Making a name for yourself: Why Rakuten sponsored two of sport's biggest names in Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors

Joe Hall
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Top model: Rakuten pay Barcelona around £47m-a-season to be modelled by Messi and co (Source: Getty)

As signals of intent to become a globally-recognised brand go, they do not come much bolder than getting your name and logo brandished across the jerseys of Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors.

If you had not heard of Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten before this year, it would have only taken the most casual of interest in sport for it to cross your radar in 2017 after it partnered with the two of the best-known teams in football and basketball respectively.

Even the size of the deals — £47m a year with a Barcelona and £15m a year with the Warriors — were eye-catching enough to propel the household name in Japan onto headlines around the world. No other brand had paid more in either sport to get their name onto a shirt.

“There was no question of wanting to test the water first,” Rakuten’s director of global marketing and branding Rahul Kadavakolu told City A.M.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Rakuten’s decision to announce itself to the Western consumer via two of its most visible sports teams coincides with a decision to bring together its various messaging, shopping and streaming services under a unified branding strategy.

Read more: Why Barcelona had a difficult relationship with previous sponsor Qatar Airways

“Largely our growth has been through acquisitions and we were not in a hurry to get them under the Rakuten name immediately,” says Kadavakolu.

“But we’ve made a conscious call to make this year the year of brand transformation. We are bringing all 70 of our businesses under the Rakuten portfolio.

“It’s one of the biggest projects in the company right now and is not an overnight thing. We decided sports and entertainment would be a great platform to support this journey and we wanted to be associated with the best brands out there and more importantly brands that reflected our own philosophy and ethos.”

Golden State Warriors Media Day
Rakuten is the Golden State Warriors' first-ever sponsor (Source: Getty)

No modern sports sponsorship is ever official until “shared values” or “common objectives” are cited as the real reason — never mind revenue and raised profile — behind what is described as a partnership and not a sponsorship.

Rakuten, who own two sports franchises themselves, insist on the distinction. There is no pretension about chasing the sheer number of eyeballs that witness a Lionel Messi dribble or Steph Curry three-pointer, but Rakuten believes its technology can help both teams better engage with its fans.

“When you have a brand on a jersey, people are going to see it and that’s still very important for us because we’re at a very early stage of building our brand in global markets,” said Kadavakolu.

“But we want to expand on that — we call this a partnership not a sponsorship and there’s a very thin line between the two.

“With brands like the Warriors and Barcelona, they don’t really have to search for sponsors. They have constant conversations [with budding sponsors]. So it’s always ‘what can you do for us?’ or ‘what can we do for each other?’.”

Read more: Barcelona agree "record-breaking" kit sponsorship deal with Nike

One example is a chatbot launched on the Viber messaging app on which Barcelona picked up 4.5m followers within just two months.

“The bot is a good example but there’s a long way to go as far as the roadmap for Rakuten Viber is concerned — it gives you various opportunities,” says Kadvakolu.

“Fans won't have to go anywhere special to buy a ticket, you just go straight to the bot.”

In a sports industry increasingly reliant on cutting-edge tech — think artificial intelligence-based performance analysis, virtual reality training tools, internet live-streaming — sponsors with an expertise in the field have an advantage in a bid for space on the shirt.

It might not just be the pay-cheques that makes Barcelona and the Warriors’ rivals envy their new sponsor.

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