Photo: Rakuten Ichiba mascot Okaimono Panda was a star attraction at this year's Rakuten EXPO, an annual gathering of Rakuten Ichiba merchants.

Empowering individuals and society through innovation: The mission that has guided Rakuten from its earliest days is perhaps nowhere more apparent than at its annual Rakuten EXPO for online merchants.

Held over four cities this summer, the large-scale event brought together thousands of the merchants who make up the leading e-commerce platform in Japan, Rakuten Ichiba. Hailing from all corners of the nation, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, merchants gathered to learn the latest e-commerce strategies, connect with the Rakuten team and meet their peers.

This is also the event where Rakuten Chairman & CEO Mickey Mikitani takes to the stage to share his vision for the marketplace directly with the stakeholders who make the business model possible.

Growing together

This year “Growth” was the event’s theme, and Mickey began with a look back on just how far the merchants and Rakuten had come in the 20 years since Rakuten’s establishment.

Reminiscing about the days of dial-up internet connections, he said, “When we started Rakuten Ichiba there was no broadband, internet connections were very slow and no one thought people would ever shop online.”

Merchants gather for a session in the main venue of the annual Rakuten EXPO

Merchants gather for a session in the main venue of the annual Rakuten EXPO

Dialing forward to Rakuten’s present, and the recently launched partnership with global sporting icon FC Barcelona, Mickey shared his perspective on the role of rebranding in Rakuten’s global growth strategy.

“The Rakuten brand can be incredibly powerful,” he said. “And this partnership (with FC Barcelona) is extremely important for our brand both in Japan and the rest of the world. . . Right now we have some 1.1 billion members across the globe. We’re aiming to double that.”

Since the event was held, Rakuten has also announced new branding initiatives, including a major partnership with reigning NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors.

Mickey went on to describe his vision for the growth of Rakuten membership. “Currently, we have many different membership ID systems for the various services we offer in different countries. We want to bring them all together,” he said.

Such moves would benefit not just the merchants on Rakuten Ichiba but all of Rakuten’s businesses and customers, by making it easier for them to discover the wide variety of services available within the Rakuten Group.

Naho Kono, president of Rakuten’s e-commerce business, also took to the stage to outline Rakuten Ichiba’s domestic strategy for the remainder of 2017 and explain new developments in the rapidly expanding points program.

The Rakuten EXPO after-party gives participants the opportunity connect and build communities with other merchants.

The Rakuten EXPO after-party gives participants the opportunity connect and build communities with other merchants.

Learning together

Another highlight of the Expo program was the number and variety of open forums for discussion among merchants. High-achievers shared their success stories; innovative merchants explained their unique store management policies. Rakuten Ichiba representatives also showcased new shop management tools in the development pipeline.

The level of dialogue and interaction suggested a common understanding among all parties of what was perhaps the most important message of the day – that success for Rakuten’s merchants means success for Rakuten. And vice versa.