Asia’s thriving e-commerce boom has transformed retail and is encouraging MasterCard to behave like a tech company. Sam Ahmed, APAC CMO at MasterCard, tells the story of a cashless transformation.

Right now working at MasterCard feels like being part of the world’s biggest start up. We’re no longer a plastic card company but more of a technology company.

Our mission is to reinvent ourselves at the centre of commerce, a future where cash is replaced with credit, prepay and simple solutions for both citizens and businesses.

We worked very closely with Apple and a lot of the systems and processes behind Apple Pay were built with MasterCard. But the excitement around our business goes well beyond the pipes for the new economy; it is about making a cash-free world that benefits everyone.

In Myanmar we are working with the government to help set up a payment network to ensure that, as the country opens up, all citizens benefit and even the lowest socioeconomic groups have access.

In Africa we are reinventing aid, moving from the traditional model of providing lots of food to giving people credit that they control. That helps the local business infrastructure stay in place and ensures that when a crisis is over, the region is still viable.

Our central purpose is a world beyond cash. Cash is not only cumbersome and expensive but it also opens doors to crime and illegal trade. No one buys drugs on a card because it can be traced. Cash helps people avoid tax.

Cash means the poorest often lack identity and opportunity. Without a bank account in many countries you do not have an ID, you can’t pay people, you can’t open a business. It can also be very hard to access government benefits. 

APAC is at the centre of the move towards a cashless world, driven by the extraordinary rise of e-commerce. E-com has transformed Asia’s retail scene, forced it to update its technology and transformed buying habits.

In the past, 80% of people purchased a product from within 20km of where they lived. Now they can buy everything from everywhere. 

The smartphone has changed the mindset from: “what can I buy in front of me” to “I’m going to search online, find it and get it shipped to me”.

That creates a new demand for smarter marketing and as a marketer you need to totally button up on your execution. 

Right now, many successful e-com businesses rely on a strategy that will run out of steam – the best offer. Consumers are getting offer overload, they are bombarded by email and SMS.

Every global brand is investing in Asia and has done for the last five years or more. If you’re not cutting through your getting lost in the noise, even with Asian consumers who are more open to brands than those in other regions.

Seven years ago, if I gave you 50% off anything you would react. Now you don’t care. The same need for cut-through that applies to brand marketing has now become essential to e-commerce. 

The new marketing is not awareness at the zero moment of truth, it is cutting though with a marketing message that connects and sells, in real time. 

Making this happen requires marketing to have some skin in the game – P&L responsibility – and a very clear business model. You need marketing that can react immediately to consumer trends, volume and pricing.

You need marketing that clearly understands the price transparency that exists in e-com. If you are not owning that P&L and reacting to that, if you’re not bundling that up and making that work real time, you can lose a lot of money and waste a lot of money.

The best example I can give is a recent e-commerce campaign we ran in India. Independence Day is one of the biggest shopping days in the country but everyone was stuck on “20% off”.

Our insight was to explore the emotional context for India, the fact that it was one of the proudest days of the consumer’s year. We highlighted the fact that everyone has one person who has driven them forward by getting Sunil Gavaskar, a former national cricket captain, to talk about his mother.

The purchase context was who was the one person in India who made me great but we went further than just getting people to name their heroes. We created real-time gifting options linked to each response – gifts for teachers, community leaders and doctors.

It was a campaign that linked emotional insight and purchase insight with the executional offer.

Activity like this is helping Asia lead the way for MasterCard around the world. Our learnings and experience are all being exported; from the technology that we use to target, listen, test content and drive business results, to the speed of decision-making.

We are building the global models for content, knowing how to run a clear story through all platforms digital and offline but ensure they are really creating the purchase context.

This context, both in the way we operate and the speed of change for our business, are hugely inspirational for the best talent. We’re inviting them to joining a company that feels like it is entering chapter two right now. Our offer is for them to be there and help write chapters three, four and five.

No one knows what the future holds but undoubtedly it will be about innovating faster than the next guy. Behaving like a tech company is key to making sure that MasterCard remains on top.


Why is Project Reconnect important to you? 

There is a massive barrier between the business and marketing. Understanding what marketing does can be alien to a business person. Project Reconnect will help take down that language barrier and show how we drive business. Too many marketers want to drive a sale tomorrow and when tomorrow comes they are still looking to the future. I want to drive a sale today and tomorrow.


This article was originally published in Campaign Asia. You can find the article here.