Mastercard entered 2020 with big plans for its sonic branding architecture, an experiment in audio marketing that rolled out in February 2019 and recognizes a shift in consumer habits to favor mobile channels. The payment network has quickly expanded the program to more than 36 million touchpoints, as well as new content areas like a full-length album that was set to drop at the South by Southwest festival in March.
Then, the novel coronavirus hit the U.S., leading to mass retail closures and the cancellation of industry events, including SXSW. As the pandemic disrupted marketing operations, Mastercard pivoted to new methods of customer engagement while still looking to put assets like its sonic brand at the forefront.
"Our strategy remains the same, our objectives remain the same, but our approach has been modified," Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar told Marketing Dive in a phone interview. "Our tactics have to change to reflect the current reality."
As lockdowns spread across the country, Mastercard shifted to an at-home strategy for its Priceless platform that seeks to translate its focus on curated sensory experiences to the masses who are sheltered in place. The change-up has included ambassador-led streaming content, live cooking shows and an emphasis on newer channels Mastercard was already dabbling in, such as esports. Many of the At Home Digital Priceless Experiences are hosted on Mastercard's online content hub. For each activation, Mastercard looks to uphold a consistent, integrated presence for its sonic brand and other assets as a means of reassuring and connecting with people in a difficult time, Rajamannar said.
"The brand has to be visible. We cannot go dark," he said. "But the time is not to sell, this is a time to serve. This is a time to enable and not be opportunistic."
Mastercard has leaned heavily into its ambassador partnerships to capitalize on the elevated interest in cooking videos and sports content while consumers are sheltering in place.
It’s me, @ChefJJ, with a #Priceless experience you can enjoy from my kitchen to yours. Join me in making one of my favorite dishes, a delicious gumbo that’s easy to make from home! And join Mastercard in the fight against COVID-19. https://t.co/AZAkrpv0Ea https://t.co/OUXtjSYIpV— Mastercard (@Mastercard) April 16, 2020
Chef JJ Johnson recently held a virtual cooking class on preparing such comfort meals as seafood gumbo, which drew more than 1 million views. Pro golfer Ian Poulter hosted a half-hour stream with his 8-year-old son offering tips for people looking to practice their golf swings at home. Across platforms such as Twitter and Instagram Stories, Mastercard has attempted to reinforce different elements of its brand.
"Our brand's visual presence, our brand's sonic presence is completely embedded," Rajamannar said.
Esports has also climbed in popularity as live sporting events have been canceled en masse. Mastercard is a sponsor of Riot Game's popular title "League of Legends," which this month aired its Championship Series Spring Split Playoffs via ESPN 2 and the ESPN app in a new content deal with the Disney-owned sports network.
"It's not like we signed up just now," Rajamannar said of Mastercard's esports tie-ups. "We were one of the very first major brands to have gone into the esports category … That has been really good for us."
Contactless payments, which have long struggled to gain traction with U.S. consumers, have soared in recent weeks as people try to avoid contracting the virus from keypads or passing around cash, Bloomberg reported. However, Rajamannar cautioned that now is not the time to go negative with messaging. He said Mastercard is instead focusing on a practical position for payments.
"People, the moment they see that you are self-serving, they will reject you. You have to be very careful and thoughtful," Rajamannar said. "We are not taking the stance that cash is dirty … what we are saying is that contactless transactions are safe and secure."
Boosting brand value
Analysts have frequently argued that building up a brand during an economic down period can establish long-term equity. Mastercard entered the COVID-19 era with its brand value already on the rise in trackers such as Millward Brown's annual BrandZ rankings, where it's now No. 8 among U.S. brands.
Sustaining momentum, then, is a top priority. Newer initiatives like sonic architecture could be crucial to accomplishing that goal in an atypical business environment.
Sonic marketing specialist AMP this week named the company the best audio brand of 2020 — a leap forward from its No. 79 position in last year's rankings, and one that places it ahead of stalwarts like McDonald's.
AMP praised Mastercard for deploying a holistic strategy with its sonic brand and making the assets "recognisable and adaptable" across physical and digital touchpoints, according to MarketingMag.
Rajamannar suggested that Mastercard's work in the space is hard to measure against.
"There was not a single brand out there that has got a very comprehensive, end-to-end sonic branding strategy," Rajamannar said. "We had quickly come to the realization that we had to create our own playbook, and that was a big surprise."
Mastercard's sonic branding architecture will eventually have 10 layers, Rajamannar said, but only three are in the market: a 30-second melody that serves as its basic foundation, a three-second pneumonic that plays at the end of ads and a 1.3-second acceptance sound that pings when transactions are completed, which is now present at 36 million touchpoints.
Mastercard is looking to promote these features to customers through innovative content vehicles such as its album of original songs that subtly weave in the sonic identity, which was developed with Swedish producer Niclas Molinder. While Mastercard previously released a teaser track titled "Merry Go Round," it has pushed the full album release date to later this year.
"We are keeping up our journey and our plans to unveil, but now we are waiting for [COVID-19] to subside and for the world to return back to a little sense of normalcy before we restart our efforts," Rajamannar said.