Nikita Mishra
Feb 27, 2024

The CMO's MO: From AI integration to environmental advocacy, Rakuten's CMO on tech-driven change

Rakuten's CMO is efficiency in action, with her speed strategy in consuming YouTube as unique as her leadership and innovations.

The CMO's MO: From AI integration to environmental advocacy, Rakuten's CMO on tech-driven change

The CMO's MO: 9 questions with dynamic APAC marketing leaders, insights and personalities revealed. 

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Naho Kono, the chief marketing officer of Rakuten and a four-time member of Campaign Asia-Pacific's Power List, is an exceptional leader. In a tenure spanning over two decades at Rakuten, Kono has not only shattered glass ceilings, but also spearheaded transformative initiatives that have redefined the company's presence in Japan and overseas.

Under Kono's leadership, Rakuten has solidified its position as a powerhouse in the digital space, adding more than 41 million monthly active users in Japan alone. Fueling this growth is the brand's flagship loyalty program, Rakuten Points, synonymous with excellence and often hailed as the country's top loyalty program.

Kono's relentless pursuit of excellence extends beyond mere numbers; she champions initiatives like the Super Point Up Program and the Internal Marketing Community, fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration within Rakuten's ecosystem. Her influence transcends the confines of corporate success, a trailblazer for sustainability and inclusivity, driving initiatives like the "Go Green Together" project and the "Walk Together with Pride" initiative. 

In a candid interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Kono talks about Rakuten's partnership with generative AI tools, its unwavering commitment to sustainability, and the cultural transformation she envisions for the wider industry. She's one of the rare leaders who exudes a sense of purpose and foresight with every statement, embodying the essence of a modern CMO—a dynamic translator, a forward-thinking visionary, and above all, collaborative and user-focused.

As the marketing landscape redefines at a breakneck pace, Kono's resolve remains unshakeable. For her, the challenge lies not in navigating the unknown, but in embracing it wholeheartedly— knowing that therein lies the key to unlocking the next chapter of Rakuten's remarkable journey.

Scroll below for her insightful conversation with Campaign Asia-Pacific.

Naho Kono, Group EVP and CMO, Rakuten Group, Japan.

1. Tell us one personal thing about yourself that others might not know.

Enjoying time off with her daughter.

Usually, I set my YouTube playback speed to 1.75 so I can absorb as much information as possible in a limited time. I'm all about maximising efficiency, even in my online content consumption! I watch a lot of digital content, including news, at a high playback speed.

2. Are you tapping into Gen AI’s awesomeness to future-proof your marketing efforts? Spill
the C-suite strategy around Gen AI.

At Rakuten, combining our rich data with cutting-edge generative AI technology has unlocked the doors to marketing possibilities beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. We’re working with OpenAI, our strategic AI partner, to deliver state-of-the-art AI experiences that captivate consumers and businesses in Japan and globally. The potential for applying Gen AI at Rakuten is immense, given the unique, high-quality data from our diverse portfolio of over 70 services, and that’s why I’m excited to witness future Rakuten marketing initiatives powered by Gen AI.

I must tell you that even before the recent AI boom, we were already exploring AI’s potential in areas such as creative generation, data analytics and offline event operations. Take for example, our largest business conference, Rakuten Optimism 2023, where we seamlessly integrated AI
into the event’s operations. We provided subtitles generated by AI, real-time translation, and AI-generated background music for a huge audience over the three-day conference. Meanwhile, some of our services, including our Viber communications app and Rakuten Securities, have already started harnessing Gen AI to elevate consumer experiences to new heights.

(L) Celebrating Halloween with Rakuten marketing team and (R) enjoying with friends and family over good food and wine.

3. Give us one example to convince our readers that your brand is walking the talk on

We set carbon neutrality goals for Rakuten Group in 2022, and we also kicked off the Go Green Together Project.

At Rakuten, we believe that going green is not a company-only effort; it’s a community effort, which means our customers’ sustainable choices are crucial to society's success. The Go Green Together Project is all about sparking conversations on environmental issues and sustainable living through services and touchpoints that our users are already familiar with. It’s not just about advice for environmentally conscious living—the Go Green Together Project and its website offer a variety of campaigns where users can even score Rakuten points for their sustainable actions. Over one million people have already participated in the project, and we’ve raised over 4.2 million yen for environmental conservation causes through the website.

4. What do you feel separates your brand culture from others?

Empowerment is at the heart of our brand, and technology is the force propelling this vision into reality. Whether it is helping our 57,000 merchants on the Rakuten Ichiba e-commerce platform reach more customers or spurring Japan’s cashless revolution through contactless payments—we use technological innovation for our empowerment mission.

Consider the case of Japan's exorbitant mobile fees, which were once among the highest globally, and exerted significant pressure on the public's financial resources. Recognising the power of technology in transforming people's spending habits to stimulate economic growth, Rakuten Mobile launched the world’s first commercial Open RAN mobile network in Japan. This sparked a decrease in mobile fees nationwide, leaving people with more disposable income and contributing to Rakuten’s goal “to democratise the mobile industry." Rakuten's brand culture truly shines in breaking down barriers with technology.

5. What needs to change in your industry when it comes to working culture?

For genuine transformation to happen to our industry’s working culture, it's crucial that every employee across all departments not only participates, but also feels a sense of duty to drive change. It's insufficient to merely assign the responsibility to a dedicated promotion office or specific department—this approach will leave the company stagnant. At Rakuten, for example, deploying AI is not solely the task of an AI promotion team; it’s a collective endeavour.

Every employee is empowered to leverage Rakuten AI in their role. The same all-inclusive principle echoes in our approach to language transformation. When we made English our company’s official language to boost communication across national and organisational borders, it wasn’t a responsibility limited to certain positions. Instead, it was a call to action for every employee to enhance their language proficiency regardless of their position or role. Thanks to this bold move, we welcome employees from more than 100 countries and regions at Rakuten, and over 21% of employees are non-Japanese. I believe that when we unite in this collaborative spirit, we can speed up evolution across all aspects of the business.

6. Complete the sentence: “Today’s CMO must be ….”

The CMO of today must be a blend of a dynamic translator and a forward-thinking visionary.
As a translator, the CMO must serve as the intermediary between the organisation's leadership and its customers. This involves transforming the company’s strategies and ideas into language, experiences and emotions that resonate with consumers.

At the same time, a CMO must be able to anticipate the future needs of users, drawing insights from the data available, all while being aware of the numbers from the past. This demands not just foresight but the ability to conjure a clear and compelling vision of what lies ahead. Today's CMO isn't just a title; it's a mix of innovation, translation and the relentless pursuit of a vision.

7. What kind of a CMO are you? Answer using a maximum of three adjectives.

I aspire to be a collaborative and user-focused CMO. Building warm relationships with my colleagues is important, encouraging everyone to contribute their best. I aim to maintain a balanced perspective, valuing both the strategic overview and the details on the ground.

In marketing, it’s our job to understand our users' needs, gently guiding them while always being mindful of the company's long-term goals. Achieving this balance requires a user-centric approach coupled with a broader strategic outlook.

8. What’s your favourite brand campaign that you participated in or wished you had?

The Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign has always resonated with me. The short movie not only fostered an emotional connection with its customers, but also delivered a powerful message to women, encouraging them to recognise their beauty is not dependent on societal standards.

At a time when female-targeted ads were not genuinely recognising the diversity of women's beauty, the message was a refreshing and necessary change. This campaign was pivotal in promoting positive self-esteem, a crucial step in reshaping our perspectives on beauty.

9. What keeps you up at night as a CMO?

Navigating the ever-changing marketing landscape poses a unique and exciting challenge for me as a CMO. Every day, I must focus on envisioning the future, a task where the past offers little guidance.

Technology, consumer values, and the environment evolve all the time, making our
prior experiences and data merely one point of reference. As the chief marketing officer at Rakuten, staying ahead of these constant shifts is a commitment I wake up to every morning.

Campaign Asia

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