What's in a name for Masterpass, Venmo and Zelle?

| by Will Hernandez
What's in a name for Masterpass, Venmo and Zelle?

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At some point between 2012 and 2014, Venmo began to explode in popularity.

By the time PayPal acquired Venmo in 2014 as part of the Braintree purchase, two things had happened with the mobile person-to-person app, one of which is having a lasting impact on how some payments companies market their products.

Firstly, Venmo became the preferred P2P method for millennials, thanks in part to its social features. For reasons unknown to many, it suddenly became cool to see how people used Venmo to pay back their friends.

Secondly, and more importantly to this conversation, Venmo became a verb, joining the likes of Google in the lexicon of a certain demographic. When your product becomes a verb, you own that particular market.

For better or worse, Venmo is it when it comes to mobile P2P apps.

However, Venmo's success has created a marketing dilemma of sorts for others in the payments industry. And two companies, whether intentionally or not, seem to be following the Venmo "verb" blueprint.

Here's the thing, though: You can't force that kind of marketing onto consumers. It needs to be organic. And what MasterCard and the banks who own Zelle (Venmo's soon-to-be competitor) are doing with their respective products is anything but that. It's cringeworthy.

Let me first address what prompted this particular commentary: Masterpass.

I was watching some of the World Baseball Classic on the MLB Network over the weekend when I caught a MasterCard commercial for Masterpass. If you're unware, MasterCard and Major League Baseball have a longstanding partnership, so a MasterCard commercial on the MLB Network is nothing out of the ordinary. But the current tagline for Masterpass? It made me groan.

'Don't just buy it, Masterpass it' is the new tagline for MasterCard's digital wallet. The first thing I said to myself after I saw the commercial was: Is MasterCard trying to be like Venmo with this approach? It seems that way.

Nobody could've envisioned Venmo becoming as popular as it is. I don't recall much, if any, Venmo marketing when it launched in 2009. In fact, I didn't know about it until a younger friend asked me to Venmo him the money I owed for a concert ticket. Word-of-mouth from users is how the app caught fire.

And the name itself? Well, it fits as a verb. It flows as a catchy two-syllable word. It starts with the letter v. It sounds hip.

Masterpass? That's a mouthful. And it seems like MasterCard is forcing it down our throat as a verb with its current messaging. It's unnecessary. It doesn't fit in with the contextual meaning of Venmo. In fact, I'd bet that most consumers in the coveted millennial demographic are unware of Masterpass.

I can't blame MasterCard for trying, if this is indeed the direction it intended with this Masterpass marketing push. The card network is heavily pushing the digital wallet, especially as it becomes more ubiquitous in retailer mobile apps, mobile banking apps and IoT devices such as smart refrigerators. I believe MasterCard would be better served focusing on the benefits of Masterpass instead of trying to pass it off as a hip payment tool to use at checkout.

And speaking of hip, that brings us to Zelle.

Early Warning, which is owned by the banks participating in the P2P service, confirmed to the Wall Street last August that it was renaming clearXchange to Zelle. Urban Dictionary describes the word as meaning "best girl ever." Yeah, that’s a thing.

If the Zelle name isn't a blatant attempt to play off of Venmo's brand awareness, then I don't know what is. But will it matter?

Zelle is at a serious disadvantage when stacked up against Venmo, which has an eight-year head start. And Zelle isn't even fully in the marketplace yet. Its capabilities are starting to appear within the mobile apps of participating banks, but we're still waiting for the standalone app.

Despite its initial drawbacks, though, Zelle does have a couple of things going for it.

The first is that banks are determined to make it work. I spoke to a couple of bank executives in October at Money2020 and they were genuinely excited about Zelle. Those financial institutions will make every effort to make it a success.

The second plus for Zelle is that funds are deposited straight into a user's bank account. Venmo users have to transfer incoming funds from the system's "wallet" into their bank account, which takes one to three days.

But that name, oh that name.

I can't imagine anyone saying, "Let me Zelle you $20 for that ticket." Talk about a terrible commercial in the making.

I don't want to pick on MasterCard and the banks. I know they put a lot of time and money go into their marketing campaigns. But there is such a thing as trying too hard, and that was my initial reaction to "Masterpass it" and the name "Zelle." 

I'd like to see those brands focus more on the reasons why we should use their products, and less on trying to run with that cool kid, Venmo.

Topics: Card Brands, Mobile Banking, Mobile Marketing, Money Transfer / P2P, Trends / Statistics

Will Hernandez

Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of, he spent two years as the content manager for, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.

View Will Hernandez's profile on LinkedIn

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