MasterCard CMO: How We Keep 'Priceless' Fresh After 17 Years

Idea For Evolving Tagline With Surprises Was Cooked Up With Justin Timberlake

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It's not easy keeping a campaign fresh for 17 years.

For MasterCard's "Priceless," evolving the hardworking motif has taken strategic adjustments and creative additions.

Evidence "Priceless Surprises," a push launched during the Grammy Awards that promises lucky customers one-of-a-kind surprises. The first TV spots featured Justin Timberlake visiting the home of an unsuspecting female fan. MasterCard said the hashtag #PricelessSurprises rose to the No. 5 trending topic on Twitter during the show and by the following day garnered 69,000 social-media mentions.

"We want to engage with consumers in a way that is consistent with the brand positioning, which has been very good to us so far, but also strengthen it and include involvement and engagement," said Raja Rajamannar, MasterCard's chief marketing officer.

"Surprises" follows an earlier evolution of the campaign with the introduction of "Priceless Cities" in 2010, meant to offer cardholders exclusive experiences built around specific places.

When Mr. Rajamannar joined MasterCard last September, he and ad agency partner McCann XBC took stock of the cities campaign. "Priceless Cities" tended to appeal to more affluent customers and Mr. Rajamannar wanted to expand the concept's appeal and relevance to the entire MasterCard audience.

He started talking to someone who knows a lot about evolving. Mr. Timberlake, whose multiyear MasterCard partnership Mr. Rajamannar inherited, went from boy-band frontman to breakout solo artist to big-screen actor to renewed hip-hop collaborator. What came through their discussions was Mr. Timberlake's in-depth knowledge of his fan base, along with a key strategy he employs: surprising them.

Mr. Rajamannar said the effort will expand to other MasterCard partnerships, including entertainment and sports partners in soccer, golf, football and baseball, and involve their corresponding celebrities, many whose agents have been calling ever since Mr. Timberlake's spot broke.

MasterCard has grown revenue and brand value steadily every year since the launch of "Priceless" in 1997. Through the third quarter of 2013 the company generated $6.2 billion in revenue, with projected analyst consensus at $8.36 billion for full-year 2013, which would be up 13% from 2012.

MasterCard was No. 20 on Millward Brown's Brandz top 100 survey in 2013, up from No. 99 in 2008, its first year on the list.

While its position behind Visa has stayed pretty much the same in regard to credit and debit-card purchase volume in the U.S (32% for MasterCard versus 68% for Visa in third quarter, according to the Nilson Report), MasterCard has done a good job capturing consumers making the move away from checks and cash.

"They were not doing well before ['Priceless' began] and the general feeling about 'Priceless' is that it's done well," said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report. "It's held its own against a much larger rival … [and] in getting share in the shift from cash and checks."

While some may question the staying power of a 17-year-old campaign, Mr. Rajamannar points to MasterCard's customer data. " Many times I think it's the advertising executives who are tired of a platform, but if you really look at what consumers think, that may not be true," he said. "In all of our brand tracking and research, people do not say they're getting tired of it. … There's not a need to change."

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