Business

In digital era, Chelsea's tie-up with Yokohama Rubber blazes new trail in Japan

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

For Chelsea supporters, the club’s iconic blue uniform represents 114 years of history, dozens of domestic and continental trophies and a reputation as one of English soccer’s established giants.

For Yokohama Rubber, it represents global exposure, whether it’s to the English Premier League’s billions of viewers or simply to anyone who spots the blue shirt emblazoned with the Yokohama Tyres logo being worn on the street.

The Tokyo-based tire manufacturer is hardly the first Japanese firm to sponsor a European club — Sharp, JVC, Sony, Hitachi and Nintendo all graced the front of a major club’s uniform at one point or another.

But those sponsorships took place before the modern era of digital distribution, which has hastened soccer’s growth in developing markets. In turn, clubs such as Chelsea are focusing not only on success on the pitch, but also content creation and commercial expansion.

“Our goal is to continue developing the club’s strategy, which is moving the club from being focused purely on football on to football and content and entertainment,” said Chris Townsend, Chelsea’s commercial director.

“As the whole world of entertainment and digital distribution is changing so rapidly, Chelsea is at the forefront of this development and we want to continue to be at the forefront,” he added.

The club is not alone in its shift toward content creation. Soccer teams across the globe, previously reliant on traditional media outlets to promote their activities, are increasingly concentrating their efforts on video and social media content.

Nearly a dozen staffers from Chelsea’s content team covered the club’s July tour of Japan, producing a constant stream of material documenting the players’ activities.

That content is voraciously consumed by the club’s fan base, which it claims numbers half a billion around the world — fourth-most after Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United — with over 60 percent living in Asia.

Since partnering with Chelsea in 2015, Yokohama Rubber has seen its brand awareness rise to 95 percent among the club’s supporters. That represents solid returns just four years into a five-year deal reportedly worth £200 million ($250 million), one of the most expensive in the world.

“To get from their position four years ago to that position now is phenomenal, and proves the power of football and sponsorship in football, what it can do for global brands,” said Townsend, who was the commercial director of the 2012 London Olympics before joining Chelsea in 2017. “Our (goal with Yokohama is) to understand what their objectives are in terms of brand awareness and help them with their sales programs across the world,” he said.

The focus on Yokohama Rubber’s key markets has led to an expansion in Chelsea’s social media reach, with over 100 million followers connected to social media channels in nine languages. Chelsea is one of the few Premier League clubs with a Japanese-language Twitter account, which has over 55,000 followers.

According to Townsend, the club is shifting its focus to video content tailored for each region and geared toward the evolving demands of younger viewers.

“Particularly younger fans, and what they consume in terms of content, is changing very rapidly,” Townsend says. “They have shorter and shorter requirements in terms of content we view, so we are adapting our content and the way we distribute our content quite rapidly.”

If shorter videos result in more views, that’s even better news for Yokohama Rubber. Official videos featuring the Chelsea shirt were viewed over 550 million times in 2018, and the number is only expected to rise further as 5G connectivity rolls out globally.

“It’s early days in terms of designing content, but once 5G is ubiquitous around the world, particularly in advanced markets like Japan, it will be easier for us to tailor and distribute content via smartphones,” Townsend said. “We know video content is critical in promoting Chelsea’s brand and our partners, particularly Yokohama. We want to ensure we can deliver more and more video content on these different platforms.”

While many European clubs focus their summer efforts on lucrative tours to China and Southeast Asia, others still consider Japan and its strong consumer culture to be a significant market not only for themselves, but also for commercial partners eager to attach their names to popular teams and players.

Of this summer’s three European visitors to Japan, two — Chelsea and Rakuten-backed Barcelona — boast Japanese sponsors on their uniforms. The third, Manchester City, is owned by the same City Football Group that holds a minority stake in the J. League’s Yokohama F. Marinos.

“Japan is particularly important because Yokohama is our shirt sponsor,” Townsend said. “The Japanese market is very important to Yokohama, so we’re keen to continue growing their market share in Japan as it’s one of their primary market sectors — one of their top five around the world.”

For Yokohama Rubber, known as Yokohama Tire in the United States, the arrival of U.S. national team captain Christian Pulisic at Chelsea is perhaps the summer’s biggest development. The 20-year-old, who made his national team debut at 17, is considered the most anticipated U.S. player in a generation.

Tuesday’s friendly between Barcelona and Chelsea — the first between European clubs in Japan — has drawn some criticism for its high ticket prices, which started at ¥15,000 ($139). But Chelsea’s July 19 match against reigning J. League champion Kawasaki Frontale summoned a sold-out crowd to Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium, a sign the domestic game need not worry about being crowded out by European leagues.

“Our market research data shows that fans and followers of Chelsea will also follow a local team in their own home country,” Townsend said. “On average a football fan or follower supports more than one club — it’s between two and three.”

With the club’s first visit to Japan since the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup considered a success, Townsend believes that more all-star European clashes could come to the country in the future, mirroring the popular International Champions Cup hosted in the U.S., Singapore and Australia.

“We are keen to receive feedback from the fans and spectators who came to see us,” Townsend said. “I’m sure there are lessons to be learned, but it’s the first and I hope the first of many.”

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