Mastercard’s Raja Rajamannar is among the most publicly visible chief marketing officers in the world. A marketer of grand vision, in conversation Rajamannar dispenses wisdom with the articulation of a worldly sage. Currently, he sits on the board of directors at Ad Council—a month ago he won WFA’s Global Marketer of the Year award and only two months later was named the trade body’s president.

Rajamannar joined Mastercard as the company’s chief marketing officer in 2013 and in the years since has raise the fintech company’s brand equity to new heights. For example, in Interbrand’s 2013 Best Brands list, Mastercard was estimated to have 4.2 billion in brand value—after five years with Rajamannar handling marketing, the same report lists Mastercard’s brand value at 7.5 billion.

In a conversation with AList, Rajamannar talks about personal reinvention and the phases of Mastercard’s brand evolution.

“Priceless” is a standard of storytelling, what do you find important in the process of continuing that legacy for new audiences?

Two fundamental aspects. The first one for me is to retain authenticity and continue the things that have been working well for us. Which is to tap into the human truths, identify a connection between the brand, Mastercard, and what is priceless about it that you can deliver to the consumer. And of course, being authentic, not fake and not be forced.

The second is to evolve in keeping with the changing times. Consumers have changed quite a lot. For example, Priceless, in the past, used to be an advertising platform, it is a storytelling platform. But a lot of consumers have started tuning out advertisers, then putting ad blocks in a big way: 630 million devices, have ad blocks that we cannot reach. They’re even paying money to keep the advertisers out by going to Netflix with [zero ads].

If that’s what the consumers are saying, should you still be going to the old model of advertising? The answer is, “No.” Just to be provocative, I keep saying, “Storytelling is dead, advertising is dead.” It’s all about story making,” which is experiential marketing.

We started with “Moments,” that was our first phase of our evolution. What we do is we create and curate experiences for our people, our customers, consumers, that money can’t buy. You can’t buy them for money, but you get them because of Mastercard. It’s these kinds of small things or giant things where a huge artist, like Justin Timberlake, will come to your home and spend a day with you. It cuts across the entire spectrum. Because we have 1.8 billion consumers around the world, and we have to be relevant to that entire spectrum. We create these priceless moments, and through that, we acquire a lot of sponsorship assets and convert those into experiences for our consumers.

The third phase of our evolution, which is right now, is what we call “from moments to movements.” It’s all about priceless movements. We say, “Start something priceless.” It could be as simple as keeping your phone away when you are having dinner and doing something to start conversations in your family or your friendships, and it will change the dimension. Or, it can be adopting a dog or making a difference in a child’s life or changing the world. We started this whole thing “start something priceless” as a new platform for the last few months now. This is how we evolve, on one level.

The other part of it is on the brand side. The Mastercard brand is over 50 years [old]. What we are trying to do is: how does a brand evolve as well? Two years back, we relaunched our entire brand logo by stylizing it. We took out the capital letters from our logo, which was more formal, to make it more informal and approachable.

Was the ultimate goal, of taking away the type, realized at that point?

Absolutely. That’s the reason why we removed the name from within the logo and brought it out as the first step. And then from here completely. That’s how we did it.

We had to be looking three or four steps ahead. It worked really well for us and about seven weeks back is when we announced that the name would be dropped altogether, and it would just be the two circles.

Then, of course, the sonic logo.

I believe that we are the first brand, which has gone as deep and comprehensive for the sonic brand architecture. We have our 30-second melody, which is featured in all our ads and shows, trade events and sponsorship events. If you call Mastercard office, you’ll hear the ring; it’s the hold music.

The cool thing about this melody is it’s very neutral. It doesn’t take over something; it should support. Number two–it should be likable. Three, it should be hummable. You should be able to hum it because we want the melody to be memorable; it should be simple, but not simplistic. If it’s memorable, you’ll associate it [with] the brand. And finally, it should be highly adaptable around the world. 

Through your career, how have you as a CMO and a marketer, learned to let go of micromanaging things?

Three things. First, you need to have top talent. Surround yourself with the best and most amazing people. If you have really exceptionally competent people around the globe, your life becomes easier. They own it, they drive it, and they do much than you can do it yourself. That frees you a lot of the time to focus on the big picture.

Number two, what you also do is constantly focus on innovating yourself and reinventing yourself, even when things are going very well. Because you can get a little complacent, comfortable and happy and that’s not a good thing at all. You have to be on your toes and keep thinking. For example, when we started in 2016, when we first announced our rebranded logo, at that stage we could have said, “this working really well, let’s sit tight on that.” But we said, “let’s take this further.”

When we wanted to launch the sonic brand, one of the very important elements is ‘acceptance’ sound. Whenever you are going to a shop and your transaction goes through successfully, you hear the MasterCard sound. It’s extremely [short], 1.3 seconds or less than 1.3 seconds. Now, the concept was created centrally.

The day before yesterday, I got a video from Dubai, showing that they have got a band playing the melody at the Dubai Jazz Festival, where the artists were singing our melody from the stage and making the crowd actually to follow in a big wave. And people could pay, not with cash, but by singing the melody correctly—they were rewarded.

That idea didn’t come from global; it did not come from me sitting in my chair. Local people are taking it. It really starts with having a fantastic theme: pick a dream that is big enough, chase the dream that is big enough, inspire ourselves, be humble, never get complacent or comfortable and just keep constantly going at it.

How do you measure brand moments and experiential marketing?

I’m an engineer by training, so if I don’t measure it, I don’t feel comfortable about it. The key thing is we have solid KPAs and metrics. We measure how we are doing on the brand, how we are doing on the growing the business profitably and how are we growing in a competitive advantage manner. The last part, meaning how are we perceived compared to the competition, and are we increasing the gap and are we building a moat around the company that is not easy for somebody else to jump over. And we measure it very, very diligently.

To give you an example on the brand side. Several years back, there was one of the gold standards, one of the methods of measuring a brand’s strength was brandZ which is done by Kantar Millward Brown and they do it for 10,000 brands around the world. We were at about 89 a few years back. Today, we have come all the way down to 15. From 89 to 15 we have improved in my tenure. In the US, we have become a top 10 brand; we are number 10. This shows that our strategy as a company, it is executed well, and it is working well for us. Business is growing very well. I will not give you all the financial stats, but we can see in all the disclosed financials that the business is growing very nicely, and it’s being appreciated by the market. That’s number two.

Number three, when you look at the preference of consumers. Say I prefer Mastercard to somebody else because these guys are guys have brought some unique advantage or some purpose-driven activities in the market. Again, we are doing well in that space. I feel really good about all three dimensions.

Can you talk a little bit about CMO accountability and having to justify a budget every year or quarter?

Fifty percent of my career, I was on the business side—I was managing PnLs—and fifty percent on the marketing side. And I keep joking that fifty percent I was in business, I used to give hell to the marketing guys. Now, on this, the karma comes back with interest. But the good thing is that because I have been on the business side, I understand numbers, I understand what matters to the CEO, and the CFO. Therefore, I’m able to appropriately tell my story in a way that matters to them, speaking their language. If I talk to the CEO or a CFO about how my brand awareness has gone up this much, my predisposition is this much and my promoter score is this much—that is all marketing mumbo-jumbo. Their questions will be, “what has it done for the business’ growth?” or “what has it done for the top line and bottom-line growth?”—that’s what I have to talk to them about.

The key thing is to connect the dots between the activities of marketing to the outcomes of the business. And that’s where a lot of my time goes [showing them the data] very credibly. It’s not some fluffy stuff that you cook up; it has to be very authentic, credible and show those links. Just say, “We are doing this and this is what’s happening.” And digestible; you can’t hide behind jargon.

What do you think the next generation of young CMOs should be most concerned about, in terms of their career?

I’d say, four things. First and foremost, they should be concerned about the prominence of marketing being lost. Many companies have eliminated the role of CMOs and replaced them with chief growth officers, chief revenue officers and so on. This is what I was saying before: if a CMO is not able to justify why the investment is happening and not able to connect the dots. If you are not helping and you are sucking up millions and millions of dollars. If they are not able to give convincing answers, they’re out. Some other companies, including some of the top-notch consumer marketing companies, have got away with the role of CMO. They should focus clearly on understanding the connection between their activities and business results.

Second, today’s marketers are very different than marketers even five years back. The whole marketing [industry] has changed in the last five years. I have been in this field for 35 years; what happened in the last five years is completely different than the preceding 30 years. Why? Because you got digital technologists, AI, data, unbelievably big data, small data, all kinds of data. Then you have, very importantly, things like technology. Many CMOs have technology budgets which are bigger than the CTOs of those companies. PR and marketing are no longer two different functions—that’s one integrated thing. The point is, to be a successful marketer today, you have to be multifaceted you have to be a true general manager—a general manager who understands digital, technology, data, finance, PR and can integrate all that and come up with very compelling campaigns. This is something that they have to strive for. If you’re at a company as a young marketer, you should try to get experiences by rotation across many different functions. That’s just something you have to be very important.

The third thing is the rate at which the technology is developing like blockchains, virtual reality, augmented reality, people can become obsolete very fast unless they stay on top of it and invest consciously—time to study, learn and be up to date. I think learning will be mighty critical for them.

The last one is from my perspective. As [young marketers lives] are evolving, the work-life balance will become even more disrupted. As a young marketer, you have to make sure that you are giving enough quality time for yourself, your well-being and for your family’s well-being. Otherwise, this is becoming a 24/7 world, and you can become totally swamped and be lost.