If you’ve watched television, Hulu, Youtube or generally existed on the internet this holiday season, you’ve probably been treated to one of Rakuten’s holiday shopping ads set to the tune of Elton John’s Rocketman. The first one made its appearance in October and was called “Kitchen Choir.” By the time the next one released just before Thanksgiving, it was rebranded as “The Smartest Shopper’s Holiday Anthem.” In it, a woman is shopping on her phone while singing, “I think it’s gonna be a long, long time / before I shop anywhere else online.”

The prolific ads were part of an aggressive campaign by the Japanese e-commerce conglomerate to both push into U.S. markets and fully rebrand U.S. subsidiary Ebates this holiday season. That’s right — cashback shopping site Ebates is Rakuten now. Rakuten acquired Ebates for $1 billion back in 2014, but only began rebranding the company sometime last year, according to its website.

Functionally, Rakuten works the same as Ebates did; members can sign up for free and shop through the app or using a Google Chrome extension which will alert them to any cashback deals Rakuten has on that site. Vendors like JCPenney, the Disney Store, Banana Republic and others all pay Rakuten a commission for directing customers to their site, according to Rakuten’s website.

Rakuten’s ad campaign and holiday deals are more than just a simple rebrand, however. The effort marks the Japanese conglomerate’s first major effort to break into U.S. markets and compete with American e-commerce firms like Amazon, Shopify and others.

The comparison to Amazon isn’t unfounded; Rakuten is often referred to as “the Amazon of Japan,” owning subsidiaries across multiple industries like ridesharing, streaming, online shopping, travel and more. A large number of Rakuten’s services share the same point or reward systems — points you get while shopping can be used in its ridesharing service, for example — similar to how Amazon’s “Prime” memberships interact with Whole Foods, Twitch, and more. 

Rakuten has already faced steep competition from American competitors on its home turf. In an effort to cash in on the food delivery boom brought on by COVID-19, Rakuten launched Rakuten Realtime Takeout earlier this year in a few of Japan’s major cities. But The Business of Business found that UberEats already had a major presence in many of Japan’s metropolitan areas, with Rakuten Realtime Takeout struggling to gain ground, instead appearing to focus on city outskirts and rural areas. 

With the rebrand of Ebates, Rakuten is perhaps looking to bring the fight to the U.S. where it can use Rakuten.com to build loyalty and later introduce users to Rakuten’s other services. Ebates used to have a storefront itself, which Rakuten closed down earlier in the year in order to focus on the discount shopping side of the business. 

However, despite that effort and its aggressive advertising, Rakuten’s hiring has slowed down remarkably. At present, there are only eight job listings on Rakuten’s careers page for the Americas, down significantly from earlier this year when the company had nearly 900 job listings. For a single service that involves no shipping or handling like Amazon does, a hiring blitz isn’t exactly necessary — especially if Rakuten retained Ebates staff over the years — so Rakuten’s job listings may not be a reflection of a failed business play as much as an attempt to run an operation at a low cost.

Rakuten’s Linkedin Headcount reflects a similar trend, having decreased nearly 28% over the last two years and 14.6% from the beginning of 2020. 

A shrinking headcount is not exactly a sign of glowing success, but if Rakuten’s holiday gamble paid off, the company may use that loyalty to begin moving more of its services over to U.S. markets in an attempt to compete with America’s top e-commerce firms. It may not be long before Rakuten expands on its current U.S. brand to slowly work its way from a titan of Japan to a major international e-commerce company.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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