Opinion

Tennis player Naomi Osaka could just be Japan’s new marketing powerhouse

The freshly-crowned women’s US Open champion already has sponsorship deals with the likes of Adidas and Citizen, but more sponsors will surely come knocking after her impressive win accompanied by exquisite Japanese manners showed her to be the perfect brand ambassador – writes Rob Sherlock of ADK

The 2018 US Open women’s tennis final last weekend certainly had more losers than winners.

Serena Williams lost the match and her temper. The umpire, Carlos Ramos, lost his better judgement. And the crowd lost their decency.

But without doubt, Naomi Osaka won the match and the hearts of millions of people around the world. Half Japanese, half Haitian, she chose Japan as her country – and showed us everything that it represents in terms of humility and respect.

And this was possibly the perfect stage to show those traits. We saw a 20-year-old faced with the match of her life in front of a booing crowd and an very angry hero. Quite rightly, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe personally congratulated Osaka on Twitter. He thanked her for “giving Japan a boost of energy and excitement at this time of hardship”.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, a very conservative newspaper, said: “The combination of her strength and childlike innocence is her charm,” and added that Osaka was “a new heroine Japan can be proud of”.

A friend of a colleague, the writer Tamaka Takefushi, sums it up perfectly from a Japanese female point of view: “When Naomi Osaka feels booing from all around… she dips her cap… then apologises for winning, and then humbly thanks Serena Williams for playing the game with her.”

“She is of course being so Japanese/Asian, thanking and apologising at the same time. But this is bright news for Japan, where all kinds of natural disasters have hit one after another of late. And Serena Williams is being a real class queen here too. Basically these two incredible ladies are the true powerful warriors, not the crowd and the establishment who are ironically surrounding them.”

It’s interesting that the overriding sentiment in Japan is that there is no animosity towards Williams. She simply lost the final to another great player. So there’s no doubt that Osaka will become an icon of the new Japan, a nation that in the last few years has emerged onto the world stage in so many sports, from soccer to rugby. And now tennis.

Fuelled by the fervour surrounding the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Osaka represents the spirit of not just the games, but the very essence of where the country is inevitably moving – towards a more open and culturally tolerant society. Her victory has given movement to the hope that the country of her birth will adopt a more accepting attitude towards mixed-race people, where now one in 50 children are born to international couples.

Hirotaka Matsuoka, a professor of sports marketing at Waseda University sums this direction of travel up well. “The Japanese are becoming more accustomed to people from other cultures,” he says, adding: “If an athlete really makes it clear they are representing Japan, then the public will support them.”

By chance, Osaka’s next tournament is in Tokyo next week. The Toray Pan-Pacific Open Tennis 2018. Perfect timing for the new hero to come home, to be celebrated by the people she represented so gracefully.

And there is no doubt that her win will lead to some lucrative commercial deals in Japan and further afield. She currently has sponsorship ties to Nissan instant noodles, Adidas, Yonnex sportswear, Citizen watches and the Japanese broadcaster Wowow. All are big Japanese brands, most of them global.

They will see an immediate uplift from their association with Japan’s new queen of the court.

She represents a unique opportunity for other brands looking to back her as well. The timing could not be better, given Japan’s diversity issues – which are improving, but are certainly well behind the rest of the world.

Together with actors and music stars, sporting heroes always lead the way in terms of celebrity endorsements. Often though, they are more bolted on than built in; the relevance sometimes being stretched out of shape to fit the brand. That’s always the danger.

However, Osaka’s unique mix of cultural diversity, emotional engagement and pure sporting brilliance makes her a very powerful ambassador for the right Japanese brands. Certainly, a lot more will come knocking over the next few months.

After all, everyone loves a winner. She could soon become the new powerhouse of marketing in Japan and beyond.

Rob Sherlock is ADK group chief creative officer and splits his time between Singapore and Tokyo

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