CANNES — In a conversation at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last week, Cheryl Guerin, Mastercard’s EVP global brand strategy and innovation and Jo-ann Robertson, member of this year’s Cannes PR Lions jury and president of global markets at Ketchum – one of Mastercard’s agencies for the past 10 years – talked to PRovoke Media’s EMEA editor Maja Pawinska Sims about how the work they are doing together is evolving, from financial inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community to testing and learning in the metaverse.

Maja Pawinska Sims: What are you most proud of in terms of the work you've done over the past decade?

Cheryl Guerin: It has to be the work around the True Name campaign. We have taken a real leadership position for many years on inclusion, and particularly rights and equality for the LGBT community. We had a long-standing campaign called Acceptance Matters, and that generated conversations that demonstrated allyship, but we wanted to go further and deeper. We learned that about one third of those that are transgender or non-binary, who present an ID that does not actually match with how they might present themselves, have been discriminated against, harassed or denied services. And we further learned, when looking at our processes as a card company and as we worked with our issuers, that you couldn't put your chosen name on your card. And this was such a pain point for the transgender community, the idea that you can't have pride in the product that you own, because it doesn't represent who you are, so there’s just no emotional connection with the brand. Just simply buying something becomes an anxiety-ridden moment.

And so we created True Name and the initiative to put your chosen name on your card, and we're now in over 30 countries around the world, rolling out with tonnes of banks. The feedback we received is that it's really meaningful and changing people's lives. Working with Ketchum was a huge part of that, in making sure we did this right and there were no missteps.

Jo-ann Robertson: Mike Doyle, our global CEO, sits on the board of LGBTQ charity GLAD, and so he was also able to bring in that community to help us shape the campaign, so we didn't get it wrong in terms of tone of voice and the change that we were trying to drive. In the partnership between Ketchum and Mastercard, there's so much trust and such a breadth of communications work: it ranges from deep tech issues with their cyber and intelligence unit, all about privacy and safety in emerging technology, to big entertainment activations like the Grammys, and we just did a piece of work in Europe announcing a programme for Ukrainian entrepreneurs to help to start rebuilding the business and entrepreneurial infrastructure in Ukraine.

MPS: How as a brand do you continue to evolve your initiatives, communications and messaging so you can meet the higher standard expected of brands now?

CG: Mastercard’s mantra is doing well, by doing good. We may be for-profit, but it's meaningful for employees and it's meaningful for companies to find ways to create impact in the world. And we've been on this mission for years. We started the Centre for Inclusive Growth, which is all about financial inclusion and making sure everyone is included in this global economy and the digital economy, in 2013. We're not showing up because it’s a trend; it's been part of our culture for years. It’s ingrained in who we are, our culture and the actions that we take. And it’s why partners want to work with us and why employees will want to stay with us. In the whole communications area for corporations, not only are we acting and driving behaviour, we’re looking at where there is need. In the US, for example, pre-pandemic we knew women were opening businesses at five times the rate of men, and black women were leading the way. But when Covid hit, their industries were hit the hardest. So we started the Strivers initiative to make sure we can help them move their businesses into the digital economy, so they could not only survive that moment, but then thrive. It all ties back to our financial inclusion mission. It’s who we are.

JAR: That’s exactly the conversation we had in the judges’ room this week. There was some amazing work that at first look was ‘that's so creative’ and then you start to unpack it and discuss it, and you ask: has that brand really got any permission to be here? And then you look at the results, and it’s a ‘one and done’ rather than built into the deep purpose of the business. On the other hand, there's so much at Cannes that is purpose driven, and that's incredibly important, but actually, a lot of what we do day-to-day is much more pure brand work: it's fun, it's engaging, it's entertaining – and we're not seeing enough of that in the show.

MPS: How do you get the balance right between purpose, and being a meaningful brand in the world, and a spirit of levity and fun that lightens the load?

CG: We live in a heavy, heavy world right now. So we have to counter-balance a bit. We should be taking action and doing our part. But if we're only adding to that weight, where's the joy? Where's the fun? Where's the entertainment? And that is part of our mission too: we need to look at passion as well as purpose, and how we enable people to experience joy with the people they love. Everything has shifted. When I look at research on why people are travelling, they’re now saying it’s for my mental health. Everybody knew you had to recharge before, but this is a higher order. Being fun is an amazing attribute to have as a brand, and we shouldn't lose that.

When Covid hit, everybody was out there with the same ‘unprecedented times’ messages, and it was just heavy. We created a campaign that was through the eyes of your pets, because no one was happier than our pets that we were home. We called it Coworkers – it spotlighted online shopping and buying a gift for your pet, and it featured all the dogs that were popping into your Zooms. That's a simple way to bring levity, but yet completely resonant and relevant. We have to be careful, because the situation around us isn't light. But I do think we need to do both passion and purpose.

MPS: Mastercard is famous for its ‘Priceless’ experiences. How do you go about building a brand that people really engage with?

CG: We start with the fact that we've always been an experiential brand. It’s all about being priceless in people's lives. So we’re always thinking about how to be immersive and experiential and how to lean into culture and stay relevant in culture. In the past few years, we've focused on multisensory marketing, using all your senses. We started with sight; we said everything's moving to this mobile small screen, so how do we show up as a brand in the digital environment? We decided to drop the Mastercard name from the logo: we have a distinctive symbol brand and you know it’s Mastercard, we don't need to say it.

Then three years ago, we introduced our sonic brand. With the rise of everything audio, from smart speakers, to podcasts, to audio search, and the ability to not only ensure your brand is not just seen, but also heard, we created a distinctive, global sonic branding. It’s an operating system, so we have one six-note ending after you make a purchase, and it gives you the trust and peace of mind that comes with using a Mastercard, and it's embedded in our advertising. And just this week, we launched a music album, where we are bringing emerging artists to the forefront and then weaving in our sonic very subtly. This is where you go with ad blockers and cut through the clutter – you have to embed yourselves in people's lives. For sense of taste, we have opened up restaurants around the world, and for sense of smell, we brought in two of the best female perfume designers in the world, in an industry dominated by male ‘noses’, and they created two scents for us: Passion and Optimism.

MPS: How seriously is Mastercard taking the metaverse?

CG: We just launched in two places in the metaverse, one in Decentraland, and one in Meta Horizons Worlds. We’re spending time making sure we're doing this getting this right and getting the tone right. We're learning but we still want to go in with a product offering and do things that are meaningful; we're not just there to be there. We created a forum in the metaverse where you can hear conversations from thought leaders, we have artists from the LGBTQ+ community, we designed wearables, and of course there's a dance floor for more fun. The metaverse is a key strand of our work now. Everybody's moving fast and furious. We had all kinds of conversations: do we buy land? Do we create our own avatars? We decided that we're going to test and learn, be true to who we are as a brand in these spaces and be meaningful in our focus on inclusion. It's interesting because the metaverse is being designed to be more inclusive and decentralised, but it has all the makings of something that could go wrong.

JAR: Brands should test and learn, they should be figuring it out, but they should also be really careful because of the way in which the metaverse is being built. It’s permission-less, there's no regulations and the risk that you're taking on is huge at this stage. We did have long conversations about it being a place where hate speech and hate crime could actually be accelerated and intensified, when actually the mission of it was to democratise. So I think the way Mastercard is approaching it is absolutely spot on: see how it goes, but make sure we're protecting the brand every step of the way. Because we don't know what we don't know, at this point, and we're going to have to tread carefully.

CG: We did a couple of things from a business standpoint. We announced about seven marketplaces for NFTs, but the inclusion piece is that not everybody wants to use crypto and it's not always that easy. So there's a benefit for creators in the sense that we opened up to our billions of card holders around the world, who can now access NFTs and participate, so it supports that creative economy. And it also supports people that want to participate in this with the same safety that comes with Mastercard. We also created a code of conduct, and we encourage everyone to tag or kick out anyone who's not behaving in that way in our forum.

MPS: Do your customers and consumers understand what Mastercard is trying to do in the metaverse?

CG: If you link the real life and what's going on in the metaverse, not everybody gets the chance to be in the New York City Pride parade, for example, but so many people want to celebrate and show support. Now, we've created places where anyone can go, no matter where you are in the world: you can participate in events, you can learn, you can be entertained, and you could express your true self. And that's what the metaverse is also about: self-expression. We're building on the hybrid world we now live in, in every detail, down to the Pride float design in the metaverse and our physical float being the same. And you could ride the float and take selfies on it in Decentraland. Everything is connected; what we're activating live, we're also activating in these worlds. It’s not just going off-road, it’s all strategically linked to the brand purpose.

MPS: So what's your key takeaway from Cannes this year?

JAR: Across the Cannes Lions show, the brands and campaigns that are really at that Grand Prix level are the ones that are bringing virtual and real life together – and it’s really hard to do well and have actual impact for the brand and for the purpose as well. There’s also the realisation of how much better humans are when they are in person. Chatting to the judges last year who judged virtually, it was interesting how little deep discussion and changing of minds happened. When humans are in a room together, the way in which you can learn from each other, build on each other’s ideas and change minds is true at Cannes and in life. So while we get obsessed by trends, the future and the metaverse, that should be used to enhance real life rather than replace it. It’s about connection.

CG: Data is really important and the more we use data to be creative the better, but sometimes we’re so caught up, as marketers, with the latest, trends, data and tech, when actually humanity is what we’re seeing in a lot of the best work. We’re moving into a cookieless world and so it’s about being contextual, doing things and talking with consumers about things they actually care about. The brands that will win are the ones that – with all the rapid technology happening around us – will consistently bring the human touch.