Last month, Rakuten made headlines around Asia with the unveiling of the Rakuten Monkeys — the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s (CPBL) three-time defending champs.
At a high-profile event in Taipei, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani, alongside Taoyuan City Mayor Cheng Wen-Tsang and CPBL Commissioner Wu Chih-Yang, revealed the Monkeys’ new name, uniforms, colors and logo.
For Rakuten, the event marked a major milestone: the company’s first acquisition of a professional sports franchise outside of Japan. But while Rakuten may be the new kid on the block in the CPBL, the company has a long history in Taiwan.
Connecting with Taiwanese customers for over a decade
Rakuten has developed a strong presence in the Taiwanese market since entering in 2008, boasting some 6.3 million users (over a quarter of Taiwan’s entire population) and issuing well over 500 million Rakuten Super Points.
“One thing that makes our operations in Taiwan unique is how many consumer-facing services we have launched,” says Takashi Watanabe, head of Rakuten Group’s operations in greater Asia. “E-commerce, travel, credit card, eBooks, consumer-to-consumer — we have so many opportunities to interact with Taiwanese customers directly.”
Rakuten’s e-commerce expansion into international markets began with the launch of the online shopping platform Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba in 2008. Alongside rapid e-commerce growth, the ecosystem has since expanded to include Rakuten Travel, Rakuten Card, Rakuten Kobo, Rakuma and more, all connected with the ever-popular Rakuten Super Points.
Origins of the brand: Rakuten as a gateway to Japan
In launching many of these services, Rakuten was entering an already crowded market. “As is the case in most markets, we have plenty of competitors,” Watanabe says. “There are several strong local e-commerce players, for example. Taiwanese consumers are also likely to hold several different credit cards.”
To make an impression on the local market, Rakuten needed to give consumers something no one else could. “Taiwan is one of Japan’s neighbors and we have a lot in common culturally,” he continues. “Japan welcomes nearly 5 million visitors from Taiwan each year, and that number is growing. This cultural connection is something we have focused on as we invite people to try out our services.”
Rakuten has worked to establish itself as a gateway to all things Japanese, through services that make it easier to buy from or even travel to Japan.
“Using Rakuten Global Market, for example, our members in Taiwan can purchase all sorts of products from Japan. We also offered Rakuten Card users special benefits when traveling to Japan,” Watanabe explains. “From there, it’s just a question of establishing them as services that also have just as much appeal locally.”
The appeal of the Japan connection has been effective in attracting new users, but it is up to the strength of the ecosystem back home to keep customers loyal. One major milestone in this process was the launch of Rakuten Card in Taiwan.
“Similar to Japan, one of the big turning points for Rakuten’s business in Taiwan was when we received our license to operate a credit card business,” Watanabe relates. “The service grew rapidly, and has become a major pillar for our fintech businesses and our loyalty program.”
Connecting brand recognition to local services
With consumer-facing businesses, Watanabe says, brand recognition is especially important.
“Today, the Rakuten logo is already recognized by more than 75% of the Taiwanese population,” he explains. “That number has climbed gradually over the decade we’ve been in business here… but many of those people still only know Rakuten as a Japanese company — through our partnership with the NBA, for example. They aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing locally here in Taiwan.”
This, Watanabe says, is where the Rakuten Monkeys come into play. “Baseball gives us a fantastic opportunity to communicate with people about all the Rakuten services they can actually use, rather than just our name and logo,” he explains. “The Rakuten Monkeys will play the role of connecting these different services with the brand.”
The announcement of Rakuten’s entry into Taiwanese professional baseball came hot on the heels of Rakuten being approved to begin yet another undertaking in the region: online banking. Business is slated to begin in 2020, but the ambitions don’t end there.
“There are still a lot of services we haven’t yet launched in Taiwan,” Watanabe says. “But with the Rakuten Monkeys, launching any one of our services feels much more possible.”