How do you merge two strong, established companies from different cultures under a single flagship brand? It’s a question that has been asked frequently since Rakuten acquired Ebates, Cash Back leader of the United States, back in 2014.

With Ebates recently completing its transition to the Rakuten brand, the answer is clear: with a thorough, multi-tiered, and strategic process that takes everyone into account: employees, partners, and members.

Shared Values: A Starting Point and a Roadmap

It helps that the companies share much of the same DNA. Both place a strong emphasis on “omotenashi” (“hospitality” in Japanese) and maximizing customer satisfaction. “Ebates and Rakuten have a strong history of embracing a culture of service,” said Amit Patel, CEO of Rakuten Americas. “Sharing values goes a long way to overcoming cultural and geographic differences.”

To understand where it stood at the outset of the project and the obstacles to come, Ebates performed market research on the consumer perception of Rakuten in the United States, the company’s key market. In an aided brand-awareness study, 75 per cent of Americans said they recognized Ebates—which is excellent—compared with a score for Rakuten of “somewhere in the neighborhood of five to eight per cent,” said Rakuten Americas COO Adrienne Down Coulson.

With this insight as a starting point, Ebates began its rebranding journey in earnest. The company’s logo, which had been resolutely unchanged for nearly 20 years, underwent a refresh and started to evolve towards the Rakuten look and feel. The in-house creative team introduced upgrades to the overall visual appeal of Ebates.com with a more dynamic color palette, contemporary imagery and typestyles, and a greater reliance on photography.

Ebates has now fully transitioned to the Rakuten brand.
Ebates has now fully transitioned to the Rakuten brand.

These changes were gradually rolled out to the Ebates user base. At first only a few visitors to Ebates.com were redirected to Rakuten.com to be informed, “We’re now Rakuten, while others continued to see the traditional Ebates.com interface. Over time, more and more visitors were diverted to the new site.” As of August 1, 2019, everyone is brought to the Rakuten.com site.

The rebranding is spurring greater collaboration with Ebates merchants that are excited about the new platform’s ability to enhance their business, according to Down Coulson.

“Our merchant partners understand the strategic value of rebranding from Ebates to Rakuten,” she added. “Rakuten’s global reach and diverse portfolio have renewed their interest in collaborating with us to deliver more benefits to our members, especially here in the U.S.”

Internal Reboot

The project also required a thoughtful approach for shifting the mindset of Ebates’ 700 primarily Bay Area-based employees to adopt the Rakuten brand as their flagship. At a full-company meeting in January, executives handed out Rakuten-branded gifts and retooled mission-value statements.

Rakuten employees hold up a thank you note from Amit Patel, CEO of Rakuten Americas, during the company's internal relaunch.
Rakuten employees hold up a thank you note from Amit Patel, CEO of Rakuten Americas, during the company’s internal relaunch.

The internal relaunch included a fun contest where Rakuten and Ebates employees worked together to sign up the most friends and family-members to take advantage of Rakuten.com’s quarterly Cash Back awards. When an ice sculpture of the Ebates logo melted down to nothing but water, the contest ended. The kicker: The sculpture was embedded with a $1,000 cash prize for the team that signed up the most new referrals.

The internal relaunch included a fun contest where Rakuten and Ebates employees worked together to sign up the most friends and family-members to take advantage of Rakuten.com’s quarterly Cash Back awards. When an ice sculpture of the Ebates logo melted down to nothing but water, the contest ended.

Continuing the transition, everyone joins Rakuten’s “Asakai” meetings on Mondays while All-Hands meetings are held on Fridays to specifically discuss Ebates/Rakuten.com business.

“Change can be invigorating, especially when it challenges your assumptions,” said Patel. “Successful companies understand that changing together can strengthen the work culture and be a catalyst for sparking customer interest.”

“Can You Say Rakuten?”

Rebranding activities continue to roll out and grab attention across the U.S. Rakuten is the jersey badge sponsor of one of the NBA’s most successful teams, the Golden State Warriors, which means its logo is placed on the front of the uniforms of one of the league’s marquee franchises. Warriors home games have featured Rakuten Cash Back offers for fans who purchase logoed merchandise and on select nights, “Pop-A-Shot” games, which gave high scorers a chance to enter the Rakuten “cash-grab” wind machine on the court to collect as much cash as they can in 15 seconds.

Warriors home games have featured Rakuten Cash Back offers for fans who purchase logoed merchandise and “Pop-A-Shot” games where audience members can step into a “cash-grab” wind machine to collect as much cash as they can in 15 seconds.

A tongue-in-cheek television campaign was launched to educate Americans on the correct pronunciation of Rakuten name. The first execution debuted moments before the 2019 Super Bowl – the world’s most watched program – and featured Americans encountering a mysterious box displaying the question, “Can you say Rakuten?” While most mispronounced the name, whenever someone got it right a door opened and showered them with confetti and cash. The look on their faces? Priceless.

A TV campaign was launched by Rakuten that showed Americans showered with confetti and cash after correctly pronouncing the Rakuten name.

The rebranding of Ebates to Rakuten is going smoothly and will continue through 2019, said Down Coulson.

“The goal of the campaign was to come out the other side with a brand that we’re proud of,” said Down Coulson. “We’ve successfully addressed our members and the rest of the U.S. to Rakuten. Now we’re well on the way to building Rakuten into one of North America’s best-known brands.”