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‘Cash Is Our Competition’



Raja Rajamannar

Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s New York-based Chief Marketing Officer, was in Kenya recently. Having been a marketing guru for 35 years, he discusses key strategies for brands to stay relevant in the digital age.

Future technologies shaping marketing
In the last seven to eight years, the technology change has dramatically altered the field of marketing and is probably more than what happened in the preceding 25 to 30 years. The changes happening now are going to be even more dramatic. There’s a plethora of technologies coming in such as artificial intelligence that is going to touch every single part of the marketing ecosystem and that’s going to affect how we understand consumers, how we do data analytics, how we come up with insights. Blockchain has also been in the financial space but is going to the marketing space. For example, the advertising space has a ton of intermediaries; between the brand owner and the publisher. That leads to a lack of transparency, efficiency, and a lot of middle men are getting their cut of the entire advertising dollar. Some statistics indicate that 30 percent of the advertising dollar that marketers are spending on the media goes to the intermediaries. So there are possibilities here for Blockchain to take root and make the dollar work harder. The third one is augmented reality. It is going to add a layer or series of layers of information on top of their physical environment or even the digital environment which makes consumer interaction with their environment very different. That gives marketers a tremendous opportunity to engage consumers in unprecedented ways by providing information layers that are most relevant and appropriate for the consumers and compel them to take decisions that are right for them. Virtual reality is evolving and has yet to take real root but the moment it does, it will take off. 5G has got tremendous speed; it has got close to zero latency and that brings a whole different dimension to how we can engage consumers. 3D-printing is another area that’s coming pretty hard and fast and that’s something marketers have not exploited a lot. So tomorrow, the number of technologies coming at us are so many more and this is going to alter the landscape for marketers completely. If you know how to tackle it, you’ll be at the top of your game, but if you don’t understand, you risk being obsolete quickly.

Revisiting the engagement model with consumers
It is estimated that on average, 3,500 to 5,000 commercial messages are bombarded at each consumer every single day. That is an incredible level of information overload. On the other hand, consumer attention span is reducing. They are responding to that by tuning themselves out, putting ad blocks on their devices and those are big risks for marketers. What you do as a marketer is not just improve the ads but to rethink your entire communication and engagement model with your consumers. Mastercard took a very interesting step six years back when we decided not to be purely about advertising, which is story-telling, and said our future will be in story-making, which means we create and curate experiences that money cannot buy but which you can get only through Mastercard. So we went from pure traditional marketing to experiential marketing in a big way and that has really paid off and it’s evident as [in 2019] Interbrand has rated Mastercard the fastest-growing brand across all categories and industries.

Africa’s marketing space
Africa is a collection of a diverse set of markets and each market is at a different stage of evolution, with unique cultural nuances, and has its own unique opportunities and ecosystems. Like, for example, in Kenya, the telecom ecosystem is one of the most sophisticated you have. And if you look at South Africa, there is a tremendous amount of sophistication in terms of advertising and marketing and you have got a whole bunch of other countries in different stages of evolution and specialization. So Africa is a continent of huge opportunities that every single company and brand is very seriously focused on and we at Mastercard are no exception either. The population is huge, it is very resourced and there’s an upward mobility of the population and that’s where the biggest of opportunities come for any brand.

Need for innovation
As marketers, we have to understand digital technology and we have to leverage data while fully respecting and honoring the privacy of consumers. At Mastercard, for example, we created the Priceless digital marketing engine which tries to understand and predict the micro trends that are going to be happening in the overall society. After identifying the trend, we then try to figure out its relevance and commercial and communication opportunity for us. That’s one example of how we’re trying to break through all the noise.

If you look at the penetration of digitization of the entire economy, cash is still dominant. The digital economy is less than 15% globally and less than 5% in some countries and that’s a huge opportunity. So, the competition is not with some brands out here, it is cash and cash is our competition. So we compare ourselves with what consumers are exposed to and we want to be at the top of their mind. People have been using cash for a long time and it’s not easy to change habits; it takes time.

Avoiding consumer mistrust
When you are trying to constantly keep selling something to consumers and if the consumers’ experience is different than what the brand has promised them, there’s a big break of trust and today, the trust amongst consumers about brands and brand communication is, generally speaking, very low; there is a trust deficit. So brands have a lot of work ahead of them. They have to strive to rebuild, regain the trust, and to do that, there are a few key principles that are critical. Brands have to be authentic by not trying to fool consumers, be consistent in terms of commitment and follow through with action as well as respect consumers, practically, when it comes to privacy. Lastly, it’s extremely important for brands to be relevant to consumers as well as have a purpose.

Challenges for marketing
Reaching people at the right time, fashion and right context is not very easy. It requires a lot of technology and a lot of talent locally to deploy technology effectively. So the first big challenge for marketers is how do you find the right talent? And it’s important to develop, attract and retain the talent. What we have to as marketers, therefore, is to connect with the professors, go through them and help them come up with the most contemporary and useful curriculum. How do you enable these marketers to do the best marketing that they can by creating common standards across the industry, having the right kind of tools and methodologies?
Getting these going off the ground in any given country or region is not an easy thing but something we have to do.

– Interviewed by Steven Muvunyi

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