Weekend reading: Q&A with Raja Rajamannar

MasterCard's CMO on building surprise into the brand's DNA.

The “Priceless” tagline has been at the heart of MasterCard communications since 1997 , so when Raja Rajamannar took over as the brand’s global CMO in late 2013, he was in no hurry to ditch it.

Instead, he’s focused on keeping “Priceless” relevant for today’s consumers, morphing from telling stories through ads to creating memorable moments for a few individuals with experiential campaigns that can be turned into content that’s shared.

Under Rajamannar’s watch, this experiential platform – “Priceless Surprises” – debuted in Canada this year. Some of these surprises are small, say, some free digital downloads for replying to “Priceless Surprises” tweets. But the headline grabbers in the past year included former Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour surprising one group of friends with premium seats and Justin Timberlake surprising a fan in Montreal last month. Earlier this year, Toronto model Coco Rocha surprised two fans during the World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto, expanding on its “Stylicity” program that offers deals at fashion retailers.

Also this year, it launched the “Priceless Toronto Zone” at the Air Canada Centre, an interactive digital experience that grants access to behind-the-scenes footage while making it possible to purchase exclusive sports memorabilia.

During a recent visit to Toronto, Rajamannar chatted with strategy about how the brand is making surprise part of its DNA and his brand’s aspirations to be more like Nike and Red Bull on social. He was joined by Milos Vranesevic, head of marketing at MasterCard Worldwide.

How does MasterCard engage with consumers today through the “Priceless Moments” campaign now compared to when it launched in 1997? How have you adapted the message to keep “Priceless” fresh?

We started by looking at research about consumers and what appeals to them. Our conclusion was that from merely celebrating priceless moments in people’s lives, we want to go create priceless experiences in people’s lives.

For years, brands have talked about surprising and delighting consumers but curiously no one has very obviously claimed this territory through their branding and a round-the-year experience. So delighting and surprising your consumer has been, more or less, a customer service function of the back office. If a customer has a problem you resolve it to their satisfaction and go above and beyond.

So we thought, why don’t we take this whole idea of surprise and combine it with our “Priceless Surprises?” So it’s all about creating priceless experiences, about surprising and delighting our consumers and doing it not as a one-and-done type of campaign once or twice every year but to really make it our way of how we market our services of our brand throughout the year.


With so many messages coming at consumers through multiple channels now, is experiential a very important way to reach consumers?

Absolutely. We want to create memorable priceless experiences that people will really retain, so they will become strong, lifelong advocates for the brand.

How has that affected your marketing budget and staffing? Is there more emphasis on hiring for experiential and social now? 

These surprises have to be truly surprising and truly memorable. We don’t want to marginalize or trivialize the concept. So at this time we are engaged with top-notch consumer design firms and we are in the process of hiring some top-notch consumer experience professionals.

With social, this is the area we are putting a lot of emphasis on. Working closely with social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, what we are trying to do is to understand consumers’ behaviour on social media and how to engage them through it. It is very easy to reach millions and millions of people but it is very difficult to engage them credibly and with authenticity. So we have hired a number of social marketing experts into the company and we are investing substantially in this space. We have got a very clear shift happening from traditional media to social media.

What is your strategy for social media?

On social, we are not trying to compete against the Visas of the world. Consumers are not going to divide their lives by industry category. They live holistically, so you have to approach consumers holistically.

As of [June], our hashtag mentions of #PricelessSurprises was actually higher than many industry stalwarts, including the likes of Red Bull and Nike. We feel very positive in terms of the kind of momentum we are getting. We are not competing against Red Bull and Nike but trying to aspire to be like those companies, which are terrific, and we have great respect and regard for how they engage their consumers through social media. We are trying to learn lessons from them and be better at our game.

Milos, Raja talked about putting more emphasis on social and digital. In Canada, have you been investing more in your social media team?

Vranesevic: It’s a combination for us of leveraging global and regional resources. We recently hired our first community manager in house globally, which has led to an impressive increase in terms of the quality of the engagements, as well as frequency and volume of the engagements. We ensure we have alignment with our global colleagues in terms of what we are communicating to the market so that we really have one voice.

We take storytelling as a critical element of the “Priceless Cities” program. We describe it as celebrating the greatest cities in the world. It’s not just about offers and experiences but about revealing the inner elements of Toronto that we find appealing and endearing, that we think our cardholders from different markets would be interested in knowing. It’s the same approach for London, New York or Paris.