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WFA president Raja Rajamannar: brands need empathy to rise above 'sea of sameness'

Raja Rajamannar has a 360-degree view on how marketing teams around the globe have been shaped by Covid-19

Mastercard chief marketing officer and World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) president Raja Rajamannar has a 360-degree view on how marketing teams around the globe – including his own – have been reshaped by the pandemic in 2020.

As the hunt for the WFA 2020 Global Marketer of the Year draws to a close, Rajamannar explains how empathy and understanding will help marketers navigate the choppy waters in the year ahead.

When Covid-19 locked consumers around the world in their homes, brands rushed to connect with them via TV ads. The result was a resounding “we’re here for you” message that eventually meant every spot looked the same as advertisers grappled for ways to express empathy.

Though 'empathy' is a word that has the potential to rival ‘agility’ and ‘unprecedented’ among the most overused phrases of the year, for Mastercard’s global chief marketing officer and WFA president Raja Rajamannar, it’s a quality that couldn’t be more important as we move into 2021.

Rajamannar has his own definition of what it means to be empathetic as a marketer and it’s a quality he’ll be seeking out in this year’s Global Marketer of the Year victor.

Pointing to various ongoing lockdowns and Covid-related restrictions around the world, Rajamannar says advertisers must be aware that “we’re not out of the woods yet”.

He tells us: "What marketers need to have at this point is empathy and a solid understanding of consumers."

Bringing a new meaning to empathy

A recent Ipsos Mori poll, commissioned by PepsiCo North America, found that in the US alone nine in 10 consumers want brands to show empathy through their behaviour amid Covid-19. A further 86% said that showing empathy is critical to fostering loyalty.

Pre-pandemic, a study from marketing firm Braze, conducted by Forrester, found that UK consumers were 54% more likely to engage with a brand when it effectively demonstrated human communication. 57% were more likely to purchase from a brand that did so and a further 57% were more likely to remain loyal to that brand.

For Rajamannar empathetic marketing means adapting to consumers’ needs across every touchpoint, including e-commerce, pricing and media. It’s also about building trust via a strategy that’s fit for the long term and not just the interim to cut through the “sea of sameness” permeating the industry.

“Marketers need to understand the predicament that their consumers are in. Don’t price gouge or take advantage of their vulnerability. Don’t try to shove something down their throat – be sympathetic and ask yourself what your customers really need and whether you’re selling them the right product. Ask yourself if you’re in tune with what’s actually happening or if you’re tone deaf.”

This approach should extend to employees too, he argues.

“Marketers also have to empathise with their employees and understand the real situations they’re facing and be flexible. I’d say empathy and flexibility are the name of the game, even going into 2021.”

Bringing ‘Priceless’ experiences online

As well as supporting some of the world’s biggest brands in his role as WFA president, Rajamannar is also the keeper of the Mastercard brand.

In recent years, the Mastercard brand has pivoted to experience-based marketing and away from “storytelling”, centered around its ‘Priceless’ brand proposition.

In 2019, it launched its first flagship ‘Priceless’ restaurant in New York and a Bistro in Rome International Airport, which are part of a strategy from Rajamannar on appealing to customers’ “sense and sensibilities” to “cut through the clutter” and link the brand to experiences.

However, in a world of social distancing, restrictions on movement and budget cuts, the brand, like many others, has had to pivot to virtual marketing, bringing sports, music and culinary experiences into people’s houses. A ‘Priceless Experiences at Home’ initiative has filled the gap, with the brand enlisting ambassadors like celebrity chefs, baseball players, movie stars, musicians and golfers to engage with fans and Mastercard holders online, free of cost.

Having introduced a risk management function into its marketing department in 2019, the brand had already foreseen there might one day be a need to create virtual events instead of physical ones, and so the “building blocks” to create these were already in place.

“What we’ve found is that these experiences have helped us gain a tremendous amount of engagement, people can record the whole interaction or have a recording sent to them and so we’re making these digital events very tangible.”

Agencies can play a supportive role

It’s not just Mastercard that is working to do more and innovate with a tighter budget. In May, the WFA published data indicating that global brands planned to pause ad spend for at least six months.

However, in October, fresh analysis showed tentative grounds for optimism that global ad spend may have already hit its lowest ebb. 21% of marketers are now positive about their prospects, and 36% feel neutral - versus equivalent responses of 8% and 41% in June.

Brands are still tightening their belts though, with Rajamannar recognising that many WFA members are still under pressure when it comes to spending.

“Very few categories, and a few fortunate companies, have more funds than normal, but for the majority of companies budgets have been cut as much as 30%, 40% and 50%."

Amid this, he considers that there is a large role for agency partners to play. “They need to be supportive, of course they’re not philanthropic themselves, they have objectives and targets, but they need to offer a level of empathy and flexibility to clients.

“Agencies need to rethink their models and ask how they can be both efficient and effective when there is no physical contact.”

In return, clients showing a long-term commitment to agencies right now matters more than ever.

“Marketers mustn’t shortchange their own interests by hanging a metaphorical sword on top of agencies’ heads, saying they’re going to run an RFP, reduce their costs RLS and so on – it shouldn’t work that way.

“There has to be a longevity of relationship between an agency and the client. That longevity will help the agency understands the soul of the client and it'll make them understand how the company [they’re working with] really things feels and acts.

“This can’t be done with a single brief, it takes time. So at this stage, agencies need to be selected long-term, as much as brands are under pressure."

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