Still one of Japan’s most talked-about companies after 19 years in operation, Rakuten has recently been in the news for good and bad reasons: the ecommerce giant beat out rivals like Alibaba and Amazon to become FC Barcelona’s main global partner along with Nike for the next four seasons, and first global innovation and entertainment partner, in a deal worth close to $260m (£209m).
According to a spokesperson, Rakuten will activate around the sponsorship by offering Barcelona fans "groundbreaking new services and entertainment, unlike anything seen in the sporting world before".
At the same time, the company has once again come under renewed calls to stop people – as Amazon has – from using its marketplace to sell products from endangered animals. Conservationists have demanded that Barcelona put pressure on the company prohibit all sales of ivory, which Rakuten currently allows according to certain regulations.
The developments show on one hand the scale of Rakuten’s global ambition, and on the other the level of scrutiny and operational challenges that still exist. For a marketer tasked with building the company’s global brand, there is a lot to think about.
Rahul Kadavakolu has had that role since February, when he joined from Wipro, a large Indian IT company. Based at Rakuten’s Futako Tamagawa headquarters, he played a key role in negotiating the FC Barcelona sponsorship and his involvement in the company is wide-ranging – perhaps more so than is typical for a non-Japanese marketer in a Japanese company.
Kadavakolu says one of the main reasons for joining was the chance to work under "a visionary like Mickey" (Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten’s co-founder and chief executive). Mikitani is closely involved in the marketing function, which means he gives people like Kadavakolu a good degree of freedom but is also able to ensure that activities align with business goals. Those activities often have very little to do with advertising, or indeed any overt promotion.
Rakuten's innovation projects this year include the opening of the Rakuten Blockchain Lab in Belfast, an R&D centre focusing on the application of blockchain technology (which underpins the bitcoin digital currency) to ecommerce and fintech. The company has also developed a drone delivery system, Sora Raku, which launched in April.
Part of Kadavakolu's responsibility is to identify how innovative concepts and best practices can be applied across markets, sometimes from Japan to the rest of the world and sometimes vice-versa. One project currently underway will see an "unconventional medium" from Japan that Kadavakolu cannot disclose introduced internationally.
The main aim in all this is of course to build Rakuten’s corporate brand. Here, there is still a good amount of work to be done: it ranked 277th overall in Campaign and Nielsen’s 2016 Asia’s Top 1,000 Brands report, which gauges consumer perception of brands across the region. That compares to Amazon’s placing at 42. Taiwan has proved to be one of Rakuten’s most successful global markets. Kadavakolu attributes this to the platform functioning as "an integral part of consumers’ lives", with different services interlinking seamlessly.
In markets where competitors are firmly established, that is not easy to achieve. Kadavakolu’s approach to creating an edge for Rakuten is to see his and others’ jobs simply as "an opportunity to build new ideas". That means empowering people to come up with innovative concepts that can benefit the brand, regardless of their job titles. While silos exist as they do anywhere, he says it is relatively easy to bring different teams together to collaborate on projects because of a culture that is diverse (with between 50 and 60 nationalities in the Tokyo office) and more peer-to-peer oriented than top-down. As an example, he cites Rakuten’s Project 6 initiative, which gives encourages employees with good ideas to handpick a team of six and work together to build a business plan that can potentially receive funding.
In that respect, Kadavakolu says Rakuten feels "global" as opposed to Japanese, "progressive with strong fundamentals" as opposed to regimented. It’s the openness to new thinking that will be key to its growth. "If you asked me, are there things we can do better, I’d say of course there are, and we should keep bettering ourselves," he says. "One can sit back and hope someone will tell them what to do, or you can play the role of change agent and lead the way."
Looking ahead, Kadavakolu is a strong advocate of the use of bots in marketing. In August, Rakuten Ventures invested in Dexter, a US company that helps companies design chatbots.
"Our mission is to be a global innovation company and we are always looking at new technologies we can embed into our ecosystem to improve service levels and customer experience," Kadavakolu says. "Bots will help companies and marketers learn more, and learn deeply, about customers and preferences. This learning will help provide better, personalised and differentiated services and help make more focused recommendations. From a marketing perspective, [it] will really help us shape our campaigns and messages better.
"Data and customer experience cannot be unlinked from marketing…Customers are talking, but how much are we listening as a brand? Bots can play a key role in amplifying the listening and learning process and help marketers pick signals from all the noise."
A version of this story first appeared on Campaign Japan.