How A Diverse Partnership Portfolio Pays Off for Mastercard
In conversation with podcast host Jim Andrews, Michael puts the payment technology systems company’s vast portfolio of partnerships in perspective—from targeting various audiences to meeting business and marketing goals.
Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: As a global company, Mastercard has a bifurcated sponsorship structure, with a team responsible for global partnerships—in which you previously worked—and, in North America, one that oversees deals on this continent—where you sit currently. Can you tell us about the division of responsibilities between those teams?
Michael: We have sponsorships across the globe, including Major League Baseball and the PGA Tour in North America, UEFA Champions League and Roland Garros in Europe, the Australian Open and Rugby World Cup, and the GRAMMY Awards—which takes place in the U.S. but is global in reach and scale.
The sponsorships and marketing groups are structured the way the company overall is structured. Mastercard has five regions globally: North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, Middle East-Africa, and Latin and South America. Every region has their own marketing and sponsorship teams.
Then there is a global overlay. When you think about key learnings, best practices, brand consistency and all of those things, the global team helps with that, whether it’s bringing people to Priceless, putting our sonic brand in the right spot, or ensuring that the look and feel of our events across all types of passions and locations is consistent. Sometimes they will lean in and lead or run a sponsorship, such as Rugby World Cup, and other times they will support an event like the Arnold Palmer Invitational, our flagship golf event in North America, which we are the presenting sponsor, of and where the North America team will lead. The global team is an internal center of excellence.
Jim: Mastercard has evolved its approach to sponsorship over the years, adapting to changes in its business, changing consumer attitudes, etc. How would you characterize that approach today in terms of what are the most important pillars of the company’s sponsorship strategy and, if possible, can you give us an example of Mastercard’s sponsorship philosophy in action through one or two of your partnerships?
Michael: We want to consistently ensure that Mastercard is enhancing the fan experience. We do that by integrating what we believe is very innovative technology in the payment space, whether that’s contactless payments, or cashless and frictionless environments.
Ultimately, we want to make sure that payments are secure, that we are adding to the fan experience, and that we make cardholders feel like they are getting access, benefits or priceless experiences by having a Mastercard, which they otherwise wouldn’t get if they didn’t have one. That’s first and foremost what we are trying to do, for fans, cardholders and the broader business and customer community that we associate with. We want people to understand what Mastercard can bring to the table.
As an example, I would offer the 2022 MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where we also have a relationship with the Dodgers. We did a host of things, including a partnership with an important merchant, Uber, where we worked with one of our MLB ambassadors, David Ortiz, to reward people who used their Mastercards when taking an Uber to the stadium with a surprise meet-and-greet with him.
We also stood up a semi-permanent pop-up store on the concourse that was fully frictionless. You didn’t have to take out your Mastercard to pay for it; you could just walk in, grab a beverage and walk out. That enhanced the experience by getting fans back to their seats quicker.
We did something with the small-business community, which is a very important sector from a business standpoint for us, where he had small-business contest winners throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
All of those coming together with the baseball platform underneath is an example of how we activate in a holistic, 360-degree manner.
Jim: You’ve been doing this a fairly long time. With technology and all kinds of other developments adding new components to sponsorship activation, would you say it’s more challenging to activate a sponsorship now than 10 or 15 years ago?
Michael: I think that’s a fair statement. The upside is that there is more opportunity to reach people in different ways, especially in the digital world, where ecommerce is a space that Mastercard plays in.
But it means that it is so important that what we do from a sponsorship standpoint is authentic to the company overall. If we are going to focus on small-business owners who are Black female entrepreneurs and have our ambassador Jennifer Hudson be the face of that campaign, it has to be backed up by other things we are doing in the diversity and inclusion space. It does, as we have committed to investing $500 million in Black communities over five years.
Or in sustainability. A few years ago we created the Priceless Planet Coalition. We are not randomly talking about how it’s important to be kind to the environment. There is an overall corporate initiative that we are supporting by how we are activating at some of our sponsorship events.
We’re not just doing things because we think people want to hear them. We are doing them because they are important to Mastercard across everything the company is doing.
Jim: Your sponsorship portfolio in North America alone is quite diverse, to say nothing of the global relationships. Can you walk us through how the target audiences and objectives may vary from deal to deal?
Michael: There is a reason we have a portfolio. Sports provides us with a lot of scale and structure. I know where the MLB All-Star Game is going to be several years out. I know what broadcast entity it’s going to be on. I know to an extent when and where the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Braves and the Dodgers are going to play their games. That all helps for planning purposes.
On the flip side, take something like culinary, which we are very involved with through relationships with celebrity chefs and Time Out offering us a dining series that we can move around the country. This is very popular with our customers, our issuing banks and our merchants because it is so customizable. Are you getting the eyeballs that a PGA Tour even or the GRAMMY Awards or the MLB All-Star Game are providing? No. But as I joke with people, we can’t bring the entire Yankees team to a dinner!
But we can bring a chef, and Marcus Samuelsson is a fantastic ambassador. And Antonia Lofaso is a fantastic ambassador. And we can do different things with them to fit our varying needs and stakeholders, such as with cardholder segments or customers who are important to us—bringing them to a business meeting to make breakfast or lunch for the group, etc.
This is why we are involved with different passions. I mentioned baseball and culinary, but there’s music, golf, esports—with League of Legends and certainly that audience doesn’t have an enormous overlap with the golf or baseball audience, so now we’re reaching new people.
Jim: How important is it for your partners to play an active role in developing activations and experiential platforms to engage their fans and followers? What are the elements of Mastercard’s business that are most important for your partners to understand?
Michael: You said the word “partner” a few times and that’s because it’s a partnership. We count on our partners to let us know what our options are, what’s new, what’s coming, what’s different. Sometimes it may be letting us know what wouldn’t resonate with their audience and why, so we can adjust things accordingly.
We can’t ask them to come up with activation ideas unless they know what is important to us first. It’s on us to say what’s important and what are our focus areas, and then we can work with them as they come back to us to develop ideas and make sure the things we are doing make sense. There’s always a little give and take. Whether we are the presenting sponsor, a tier-one sponsor, or a lower-tier sponsor, there are typically other sponsors involved, so how do we carve out a lane that makes sense for Mastercard and showcases our brand but makes sense within the overall ecosystem in which we are operating.
It’s important for our partners to be creative, be nimble and be flexible, but it’s also on us to be a good partner back.
Jim: There’s a lot of talk about being data driven in these types of initiatives. A lot of sponsors may be looking to leagues, teams and other partners for data on their fans, but I imagine it may be a little different for Mastercard, since you hold some of that key customer data in terms of purchases. Is there an exchange of information with your property partners as you look to make the right offers to fans.
Michael: Certainly Mastercard has plenty of data and obviously we need to be careful from a data privacy standpoint. For us, it’s a matter of seeing opportunities for us to enhance the experience—or fans, for cardholders, and even for non-cardholders and create some card envy.
Is it worth doing something, say, with the pubs around Rugby World Cup stadiums in Europe? Is it worth doing things at certain entrance points versus others? Is merch a bigger share of what people are buying at Yankee Stadium or is it food and beverage?
Jim: As we start the new year, what do see as some of the major opportunities as well as major challenges for brand partners like Mastercard and the rights holders they partner with?
Michael: It’s such an evolving landscape, whether it’s collective bargaining agreements, which effected Major League Baseball before this past season; new broadcast deals; streaming entities coming into the picture in a bigger way with Apple TV+ and MLB, Amazon and the NFL; sports betting is changing the fan experience and how does Mastercard fit into that or not?
And there is women’s sports. Certainly something that is important to Mastercard. We sponsor the NWSL and are a big believer in female empowerment and inclusion. There is growth and upside there. It’s an opportunity for us to help bring the league to the forefront.