This is the third post in our The Branded Footballer series, and this time we will look at Japan’s Yoichiro Kakitani, who moved this July from J.League club Cerezo Osaka to FC Basel, the team to beat in the Swiss Super League. We have stated in other articles that ‘football players are as much a brand as the club they play for’, and in the case of Mr Kakitani, that can be even more true given his popstar status (Tagesanzeiger, 2014) in the Land of the Rising Sun.
As suggested by Rein, Kotler and Shields (2006), we will analyse the four pillars of the Yoichiro Kakitani brand, which include brand, transformation, involvement, and ethos. Let us refresh our memory regarding what The Elusive Fan tells us about an athlete’s brand and why they need to consider the four pillars in any instance of their work:
An athlete has the advantage of being the principal performer in the sport, and that usually means that the athletes image is constantly before the fan. Because there are a growing number of distribution opportunities available, the athlete has the potential to enter into a variety of sectors and use his or her sports career as a platform for endeavours. Critical to brand expansion is the athlete’s ability to construct a brand that identifies and connects with specific target segments.
The Yoichiro Kakitani Brand
Marketing-guru Philip Kotler once said, “The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand, you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low-cost producer is the only winner. (pkotler.org)”. In the case of Yoichiro Kakitani, it is safe to assess that the former Cerezo Osaka player is an established brand by now. Sebastian Wendel from Basellandschaftliche Zeitung described Mr Kakitani as Japan’s David Beckham (2014). Tilman Pauls (2014) wrote in a recent Basler Zeitung article that Mr Kakitani’s new club, FC Basel, was always aware of the side-effects that would come with his signing; club president Bernhard Heusler even spoke of a possible hype that could happen around the Japanese international. Mr Heusler added that transfers involving signings of rather exotic high-level footballers could spark the imagination of football fans, because they don’t happen regularly at Swiss clubs (2014). Mr Pauls mentioned that Koji Nakata, another Japanese footballer, played for FC Basel from 2006 to 2008. However, that transfer is not comparable to the Kakitani transfer. Mr Nakata was considered a talent to be fostered and Mr Kakitani joins the club as an established footballer that attracts attention from beyond the Swiss Super League (2014).
Despite the continuous growth of the Kakitani brand in Japan, it must be assumed that the mainstream European football fan is not familiar with said brand. Kevin Keller (1993) suggests in his Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity article that the knowledge of a brand is build upon brand image and brand awareness, and he continues by stating that brand image can be thought of as the strength, uniqueness, and favorability of the association with the brand. Given the fact that Mr Kakitani has a strong following in Japan and among J.League aficionados worldwide, we claim that his brand image is well-established and we underline it with the following arguments:
– Receiving loads of media coverage proves the brand’s strength,
– being easily recognised among other celebrities shows the uniqueness of the brand, and
– observing the high-level approval Kakitani-san enjoyed from Cerezo fans in recent years, can be seen as favorability confirmation.
However, brand awareness needs to be increased in Mr Kakitani’s new market, Switzerland (and Europe). This will be discussed in the next section.
Considering the Source Credibility Model in sponsorship, where message effectiveness depends on the endorser’s perceived credibility including expertise (Charbonneau and Garland, 2005:2), we translate the statement into the believe that Mr Kakitani’s football talent will boost his brand in the Swiss Super League and the UEFA Champions League. Hence, growing his following on this side of the globe.
Furthermore, as Chris Collins (@chriscoll10) wrote in his Why You Should Have Heard Of… Yoichiro Kakitani article, “Unlike the European-based stars Kagawa and Honda, Kakitani is yet to be tested, let alone prove himself overseas against the best defenders in the world. (TheInsideLeft.com, 2013)” I completely agree with Chris and see this as an important step in Kakitani-san’s transformation. That transformation might already have started, since he just scored his first goal for FC Basel this past weekend.
As mentioned above, Yoichiro Kakitani receives a great deal of media coverage in Japan (and possibly worldwide) given his attractive celebrity brand. In addition, he is a Nike endorser, which gives him another sports platform over which to promote his brand. These two outlets show a mediocre level of involvement in creating a community around the Kakitani brand. In regard to social networking, there is solely a Facebook fan page with approximately 11,500 fans to be found (number retrieved 10 August 2014); no official Twitter account or YouTube page. Nevertheless, Yoichiro-Kakitani.com, Mr Kakitani’s official website, offers high-quality content, including photos, videos, news and more; even an extranet that requires a member-login. Still, there is room for improvement in regard to community involvement and community building.
FC Basel coach Paulo Sousa sees Yoichiro Kakitani as a ‘very intelligent player (Basellandschaftliche Zeitung, 2014)’. A statement by Kakitani-san in a Goal.com article suggests that Mr Sousa is right, “I may or may not improve [in Europe], but if there’s a chance to go I have to take it. … My career goals aren’t clear yet. [Cerezo] hope I’ll be able to move up to a bigger stage, but first they want me to play well at Basel. I’m not joining Basel to earn a bigger transfer [in the future], I’m going there to play well for their club. (Goal.com, 2014)”
According to my observations, Mr Kakitani is a professional young player with great potential and a sane work ethic. His statements and actions stand for a solid foundation that, even though being a celebrity, can strengthen his brand. It is yet to be seen, if Kakitani-san’s football talent and expertise can bring him the break-through in Europe. Obviously that will depend on how he can ingrate in Basel, perform on a national and international level, and the choices he makes along the way. Compared to his Japanese colleagues playing in Europe, I have the feeling that Mr Kakitani has one of the best situations in regard to fostering his career, because of the following facts: a) He plays for a club that always challenges for the national title and plays internationally, b) the club has not too much choice in whom to place in his position, c) FC Basel is known for their transfer strategies and connections to renowned clubs, and I’m sure there are a couple more reasons to underline my statement. I’m definitely looking forward to how the Yoichiro Kakitani brand will develop this season.