As a casual sports fan, you may have noticed the word “Rakuten” imprinted on the left shoulder of Steph Curry’s uniform, and may have wondered “what is that?” It might surprise you to learn that Rakuten is one of the world’s largest online shopping malls, with over 3500 store brands and almost 100 million monthly page views.
This month I sat down with Dana Marineau, CMO of Rakuten Rewards, to better understand how her company is spreading “optimism” by helping retailers reward consumers for doing what they do best, shop.
Soon Yu: How have you responded to all the changes and transitions over the past year and a half — in your communities, with your consumers, and with your business partners?
Dana Marineau: It has certainly been a fascinating 18 months in our industry, hasn’t it? The pandemic propelled the need for smarter and easier shopping. People weren’t going into stores; their wallets were strapped. Our goal from the beginning was to help provide an easy, seamless online shopping destination where they could find everything they needed, plus discover new brands.
We’ve worked hard to help make the online shopping experience more dynamic. It’s a common experience to go to a store with a single purchase in mind and leave with 20 different items. That’s the kind of discovery experience we aim to provide in a digital format. For example, we hope people shopping at Macy’s through Rakuten will also discover that we have high Cash Back rates at Nike, and then find their favorite wine at wine.com, which also offers Cash Back. We are very proud to provide this sense of discovery, both for our members and our merchant partners.
We recently introduced a new feature called Personalized Rewards that allows our merchants to pair their customer data with our first-party data to create targeted, hyper-personalized Cash Back offers. The affiliate marketing expertise of our sister company, Rakuten Advertising, makes this experience frictionless for both the consumer and our partners.
On a personal level, the most important part of these last 18 months has been the care and development of our team. There are days when I feel that, on top of my Marketing responsibilities, I have also taken on the role of Chief Culture Officer. We’ve made it a priority to continue cultivating Rakuten’s incredible team culture. We are working to inspire and motivate our teams to come back to the office when they feel safe and comfortable and to create a sense of community for those who choose to remain remote. It has certainly been a very interesting couple of months, navigating these priorities and figuring out how to balance team spirit with remote work.
Yu: How have you dealt with the social issues we’re facing today, and how have you handled them with your team?
Marineau: We are constantly reinforcing how critical it is that leaders live the company values and demonstrate what we stand for. Rakuten takes this very seriously, and our media investments reflect the beliefs and values we want our employees to know we believe in. Our CEO, Amit Patel, has taken public stances on issues like Black Lives Matter, violence against Asians, and voting rights.
We accept that we have a responsibility to speak out on issues important to the company and our employees. We continue to listen and learn, to adjust our marketing to lead and match our audience’s values, and to examine what we can do as a company to have an equitable workplace that attracts diverse talent.
Yu: How have your company values shaped your response to these issues?
Marineau: Optimism is ingrained in our DNA and instilled in everything we do. In fact, the word Rakuten translates to “optimism” in Japanese. The last two years have been a critical time in our brand’s story, and we have made significant strides in our brand evolution and voice. You can imagine the concept of optimism has been instrumental for our employees, our partners, and our members. Everyone needed an extra dose of positivity these days, and we have purposefully injected uplifting messaging into our products and marketing. I am proud to say we have built an incredible in-house creative team that just launched our new campaign, Rakuten Brings the Cha-Ching. This includes a refresh of our visual brand identity, an update to our brand voice, and our joyful new holiday spot.
Yu: How has your role as CMO changed in the last year and a half?
Marineau: The “M” in CMO is evolving. For the longest time, the DNA of most CMOS leaned towards either Brand/Creative or Growth/Performance. That distinction doesn’t exist anymore. Successful CMOs now understand that marketing needs to be both meaningful and measurable. We must inspire people with great storytelling and understand how to optimize marketing performance. It’s not one or the other.
In our case, our Marketing and Brand efforts reflect both of these principles. People have heard of Rakuten, in part because they’ve seen it on the Golden State Warriors and FC Barcelona jerseys, but I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “I’ve heard of Rakuten, but I don’t really understand what it is.” We have a big opportunity to tell a new story for Rakuten. It’s our job to help people understand the value of Rakuten and how it can enhance their shopping experience. This means we have high visibility creative assets like TV and the jersey sponsorships to build that meaningful awareness, and then we have very hard-working assets that educate and drill deep into the benefits of our Rewards platform. We are constantly measuring performance and optimizing accordingly. The best of both worlds.
Yu: How is the “new normal” changing how you do business or accelerating things you were already doing?
Marineau: New normal continues to evolve for us. Like most other companies we were forced to create a fully-remote infrastructure in a matter of days. We were very grateful for our remote work technology to stay connected to our teams and global network.
From a human standpoint, one of our top priorities has been developing and maintaining a strong culture within our teams. It’s very easy for a sense of community to be lost when there are no in-person interactions or “watercooler moments.” Leadership needs to confront the challenge head-on, particularly because it’s evolving again as we start to head back into the office. It was one challenge when everyone was working from home and collaborating by Zoom and Slack. Now, we need to reconfigure what collaboration looks like when some of us are in the office and some are working remotely.
One of the things we do to create common culture is to hold a weekly “Coffee with Dana” where people from different teams and working groups are invited for a virtual coffee break and a casual chat about anything that may be happening in their lives. These chats aren’t just work-related. We talk about real-life milestones and challenges and learn more about one another than what we see in our day-to-day work.
Thankfully, we have opened several offices for anyone who feels comfortable going in. Many of us have made it a habit to start going in twice a week and we have absolutely loved it. I continue to do “Coffee with Dana” virtually but have now opened it up to in-person for those in the office.
We continue to evolve our “new normal” both virtually and in person. We have a fun weekly Slack conversation called Quaran-Theme where we pick a theme and invite people to share something about themselves. This is anything from a most embarrassing story to the last place we’ve traveled, to what TV shows we’ve been binging. On the in-person side, we recently held a socially distanced summer barbeque and then two fall Happy Hours. These events were a big highlight for me because I got to meet so many amazing people on our team, in person, for the first time.
Yu: As you look out for three to five years, what’s next? What’s on the horizon for Rakuten?
Marineau: We’re going to continue to do what we do best – innovate on both sides of our business. We are always trying to improve our member shopping experience to make it as easy and frictionless as possible. We aim to have different ways to receive and utilize our Rewards and Cash Back and we hope to add thousands of new stores so, no matter what you need to buy, we have it. On the merchant side, we aim to be a powerhouse performance marketing engine— bringing merchants new opportunities to connect and target our customers in unique and engaging ways.