With Rakuten’s sponsorship of iconic football club FC Barcelona and a strategic brand integration kicking off last year, recognition of the Rakuten name in Europe is growing fast. To get a sense of the extent of Rakuten’s commitment to the region – as well as the vision for the future – Rakuten.Today caught up with Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten in Europe.

"Europe has always been a core market for Rakuten. We’ve been active in the region for nearly a decade," explains Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten Europe.

“Europe has always been a core market for Rakuten. We’ve been active in the region for nearly a decade,” explains Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten Europe.

Can you give us an overview of Rakuten’s current position in Europe?

Europe has always been a core market for Rakuten. We’ve been active in the region for nearly a decade. More than 15 Rakuten companies are based here, including PriceMinister-Rakuten, Rakuten.de, Rakuten TV, Rakuten Viber, Rakuten Marketing, Rakuten Aquafadas and Rakuten Fits Me – and some of our biggest investments, including Glovo, Cabify and Currency Cloud, have been made in Europe.

We have a long history – but it’s only since we started to unify our brands around the Rakuten name, and launched our partnership with FC Barcelona last year, that people really started to recognize the extent of our presence and our commitment to the region.

How do you plan on connecting all those businesses?

Some of our Europe-based services are already in the process of expanding their ecosystems within their own countries. For example, members of Club Rakuten on our German e-commerce site can earn points and use them on Rakuten TV, as well as on the Viber messaging service.

But the key to a true ecosystem like the one we have in Japan is what we call Rakuten Global ID, a unique membership ID allowing users to access all of our services, regardless of their location. Several of our services in Europe are already using the system, but not all of them. And not all of our services are available in every country. Those are the areas we need to focus on in the immediate future – to achieve our full potential.

So your vision is a fully connected ecosystem throughout Europe – as in Japan, where Rakuten offers more than 70 services?

That’s the model we’re aiming for here in Europe! Of course, it would not be that scale from day one, but we have already started to connect many dots among our e-commerce, payment, digital content, communications, marketing, and IT services, to build up a strong membership platform – central to the ecosystem.

How do Rakuten.co.uk and Rakuten.es fit into the ecosystem?

Taking a hint from the success of Rakuten’s Ebates cashback service in the United States, we developed programs in the UK and in Spain respectively that let users earn Rakuten Super Points by shopping online at affiliate stores. Just like with Club Rakuten in Germany or PriceClub in France, the points can be redeemed on other Rakuten services: for movies on Rakuten TV, for example, or to purchase credit for Viber Out calls using Rakuten Viber. Rakuten Super Points can also be exchanged for coupons and store credit with major brands including HMV, Currys or Tk Maxx – so the affiliate malls serve as effective and attractive first entry points into the ecosystem for many users.

How does the Europe strategy differ to Japan?

Europe is a diverse market compared to Japan, and having different regulations and languages in each country can prove challenging. But initiatives like the brand unification and the FC Barcelona partnership prove that we don’t intend to slow down, but rather to accelerate. We’re also investing heavily in research and development to be able to not only compete, but actively shape the digital world of tomorrow. We have a dedicated blockchain research lab in Belfast to make sure we’re using that exciting new technology to the fullest and the Paris branch of Rakuten Institute of Technology is working on the latest and greatest in tech, including VR and AR shopping.

How has becoming the Main Global Partner of FC Barcelona impacted the business?

There is a clear impact, and not only on the branding side. Yes, it is a pretty exceptional feeling to see the likes of Messi carrying our company logo on his jersey – but the partnership also gives us credibility and shows our commitment to the region. We’re also getting a sense of the scale of the impact, with the FCB Viber Public Account already seeing participation from 5 million users.

And we shouldn’t forget our other major partnership: the Golden State Warriors. While the Warriors are based in the U.S., in the San Francisco Bay area, the team has a big following here in Europe, and they are planning to make a big push using official Viber Public Accounts in several European languages in the near future.

We’ve already launched some very cool new services together with FCB and are really aiming at revolutionizing sports sponsorships as we know it. These efforts lead to other very important partnerships, like the one launched with easyJet last year.

So what’s the next step for Rakuten in Europe? Can you give us a glimpse into the future for the region?

We have a few significant steps planned in the near future in terms of further integrating our brands in Europe, bringing more services onto the Rakuten Global ID platform and generally bringing them closer together. This can be done through simple steps such as aligning names of customer loyalty programs and can go as far as to technically connect single services, which will serve as the essential foundation for the ambitious journey ahead. In terms of new products, the expansion of financial services will be an important next step. If you look into the success of the Rakuten Card in Japan, you can understand how important financial services are to the creation of the regional ecosystem. We share the same ambition.