Rakuten has strong ties with the Asian and international sports industry. In 2016 they became FC Barcelona’s Main Global Sponsor and first-ever Official Innovation and Entertainment Partner. They own one of the biggest baseball teams in Japan, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and soccer club Vissel Kobe.
We sat down with Vanessa Asell Tsuruga, Vice General Manager Global sports strategy and branding at Rakuten, Inc., and speaker at WFS Asia. Vanessa leads the Digital and Content portfolio, weaving in the contractual sponsorship assets from the sports properties in the Rakuten portfolio.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work experience and how you started at Rakuten? What’s your experience in the world of sports and football?
I think sport can change the world but sport cannot do it on its own. You need people and companies with a passion for empowerment and positive change. I moved to Tokyo for this job 9 months ago because I wanted to work with the big sports properties that Rakuten has. I have a personal connection with Barcelona since I lived there during my teens and I was at Camp Nou in 1994 when FC Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 in El Clásico. Moments and celebrations like that live forever!
I wanted to diversify and help Rakuten reach its goals. Before Rakuten, I spent 12 years with ASICS in sports marketing and activation roles at the Global HQ in Kobe and in the Scandinavian region based in Stockholm. In 2014 I took leave of absence and went to Olympia, Greece, for a Master’s Degree in Olympic Studies at the International Olympic Academy.
Rakuten has been in Spanish news a lot since Iniesta signed for Vissel Kobe. For people who are not familiar, how would you explain Rakuten’s connection with the world of sports and football in particular?
We are not new in using sports as a platform – we own a soccer club, Vissel Kobe, and a baseball team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. In 2017, we kicked off a major brand transformation project to unify our 70+ businesses – both in Japan and globally – under a single Rakuten brand. We chose sports as a platform to take this transformation forward because we wanted to bring the emotional connection to our users through our services the same way sport brings emotion to fans.
The Asian football industry is growing at a very fast pace. There’s a lot of involvement from private companies and governments, which are investing large amounts of money into building academies for children and helping clubs getting bigger. How do you think the Asian football industry will evolve in the next few years?
At the moment Japan is a buzzword when it gets to sports and Rakuten is really happy to be an important part of that conversation. We own Vissel Kobe which is getting stronger and stronger with big names such as Andrés Iniesta and David Villa coming in specifically from Spain. It looks like a great future for football fans in this region and Rakuten is actively playing a big role. We just announced the Rakuten Cup with FC Barcelona, Vissel Kobe and Chelsea FC matches planned for summer 2019 in Japan. FC Barcelona stars and former teammates Andrés Iniesta, David Villa and Sergi Samper will be on the same pitch again.
What is Rakuten’s main goal in the football and sports market in Asia?
We use sport as a tool for marketing and introducing our services. Our first goal is to get people familiar with the Rakuten brand so they can understand our philosophy of teamwork and empowerment of the community. The carefully selected teams we partner with share these values. We hope to ultimately get accepted by the football and sports community first, and seamlessly connect with them through our services.
We are hoping to connect with fans that are either going to the games or watching it through one of our services. We want to connect with them on an emotional level and try to spread the Rakuten brand awareness while explaining who we are and what it is we do.
What’s the main strategy that Rakuten is using to engage with fans and increase its brand awareness globally?
Our strategy is about reaching the hearts of the fans. Again, football is a very emotional sport. If we are able to create and be part of emotional moments and stories, whether it is live or after the games, and we’re able to give the fans that amazing fan-experience then we are in a really good position to spread engagement, increase brand awareness, introduce our services, and take football beyond borders.
What do you think about WFS and what do you expect to achieve? World Football Summit arrives in Kuala Lumpur at a time where the Asian football industry is at its best.
I think it’s a very good opportunity to speak at this event. It gives us a chance to talk about optimism, which is one of the pillars on which we are built. It’s good for us to tell our story about why we chose sports to put all our brands around one singular platform in 2017. Being able to tell this story to the wider audience and also the networking opportunities of meeting people face to face is very valuable.