Nobody knew who he was, and nobody asked. He blended into the crowd, bespectacled and wearing a sweater over his gingham-style button-down shirt. He wasn’t wearing his name tag, which perhaps let him saunter past the stands, past promise after promise about the future of technology. He moved slowly yet methodically from booth to booth at the Consumer Electronics Show, the largest tech trade show in the world.
But here was Raja Rajamannar—the chief marketing officer for Mastercard, one of the most well-known brands in the world—just casually asking questions incognito, occasionally picking up a business card or perusing a pamphlet. The folks operating these booths had no idea that the man they were talking to was responsible for spending $587 million on advertising and marketing in the first three quarters of 2017 alone.
“One of the things that fascinates me is the number of people with the same type of product,” he said. “How do they even market themselves? Your heart goes out to them, because they’re out here, they’re spending money, and many of the times, people just come and go away.”
While many marketers spend much of their time at CES in meetings, Rajamannar spends half of his time on what could seem like a wild goose chase. But for him, there’s a strong business imperative to walk the floor and press the flesh. While he doesn’t always know if there will be a use case as he pops by booths, he said it never hurts to grab a card to check out later.
“We are trying to stay ahead of the developments that are happening in the marketplace,” he said on the second day of the convention. “And if there is promise in any concept, we are catching it early in its lifecycle, which means the economics will be better for us, the competitive advantage will be better for us. And if one concept out of 10, 15, 20, whatever it is that we try works, it’s well worth it.”
Walking the gauntlet of more than 4,000 companies, Rajamannar scans for four types of technologies he thinks are important to the future of Mastercard: payments, voice and other artificial intelligence, consumer interfaces (wearables and other connected devices), and security.
“What I try to do is to understand where consumers’ apprehensions are,” he said. “And if you ask consumers what is the thing that is most important for them in a payment product, it’s security. Which makes sense because you’re dealing with money, and you want it to be safe. Then it is up to us as marketers to understand what gives them a sense of confidence, what gives them peace of mind, what makes them feel that this product is more secure than anything else?”
Over the course of an hour, Adweek walked the floor with Rajamannar, listening and watching how he chooses which booths to stop by and how these technologies fit into his business’s goals.
The first stop for Rajamannar: a booth for VocaliD, a Massachusetts-based company that creates, stores and preserves vocal identities. He said every brand is exploring the possibilities of voice these days, often for brand engagement. For Mastercard, however, it could bolster account security.
“These guys are talking about customizing voices,” he said. “When I see something like this, one of the things I keep thinking about is every marketer is talking about getting into the voice space. When you’re in the voice space, there is no visual, so everything is identification of your sonic signature, your sonic branding.”
Voice is an area of increased interest for Mastercard. It also seems to be something that’s of at least some interest to Mastercard’s customers. According to Mastercard’s digital payments study released in early 2017 analyzed 3.5 million conversations across various social channels. The study, which was conducted by PRIME Research and Synthesio, found that about 20 percent of those conversations expressed an interest in smart assistants. That percentage has likely increased as Siri, Alexa and Google Home become increasingly popular and more useful in daily life.
Rajamannar stopped to talk with a connected bicycle company based in France called Velco, whose connected handlebars and navigational tools fit in with Mastercard’s interest in smart cities. For example, in London, Mastercard’s technology powers payments for the bus system. It’s also working on helping governments with analytical support: Where should the next shopping mall be, and what kind of shops should be there? Where should the next stadium go? Where do tourists like to visit?
“Transit is one of the bottlenecks,” he said. “You have to stand in a queue to buy a ticket, or a turnstile, so we think about how can we make it very seamless. Plus, can you integrate all public transit?”
Bellus3D, a 3-D scanning company, caught his eye. The technology—which can scan a person’s face via a smartphone or tablet and then use for face recognition, gaming or other types of simulation—could someday help with security, like the iPhone X’s face unlock feature.
Security is a “passion point” that Mastercard is focusing on. One possibility may be a physical, tangible solution fingerprint reading for in-store purchases, such as the credit card with a built-in fingerprint scanner the company released last year.
“The key thing is: how do you stay ahead of the bad guys?” he said. “[T]he more convenient a thing is to the consumer, [the more] convenient for somebody to break in.”
Food might sound like a strange niche for Mastercard, but it takes money to buy food. (After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.) So Rajamannar stopped at Robomart, a small vending machine on wheels that allows people to purchase snacks.
A self-driving store could have applications for relatively low-traffic areas, he explained, which are maybe more distant for people to visit. Also, it could help to driver on-demand purchases.
“With something like this, I see a lot of possibilities,” he said. “For a self-serving store, obviously honesty is very critical, and you want to make sure you’re getting your payments before they take something. I think you have an identification system out here where you’re going with your card and tapping. And if there is a way I can capture what you bought and bill you or debit your card, that’s a fantastic experience.”