, you're a very quotable guy. You're all over the place with great quotes, and one of them was, "This is not the time for brands to sell. This is the time for brands to serve." And it feels very much like what you just shared was an anecdote that exemplifies that. I wonder if maybe you could add a little more color to that mantra, serving versus selling.

RR: I would say that, while the responsibility of marketing is to drive the business, they should not lose context. So what happens during a crisis is that the clients and the consumers are vulnerable. When somebody is vulnerable, it is easy to exploit them, it is easy to scare them into buying a product. 

As a marketer, firstly, you have to be a good human being and operate with ethics without being exploitative or opportunistic. You might gain, short-term, on that one transaction, but then you lose the trust of the consumer in the future. And the trust between the consumer and the brand is critical. 

When everything looks like everything else, when the functionalities are all similar, when the valuation is all similar, when the prices are all similar, and everything is like a sea of sameness, that which sets your brand apart is trust. This is not the time to push and sell. This is truly the time to serve. Because a moment of crisis is a moment of vulnerability, and a moment of vulnerability is a moment when you can build trust. To waste this trust-building opportunity in favor of immediate profits, is both short-term and short-sighted.

PD: That reminds me of what you refer to as the Decency Quotient. 

RR: Normally, people focus on IQ and EQ. You should be really intelligent, and you should know how to deal with people. If you have these two, you’ll be very successful. What we are saying is, it's not all about success defined in this particular way. It’s not about how fast you're rising in your career, but whether you are getting there the right way. Are you being a decent human being, or are you trampling over others to get to where you want to be? Are you being empathetic to people in need? Before you're a good marketer, you have to be a decent human being. That starts with treating your people well.

The aspect of diversity and inclusion and all these things are now getting a much bigger amount of social media attention, as they should, but we have been at it for a number of years. And I myself am not the stereotypical CMO. I feel very grateful that in spite of my strong Indian accent and skin color, I’m here. And I've been given the opportunity to be the CMO of this fantastic company. I feel very grateful for that. 

I can therefore understand when somebody is losing opportunities in spite of having the capabilities. So what we're saying is, everyone deserves a chance. Treat everyone based on who they are and not because you think they should be a certain way. Don't have prejudices in your mind.  Be decent.

PD: Well, that ties into your point about our trust.  It has to be built over a long period of time, but it can be ruined quickly. 

RR: Absolutely.

PD: Today we have a lot of people looking for new opportunities, either within the marketing industry or for career changes. As you're thinking about people right now who are trying to make themselves marketable, is there any advice you would give them for how to better position themselves for opportunity?

RR: I’ve found, throughout my career, nothing works better than networking. Networking is where you have informal access to the people who make decisions to get your name or your reputation built. I think that's very, very critical. And you need to start networking when you don't need a job. 

Second, stay very current. The marketing industry is evolving so rapidly and it has been impacted by so many technological changes. So many changes are coming our way. They have to upgrade themselves constantly, otherwise they'll get obsolete very quickly.

Third, today, the demands of marketers are many. In the past, if you were a great marketer, it meant that you understood the four Ps of marketing quite well. You had the sensibility. You had the sensitivity to understand the nuances, and so on. But today, you need to understand finance. You need to understand data. You need to understand PR, you need to understand technology. Now, you are a true general manager with an understanding of multiple functions. But at the same time you have to have deep expertise. You need to be able to connect the dots between your company, between your marketing initiatives and your business outcomes. It requires a deep understanding of the business on the one hand. And it also requires deep understanding of how to do, for example, credible return on investment analysis, right? And measures and metrics become critical.

You have to be straddling multiple functions. Therefore, go take job rotations. Don't be such a career marketer. Go into sales, go into finance, go into production, go into products, move through multiple functions.

Also, I would strongly feel that a person who has experience across multiple industries is able to better think outside of your own industry when he or she comes into your company. So I would say, have multi-industry experience. And if you are somebody who is mobile, I would say, get experience in other countries. Today, I can say confidently that over the next fifteen, twenty years, the growth predominantly is going to come from outside of the United States. And you cannot miss out on those opportunities if you have the possibility of moving, if mobility is not a constraint. People should equip themselves very strongly on all these. 

So multi-geographical experience, multi-industry experience, multi-functional experience--that makes you a fine marketer who is a true general manager with that deep understanding of marketing

PD: That’s great advice, and I truly can't imagine a better place to end our conversation. This has been fascinating and I'm sure that our readers and listeners are really going to enjoy this, Raja. So thank you very much, and congratulations again on being named to PRovoke Media's top 100.

RR: Thank you very much, Paul. I really appreciate it. And it's always a pleasure to talk with somebody who is as informed and as knowledgeable as you are. So thank you very much.