Three and a half years into their jersey partnership with Barcelona, you would have to have been living under a rock not to have come across the Rakuten logo at some point. But as familiar as we may be with the logo, how many of us can really say we know what the company does?

In Japan such a question would be laughed at. Rakuten, which means ‘optimism’ in Japanese, runs a huge ecommerce business in the country, second only to worldwide giants Amazon. But that’s not their only line of business. The Tokyo-based company not only have their own video-on-demand streaming site but also run a mobile phone network. The company, formed in 1997, is a big investor in technology, and has purchased stakes in a whole string of companies all over the world, including full ownership of Canadian e-book manufacturer Kobo.

This is a global company that has set its horizons far beyond the shores of Japan. The ‘official language’ of the firm is English, which has brought international employees closer to their Japanese colleagues.

And it is likely this desire to position themselves as a global brand will have contributed to their decision to enter into a four-year deal to be FC Barcelona’s main shirt sponsor starting from the 2017-18 season in a deal reportedly worth 220m euros. The deal came about after Barça player Gerard Piqué introduced his business partner and Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani to the Barcelona hierarchy.

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If you want your brand to be known globally, there are few better options to choose from in sport than the Catalan giants. But if it was just about getting exposure for their brand, wouldn’t it not have made more sense to sponsor a variety of clubs across different leagues like some airlines and betting companies do?

In partnering with one of the world’s greatest clubs they are also gaining an affinity with Barcelona’s fanbase. And while fanbases are notoriously difficult to quantify (it depends on how you define ‘fan’), their 103 million Facebook following (just behind Real Madrid with 110m) gives some indication of the club’s reach. And in partnering with just one major football club, Rakuten can develop a much closer association with Barça’s own brand and values while at the same time making a huge statement as to its global ambitions. In the mind of the consumer, if a company can afford to have their logo splashed across the Barcelona shirt, they must mean business.

And of course it is not just the club they get to be associated with. The fact that the brand will be blazoned across Lionel Messi’s chest is clearly a major plus, even though shirt sponsorship deals do not give the sponsor the right to exploit one particular player’s image for marketing purposes (this would have to be negotiated with the player in a separate deal).

The company has taken the same approach to basketball, where their reported $20m jersey sponsorship of NBA side Golden State Warriors gives them kudos in the one part of the world where soccer sponsorship has a much smaller reach.

It was back in their native Japan that the company made their first major foray into sports, however. In 2014 they purchased J-league side Vissel Kobe, Hiroshi Mikitani’s local team. The Japanese side also bear the Rakuten logo on their shirts, now donned by ex-Barça star Andrés Iniesta.

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The world cup winner has come to be seen as one of the company’s biggest ambassadors and the two have teamed up last year to make ‘the unexpected hero’, a documentary on the player’s life produced by Rakuten TV.


Gareth Thomas (@gareththomas54) / Twitter