Behind Ebates’ years-long transition into Rakuten

How the digital rebates company is driving awareness in Canada after its 2014 acquisition by the Japanese conglomerate.
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In a Super Bowl spot that aired in the U.S. this year, Rakuten’s name is butchered at every turn.

It’s not “Ra-coo-tin,” as one man assumes. Nor it is “Ra-cou-yen” or “Rack-uh-ten” (with a French twist), as others guess. No, it’s “Rack-uh-ten,” a brand with so little awareness in Canada that attempts at pronouncing its name could be turned into a game and used in a marketing campaign.

“How do you pronounce Rakuten?” was also part of a five-year strategic brand roll-out by Ebates.ca, the rebates company that was acquired by Japanese conglomerate Rakuten for USD $1 billion in 2014. Although the original company remains intact, it now goes by the lesser-known moniker of Rakuten.ca – a change that required several years of brand awareness work, according to Jennifer LaForge, general manager for Rakuten.ca, who oversees local marketing.

Ebates came to Canada in 2012, more than a decade after first launching in the U.S. Today, it offers deals, rewards and cash-back offers from various retailers across the country to around five million Canadian members. While membership has grown, at the time of the Rakuten takeover, LaForge says the Rakuten brand had close to zero brand awareness in Canada – hence the need for a cheeky marketing campaign to familiarize customers with the new name.

Efforts like the one described above (which was led out of the U.S.) were designed to introduce the new brand and help reposition it as “fun, energetic, light, cool,” LaForge says. In the commercials, for example, people who successfully pronounced Rakuten are shown being rewarded with cash from a branded vending machine.

While media investment has highest in the U.S., where the video appeared both during the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards, LaForge says Rakuten.ca has benefited from “the halo of U.S. activity.” More recently, the company has introduced direct-response creative, and later this year, will debut radio ads for the first time.

Every step of the transition has been supported through changes to its website, LaForge says. The notable changes include a new logo and colour palette, as well as tweaks to the user experience aimed at making the platform more engaging and user-friendly. LaForge says the brand has been tracking sign-ups and conversions each step of the way to better understand what works and what doesn’t.

In time, the company expects the global realignment will enable it to expand its cash-back offerings both online and in-store (having entered physical stores last year), as well as to partner with emerging companies, such as DoorDash and Lyft.

“If you want to envision where we want to go, it’s really being able to provide cash back to Canadians everywhere for everything that they do,” LaForge says. She uses the example of a couple that goes out on a date, earning cash back on everything from their dog walking services to their dinner and movie tickets to their post-movie ice cream – and then putting that money towards their next outing.

Rakuten.ca may now be part of a global behemoth whose operations span more than 70 businesses across shopping, travel, media and entertainment, but LaForge says it intends to keep some autonomy and its North American roots.

“The opportunities that come with joining this global company are that we essentially now have the synergies of multiple companies and multiple development teams to help us move more aggressively towards our goal,” she says. “While we’ll be doing a lot more, faster, we’re still going to be able to maintain that autonomy to ensure that it’s right for our Canadian market.”