Japan: The Social Media Motherlode

If you had to guess the most popular tweet in Bundesliga history, what would you choose? Something about Bayern Munich about winning (or losing) the Champions League final? Maybe something about Mario Gotze scoring the winning goal for Germany in the World Cup Final? Karim Bellarabi scoring the fastest goal in league history earlier this season? Nope.

This tweet, from Borussia Dortmund, celebrating Shinji Kagawa’s return, has been retweeted more than twice as many times as any tweet from any other Bundesliga club. The second most popular tweet? Here’s Dortmund again, with their social media person getting a bit overexcited about Kagawa scoring his first goal since rejoining the club.  

Every single one of the twenty most-shared tweets from FSV Mainz 05’s various Twitter feeds are in Japanese, thanks to Shinji Okazaki, who broke Kagawa’s record for the most Bundesliga goals scored by a Japanese player last season. Japanese players move the needle on social media for their European clubs, much more so than players from other countries. As Chelsea mull over a bid for Japanese star Yoshinori Muto, it’s worth investigating why.

Firstly, it’s important to note that while baseball remains the most popular sport in Japan, among the younger generations football is now king and that’s both in terms of participation and viewership.

“When it comes to watching their players in Europe, Japanese fans generally prefer individual performance over team performance,” says Yoichiro Kuriyama, a Japanese sports lawyer who has worked with both the English and Spanish football associations.

Dave Phillips, a football consultant and Football Industries MBA concurs.  “Japanese fans who are newer to the game tend to be attracted more to players than their clubs.”

Naturally, this presents a challenge to European clubs trying to develop loyal fanbases in Japan. However, with Japan’s growing interest in football, both from a fan perspective and also a commercial perspective, clubs are actively trying to find ways to connect with Japanese fans in a meaningful way.

Alexander Jobst, head of marketing at Schalke and a member of the club’s management board, told The Set Pieces that after being inundated with media and fan requests for information on Atsuto Uchida, the club decided to set up a Japanese-language website in addition to a Japanese-language Twitter feed. The club also now has a Japanese-language Facebook page and online shop, and is also the only Bundesliga club to establish a presence on LINE, Japan’s largest social network.

“With Uchida as the crucial factor, we succeeded in positioning, strengthening and sharpening the brand, Schalke 04 [in Japan],” he explained. The club wanted to focus on building a “strong

emotional commitment,” in order to convert Uchida fans into long-standing Schalke fans.

As such, Schalke post several times per day on social media in Japanese, providing information not just about Uchida, but about the club as a whole. In addition, the club has worked to immerse itself into Japanese culture and is careful to take, “country-specific aspects such as customs and holidays into account.”

While posts about Uchida are naturally the most popular, over the course of two days, there were thousands of “likes” and dozens of comments from Japanese fans on Facebook relating to Julian Draxler’s successful rehab and anticipated return from a thigh injury that has kept the young German sidelined since October.

Fellow Bundesliga club FSV Mainz 05 has done something similar to Schalke, building a Japanese-language website and social media feeds for fans to “not only stay in touch with their favorite player, but get to know Mainz 05 as well.”

However, Mainz takes a more laid back approach to marketing, telling The Set Pieces, “this club is special in the Bundesliga, we are known for our peaceful fan community and our family-like club environment. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and have a sense of humor. On our Japanese media outlets, we tried to not only provide our Japanese fans with information about Shinji Okazaki, but also show them what we are all about as a club in general.”

Of course, Mainz believes that this translates well to Japanese football fans, and a more relaxed ‘soft sell’ approach might be one way to convert Okazaki fans into full-fledged Mainz fans. Phillips explains, “in Japan, football clubs are community-based, and are more about community than fanaticism.”

But it is Borussia Dortmund, which enjoys the seventh-largest commercial revenues in the world, that has taken perhaps the most comprehensive approach to marketing in Japan. Carsten Cramer, BVB’s head of marketing, explained their strategy.

“Whenever we try to connect our club to a foreign country, we are looking for a natural connection. Shinji was the door opener to the Japanese market. Without a Japanese player, it would be much more difficult to develop the market.”

BVB actively works with its kit supplier Puma on marketing opportunities in Japan. As the German-based sportswear company is also engaged in expanding its presence in Japan, working together is only natural.

“Whatever we do has to be sustainable. We don’t look for short-term money – we look for long-term relationships.The deeper we are connected to the people of a country, the more sustainable the relationship between the country and our club will be.” To that end, the club established a football academy in Tokyo where Japanese youngsters receive football training from BVB coaches and the academy was recently extended through at least 2016.

Like Schalke, BVB also has a Japanese webpage and is mindful of cultural differences. Cramer shared that BVB specifically hired Japanese writers (rather than simply hiring translators to translate German articles into Japanese). The club also plans to have more Japanese-language posts on social media

There is also a recent partnership with a Japanese travel agency that will help arrange trips for Japanese fans to travel to Dortmund for matches and BVB also has a partnership agreement with Kagawa’s former J-League club, Cereza Osaka. BVB will also play a friendly in Japan this summer as part of its Asian tour.

“Things like this, in our mind, help us develop a sustainable relationship, and we hope that even if Shinji wouldn’t play for Borussia Dortmund anymore, people of Japan would still feel connected to our club.”

On whether BVB has been able to successfully monetise the Japanese market, Cramer said that “the money, is of course, important, but it is not the driver of all of our activities.”

Rather, the club is focused on establishing a long-term relationship with Japan and once that relationship is strong, “monetisation will automatically follow.”

That said, Cramer shared that shirt sales in Japan increase every year as do new partnership opportunities and the club is confident that their strategy will be successful.

“We do things the way of Borussia Dortmund. It doesn’t make sense to copy any other club.”

In today’s hyper-money driven football landscape, globalisation is of paramount importance to football clubs, as opening new markets leads to increased commercial opportunities. Increased commercial opportunities lead to an increase in revenue for the club, which allows increased spending in the transfer market under Financial Fair Play regulations. This, ideally, should lead to better players, which leads to better chances at winning trophies.

Back at Schalke, Jobst pointed out that it’s only natural to incorporate their star players in Schalke’s “internationalisation strategy” whenever possible. For example, after realising how popular Jefferson Farfan was in his home country of Peru, Schalke rolled out a Spanish-language version of their Facebook page (I counted thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments from Spanish speaking fans on just one random Thursday in April).

Japanese players in Europe are treated as major celebrities back home. Jobst highlighted other benefits to the presence of Uchida. “He seems to be extremely popular in Japan, not only because he is a good football player, but also because he seems to fit all the criteria for popstar material.”

Similarly, football consultant Phillips said Uchida is “something of an idol in Japan.” Kuriyama likened Uchida’s celebrity to that of a major movie star. He explained that this phenomenon is not unique to Uchida, and that “Japanese fans appreciate both skill on the pitch and personality off the pitch.”  Since there are relatively few (around twenty) Japanese playing in top European leagues, many are afforded star treatment back home, with fans wanting to follow their every move.

In fact, Kuriyama said that just about every European match in which a Japanese international *might* play is available to watch on pay TV, including the Swiss League when Basel’s Yoichiro Kakitani is on the team sheet.”

With Chelsea kicking the Yokohama-branded tyres on twenty-two year old Yoshinori Muto, there is a feeling that his signing would be motivated more by commercial reasons than football reasons.

As you may have read, Chelsea recently signed a gigantic £40m annual sponsorship deal with Yokohama, and the Japanese tyre manufacturer will replace Samsung as its shirt sponsor starting next season. This deal represents the second biggest football shirt sponsorship in history, only surpassed by Manchester United’s £47 million annual deal with American car manufacturer, Chevrolet. It is also important to note that despite the fact that Japanese companies adorned the shirts of five Premier League clubs in 1995/96, but there hasn’t been a Japanese shirt sponsor in the Premier League since Peter Crouch and Glen Johnson were wearing Portsmouth’s Oki-sponsored kits in 2008/09

Muto scored his first J-League goal last year and while he’s scored fifteen more in his last thirty games, he’s only ten months younger than Oscar and is actually older than some of Chelsea’s other promising young attacking players who are currently playing significant minutes in Europe, such as Lucas Piazon (Bundesliga), Mario Pasalic (La Liga), and Bertrand Traore (Eredivisie).

It seems Muto would have quite the task in front of him to crack the Chelsea lineup, to say nothing of the fact that he’d be unlikely to secure a work permit in time for the start of next season and would probably start his Chelsea career on loan at Vitesse Arnhem or perhaps in the Bundesliga.

But even if Muto never plays a minute for Chelsea, you only have to look to the Bundesliga to see that £4 million for a player who will help the club establish itself in an increasingly lucrative market might just be money well spent.

Jake Cohen is a lawyer and a writer. You can follow him on Twitter (@JakeFCohen)

Japan: The Social Media Motherlode
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