Mastercard is trying very hard to get people to use "Masterpass" as a verb, and there is more to this mindset than promoting the card network's digital wallet.

As as a strategy, CEO Ajay Banga described the push for Masterpass adoption as “digital by default," in Tuesday's first-quarter earnings call. This philosophy will be increasingly vital to the survival of card networks over time.

Will it work? In many ways, it has to.

Card networks can see the writing on the wall for cards, despite an ongoing investment in EMV, biometrics, NFC and other technologies that keep plastic cards current in today's risk environment. Mastercard has even begun lowercasing the "Card" in its brand, placing less emphasis on its history in plastic.

Chart: Behind 'digital by default'

Mastercard is placing a big bet on the evolution of its Masterpass digital wallet, with a 3 percentage-point year-over-year increase on special item expenditure purely dedicated to advertising and marketing this initiative. It’s a bold move across multiple media channels with a lofty objective: To displace Venmo as the verb of choice for millennials when they want to move money. But despite Mastercard's history and scale, evicting the incumbent millennial P-to-P brand will be an uphill struggle.

Mastercard is wisely looking beyond just consumers in promoting Masterpass, highlighting its merchant relationships with FreshDirect, Subway and Cheesecake Factory, all of which support Masterpass ordering via Facebook Messenger. Internationally, Masterpass is the backbone for QR code transactions in a number of developing markets. Its next steps will likely focus on the Internet of Things, automotive and voice commerce systems.

Ubiquity across digital platforms at least seeds Masterpass as an option. It is already becoming pervasive across retail app environments. However, existence does not necessarily equate to adoption. We can expect to see some hefty incentivization by Mastercard to persuade consumers to make their wallet the digital default and to develop awareness and trust.

Overall, Mastercard's first quarter earnings came in at $2.734 billion, up 12% from the first quarter 2016's earnings of $2.4 billion; or $1.01 per share, up 17% from $0.86 per share in the prior year.

"We're off to a very good start, with strong revenue and earnings growth driven by solid transaction volume levels this quarter," Banga said in a press release.

Completing the VocaLink acquisition, which recently cleared late regulatory hurdles in the U.K., "redefines" Mastercard's opportunities and positions it favorably to capture new payment flows, Banga said.

Mastercard has made digital technology and payments security key goals, recently debuting a biometric card in South Africa, and placing more marketing muscle behind its Masterpass digital wallet. The card brand has also last week gave technology executive Ed McLaughlin a greater role in driving the company's digital strategy.

John Adams contributed to this article.

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Nick Holland

Nick Holland

Nick Holland is a senior analyst at PaymentsSource. He has previously held analyst roles at Javelin Strategy & Research, Yankee Group and Aite Group.