How Rakuten is leveraging sports partnerships to transition to a ‘superbrand’: Q&A with Rahul Kadavakolu

When Rakuten announced it was unifying its global brands, on July 1, 2017, the timing was no accident. That same day the company launched a new global partnership with FC Barcelona, one of the most recognized and respected global brands in sports. Soon after, Rakuten inked partnerships with the defending National Basketball Association champions, Golden State Warriors, and then, several weeks later, with the NBA itself. Rakuten will also sponsor Shakira’s upcoming El Dorado World Tour.

So, what was the thinking behind one of Rakuten’s biggest global branding plays ever? Rakuten Today sat down with Rahul Kadavakolu, Director of Global Marketing and Branding, to find out more.

Why did Rakuten decide to unify its global brands?

It is part of our long term strategy to build our ecosystem as a ‘branded house’ versus a ‘house of brands.’ It’s much easier for consumers to engage with a single brand offering multiple services, rather than with multiple brands with different offerings. This makes logical sense especially where we aim to deliver a connected customer experience across our ecosystem. A unified brand is also much easier for us to manage. We believe this change will help us further expand the Rakuten brand. Our aim and vision is to grow it into a global ‘superbrand,’ and introduce the power of our membership strategy to our consumers around the world.

Why did Rakuten choose to partner with sports teams?

Companies use a variety of mediums to support their branding efforts. Our CEO, Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani, and our team saw sports as an extremely good avenue to connect with audiences to build and enhance brand awareness, share our brand values, and amplify our membership efforts. Rakuten has seen great results from our associations with major sports teams in Japan, too – such as baseball team Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and football club Vissel Kobe. What it comes down to is that we believe strongly that sports have the power to unite the world and bring people together. Sports cut across language, culture and regional barriers and create an emotional connection with customers.

Why is creating an emotional connection so important for Rakuten?

We are, at the heart, a membership company. And, as a membership company, it’s essential to us that we create a strong emotional connection with our consumers. Let’s take our e-commerce business as an example: if customers know exactly what they want, and want it now, there are a lot of companies they can go to, and we are also very competitive in that space. But if we want to create long-term value with our customers, we need them to understand that we are a place they can come for new discoveries. We need to establish a relationship of loyalty and trust – and sport is an extremely effective tool for building that kind of connection.

Why FC Barcelona and Golden State Warriors?

We felt a deep connection with the philosophies of both FC Barcelona and Golden State Warriors, and we liked how, even though they are both top-class teams in their leagues, they are very connected to their communities and focused on teamwork. They are also known for their unique and innovative styles of play – they are all about entertaining their fans with their skills. This is very similar to the philosophy of Rakuten, especially as it is expressed in our Japanese marketplace, Rakuten Ichiba, where we work hand-in-hand with our merchants. I want to emphasize that both teams were handpicked very carefully. If the talks hadn’t gone through, it was not like we would pick the second team from a list we had.

"A brand is everything. It essentially is the sum of all experiences and for us it sits at the heart of everything we do," said Rakuten's Kadavakolu.
“A brand is everything. It essentially is the sum of all experiences and for us it sits at the heart of everything we do,” said Rakuten’s Rahul Kadavakolu.

Why is the Rakuten logo on the Golden State Warriors uniform called a “badge”?

Officially, the NBA calls the sponsorship logos that have been introduced across the NBA this year a ‘patch,’ but I felt very uncomfortable with the use of word patch. A patch is used to typically cover up something and we did not want our logo to be referred to as a patch. We talked with the Warriors about the option of calling at a ‘Badge’ and they really liked the idea and chose to call the logo a ‘badge,’ even describing it as a “badge of honor” at our press conference. At the end of the day, we want players to wear this with pride like how all our employees wear the Rakuten ID badge on their chest. They’re the only team that is doing so and I think it shows how much they value this partnership. Recently, we heard that the NBA is now referring it to as a ‘Badge’ as well and we are very proud that we created this trend and set the standard.

Why did Rakuten partner with the NBA in addition to the Warriors?

Usually, if you were to sponsor an NBA team, your activities would be restricted to the particular territory where that team is based, but we’ve gone beyond that and created a unique partnership with the league that lets us extend our marketing activities outside the territory and globally . The NBA wants to boost basketball globally and they chose Rakuten as one of the companies to support that initiative. We are now looking at enhancing e-commerce partnership efforts on Rakuten Ichiba and other Rakuten e-commerce channels, as well as unique programs and initiatives on our global messaging app, Rakuten Viber.

What results have you seen from the partnerships so far?

We have seen some very interesting use of the FC Barcelona partnership in the B2B area – and not just from Europe-based companies.

Rakuten Kobo kicked off a Partner Summit with their European retail partners at Camp Nou and I’ve heard the results have been phenomenal. Similarly, Rakuten Marketing really leveraged FC Barcelona’s US Tour in July to reach out to clients and have said that it has given them better leveraging power to seal deals with clients, given all the brand exposure.

How important is branding to Rakuten’s overall success?

A brand is everything. It essentially is the sum of all experiences and for us it sits at the heart of everything we do. For Rakuten, strategic branding and marketing is not a mere support function that sits behind the business, but an important enabler that runs beside it. As part of our strategy, we are focused on building a strong brand in global markets. Through our partnerships with FC Barcelona, the Warriors and the NBA, we’ve seen some incredible progress toward this goal already and we look forward to seeing more in future.

What is it about Rakuten that makes it an attractive place to work for marketers?

If you’re a marketer at Rakuten, you don’t just work for one company – you get an opportunity to work with more than 70 services. Even if you’re in an advertising agency, you’re usually restricted to a few brands. The learning at Rakuten is unlimited.

In terms of how our model works, we have data, membership and brand at the heart of everything we do, three points that should be attractive to any modern marketer. Add to that our partnerships with arguably the two biggest sports brands in the world and every marketer should want to be here.

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