How agility, empathy, and purpose steered Mastercard during a pandemic

Although Mastercard couldn’t possibly predict a worldwide pandemic, the global financial services giant was ready to move all-digital when COVID-19 hit.

Monthly internet service cost so you can read articles about the future of marketing: $14.99. Purchasing a hard cover book about quantum marketing, written by Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard: $23.99. Listening to Rajamannar talk about how Mastercard stayed agile and resilient throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: priceless.

Although Mastercard couldn’t possibly predict a worldwide pandemic, the global financial services giant was ready to swiftly move all-digital when COVID-19 began to spread. The Mastercard CMO credits his company’s digital readiness to a risk management team that was set up more than three years ago—just in case of potential crises. The team was tasked with sizing up risks to the business, assigning probabilities to those risks, putting together contingency plans for cases where risks materialize, and training Mastercard’s people based on the contingency plan.

“Thank god we did it,” Rajamannar said, in the exclusive interview. “…[As part of our planning] we anticipated that things might get tough in some geographies where [in-person] events might not happen, and in those cases we’d have to pivot to digital. Everything [went] digital in terms of how we work with agencies, how we work with each other and how we curate Priceless Experiences, which is at the core of what Mastercard does.”


Digital became a mandate for every business in the last year, with e-commerce and mobile commerce exploding. Adobe’s Digital Economy Index shows that consumers spent $813 billion online in 2020, which is up 42% from 2019. The surge in digital resulted in a massive shift in how people buy goods and services, which has been a catalyst for positive change.

According to Rajamannar, the brands that were able to stay resilient, successful and innovative during the pandemic were those that were the most digitally mature, unique and empathetic. The organizations that were already masters in digital content, processes/workflows and experiences didn’t have to deal with the last-minute shuffle online. Instead, they could focus on ways to creatively standout from the masses and support their customers and communities.

“When everyone is coalescing around the same set of themes, and the same priorities and the same pressures, the best of the brands still managed to keep themselves unique and differentiated as opposed to become a part of this sea of sameness,” Rajamannar said. Empathy and leading through the lens of to serve and not sell, he added, both for consumers and for society at large was of the utmost importance.

Standing up for causes, culture and decency

For Mastercard’s part, it made sure to keep up existing commitments to social causes, as well as take part in new initiatives aligned with the brand’s purpose—even amid the global pandemic. For example, the company continued an active partnership with Stand Up To Cancer, which was instrumental in getting seven drugs discovered and approved for cancer patients. Additionally, as part of its commitment to support the LGBTQ+ community, Mastercard continued to support the development of a credit card that was launched in 2019 called “True Name Card,” specifically to support the transgender community. The True Name card allows people put the name they identify with on the front of the card, while keeping their “legal” name in small type on the back, which is a regulatory requirement.

Mastercard was also quite vocal and involved in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement following the tragic death of George Floyd this past summer. The company pledged $500 million to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities and businesses across America. It launched a slew of programs to support the Black community, one of which was an initiative that showcases Black women-owned small businesses, and makes resources, training and funding available to them.

Societal cultures and stereotypes, Rajamannar pointed out, are shaped by movies and advertisements. “[Brands] have the power to shape culture and society. We have resources, we have networks, and we understand how to actually shape beliefs and shape thinking, because that’s what we do for our own brands,” he said.

Rajamannar also spoke to a term coined by Mastercard’s Executive Chairman, Ajay Banga, called “decency quotient.” During his tenure as CEO, he said, “We talk about intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ). …But the most important thing is DQ, your decency quotient.”

Given societal and technology shifts impacting digital so greatly, Rajamannar believes there will be huge leaps in marketing strategies in the near future. He just released a new book that made the Wall Street Journal bestsellers list, Quantum Marketing: Mastering the New Marketing Mindset for Tomorrow’s Consumers, and says, “We are at the verge of what I call the fifth paradigm of marketing. Every single classical theory and classical framework of marketing will [be] put on its head.” He calls Quantum Marketing “the playbook for the future,” noting the future of marketing will be technology driven, powered by data, and empathetic of the cultural shifts that are happening at an unprecedented level around the world.