This is part of The Digiday List of Innovative CMOs series, featuring a handful of trail-blazing brand CMOs who are ahead of the curve and driving the bottom line through digital innovation.

Marketing innovation and financial services usually don’t usually go hand in hand. It’s hard to develop new financial products, and the industry regulation is strict. But as the CMO for payments giant Mastercard, Raja Rajamannar has been pushing the envelope of innovation since he joined the organization three years ago.

For instance, Mastercard is one of the few payments processors that has a presence on Snapchat, and it has leveraged virtual reality to interact with cardholders. The company is also rolling out a biometric technology this year that allows consumers to combat identity theft with selfies, rather than passwords. While some of it sounds more gimmicky than others, it all boils down to weaving innovation into the very fabric of the company at every level.

“Innovation is not a department within an organization,” said Rajamannar, speaking to Digiday at last week’s ANA Masters of Marketing. “It should be real thinking and culture at a company.”

Here, we break down Rajamannar’s marketing innovation philosophy and how Mastercard is bringing it to life.

Move from “storytelling” to “storymaking”
Today, consumers interact with brands and have expectations of those brands, which means that old marketing strategies like simple storytelling are outdated. Brands have to evolve from passive engagements to a more active, interactive relationship, according to Rajamannar.

“Storytelling was always the cornerstone of marketing, but we don’t believe that is true anymore,” he said. “How can you tell a story when around 200 million consumers are actively using ad blockers, while Hulu and YouTube now have ad-free channels? So we are moving from storytelling to storymaking, meaning that consumers have to be the center of your stories and they co-create stories with you as a brand.”

This has drastically changed how the marketing department at Mastercard executes its strategies, shifting its focus on creating ads to creating an experience, and a desire, according to Rajamannar.

For instance, the company has transformed its traditional “Priceless” campaign into “Priceless Surprises” where Mastercard surprises its cardholders with their favorite celebrities — Justin Timberlake and golf champ Sir Nick Faldo have both participated — and then turns those experiences into memorable moments. At the ANA Masters of Marketing last Friday, Rajamannar surprised 2,700 attendees during his presentation with the appearance of Faldo. The golfer also occasionally surprises Mastercard golf fans with unexpected an appearance at the golf course. Mastercard also sent a young lady, who was surprised by Timberlake at her home, to the Grammy’s back in 2014.

From May through October of last year, Mastercard also created its first restaurant installation in Milan called “Priceless Milano,” where each day 24 guests were able to have an exquisite dining experience designed by Michelin star chefs. The culinary experience was not free, but it was only available for Mastercard holders.

“We didn’t start this restaurant to make money. Instead of spending millions of dollars on TV, this is how we create and curate an experience for our consumers,” said Rajamannar. “Once they have that experience, they will want Mastercard.”

Marketing innovation should be built upon product innovation
While Mastercard is changing the way it markets, Rajamannar believes that marketing innovation can’t truly happen without product innovation.

“Traditionally, product is the first ‘P’ of the marketing mix, so we cannot talk about marketing innovation without addressing product innovation,” said Rajamannar.

One of the more recent product innovations at Mastercard is a biometric technology that is rolling out this year. The technology allows cardholders to authorize an online transaction through fingerprint scan or selfie recognition, instead of passwords.

“We know that people love taking selfies. The inclusion of facial recognition shows how we innovate in the payment security space,” said Rajamannar.

Stay ahead of the game by testing new marketing channels
Rajamannar believes that brands need to tap into platforms like Snapchat and Instagram that have attention, as well as new technologies like virtual reality. “The challenge and opportunity for marketers is, you know that those platforms are where your audience is, but can I be creative and innovative to take advantage of that particular platform and deliver my goals?” said Rajamannar.

Mastercard started experimenting with Snapchat last year when it launched a Sponsored Story for Electric Zoo, an electronic music festival in New York. And this year, the company made its first foray into virtual reality at the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament. The VR tour with golf medalist Graeme McDowell took viewers to the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium Course in Florida. Viewers could identify an item, say, a golf shirt, and make a purchase within the VR experience.

“Many brands don’t care about virtual reality. But we combined virtual reality and augmented reality, and on top of that we added commerce experiences,” said Rajamannar, adding that the company will keep an eye on how VR will play out in the commerce space.

Crowdsource new ideas
For Mastercard, marketing innovation is not a marketing– or agency-led effort, said Rajamannar. Instead, the company crowdsources ideas from its employees, brand ambassadors, agencies and cardholders.

“For instance, someone outside of Mastercard came to us and said, ‘Why not arrange a tour at The Louvre after the museum closes as part of ‘Priceless Surprises’ campaign?’ So we did it,” said Rajamannar. “There’s nothing better than crowdsourcing ideas at scale and executing them.”

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