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Global Fintech Interview with Julie Van Ullen, MD at Rakuten Rewards

Global Fintech Interview with Julie Van Ullen, Managing Director at Rakuten Rewards

Hi, Julie, please tell us about your role and the team / technology you handle at Rakuten Rewards.  How did you reach here?

In my role as Managing Director, I oversee Rakuten Rewards’ monetization strategy to bring the best merchants, consumer experience and value to Rakuten’s shoppers. As Head of Revenue, I’m focused on continued growth of the U.S. commercial organization, which is comprised of all partnerships with advertisers, networks and agencies.

The constant thread throughout my career has been my affinity for growth-driven roles, and I love that I get to bring that same skillset to my role at Rakuten Rewards. During the early days of my career, I served as the VP of Member Services at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), where I was tasked with attracting new members and developing a portfolio of opportunities and initiatives to keep current members engaged. Funny enough, I made my way back to IAB last year and now sit on the Board, where I get to spread the word about affiliate and performance marketing and work alongside other marketers from every corner of the industry.

Before joining Rakuten Rewards last summer, I was the managing director for Rakuten Advertising. I have a true passion for “smart” affiliate marketing and the technology behind it that can power real-time personalization. There are so many opportunities for synergy between Rakuten Rewards and Rakuten Advertising, and I love that I’m helping to make those connections in my new role with Rakuten Rewards.

How did your role evolve through the pandemic months? How did your previous experiences with technology management help you scale your efforts and meet unprecedented challenges?

I started my role as Managing Director and Head of Revenue during the pandemic, so a big challenge was taking on a new team and figuring out how to best manage and motivate team members in the remote environment. I know leaders from all industries can relate to how challenging it is to cultivate a thriving team culture virtually through channels like video conferencing and instant messenger.

We also launched a new product, Personalized Rewards, during the pandemic, which effectively allows marketers to apply different levels of cash back to affect different marketing outcomes, for instance acquisition vs reengagement. At first, we weren’t sure how we would best communicate the benefits of Personalized Rewards without in-person client meetings to present the technology, which is so important because performance is paramount to advertisers. Despite initial challenges, we transitioned to remote client engagements seamlessly, and we saw some fantastic campaign results from our clients using Personalized Rewards, like a 128% shopper lift and 125% sales lift.

In general, the past year and a half has provided us with a lot of opportunities to help retailers and brands in affected industries navigate opportunities for growth, and we’ve appreciated the opportunities to help brands find success. One good example is our client Overstock, which leaned into cash back as a revenue driver during the pandemic. As a result, the business saw significant site traffic increases in 2020, growing 75% in sales YOY at a time when many retailers struggled. With e-commerce exhibiting a 5+ year growth evolution as a by product of the pandemic, spending continued and even strengthened in certain categories. Brands and retailers who didn’t suffer as much from inventory and fulfillment issues were able to use mechanisms like cash back to attract and gain market share in many highly meaningful instances.

Could you tell us more about the technology driving Rakuten Rewards? How do customers benefit from utilizing your tools and services?

We invest heavily in technology both to improve the experience of our 15 million members, and to advance performance for our 3,500 advertiser partners. This past year, we made a major stride in our innovation by combining advanced advertising technology from Rakuten Advertising with Rakuten Reward’s high-value consumer audience to create personalized cash back offers. For brands, this means they’re empowered to effectively influence valuable consumer behaviors that align with their business objectives –  attracting new customers, inspiring repeat purchases or incentivizing purchases of high-margin products. For consumers, it means they’re getting deals and rewards that are customized to their own shopping preferences, and can be introduced to like-minded brands and products through our platform. It’s a major advancement for cash back strategies, and it’s performing very well. Across our clients using Personalized Rewards, we’ve seen a 128% shopper lift and 125% sales lift.

Also Read: Global Fintech Interview with Nishant Nair, CEO at RecVue

What is the most contemporary definition of ‘Loyalty Experience’ management for a better customer experience? How are these standards different for the various e-commerce platforms across various regions?

For us at Rakuten Rewards, it means carefully considering our shoppers and their preferred way to use Rakuten Rewards, whether they’re joining us via desktop, on our app or using our browser extension, to enhance customer loyalty for our merchants. While the experience of shopping varies on each platform, we almost always see members using a combination of all three. For example, we see customers using the app to search and discover brands and then move to their desktop to buy. It’s important for us to manage our loyalty experience across functionalities to provide a seamless customer experience.

Today, as more customers return to in-store shopping, in-store cash back will be a major opportunity for brands, and this is top of mind for us in terms of advising brands regarding loyalty experience management. Strengthening the consumer’s in-store experience will be crucial, and brands that want to hold the loyalty of their now-active online customer bases will need to invest in strategies that drive loyalty. With Rakuten Rewards, it’s as simple as linking a credit or debit card to an existing Rakuten account and activating in-store cash back offers when you use that card in person at participating stores.

Tell us more about the recent developments in cash back strategies driving customer loyalty. How have cashback become an integral part of any marketing / loyalty campaign during COVID-19?

Cash back buyers are some of the highest value shoppers online. They’re a digitally engaged user base that shops, spends and lives their lives online. They’re the kind of engaged, high value audience that brands should be targeting their digital strategies to acquire. Cash back buyers spend and shop online 1.7x more than regular e-commerce buyers, and place 62% more orders across their online spending.

Cash back has proven to be an especially impactful shopping incentive to help brands thrive, even in economic uncertainty. We found that brands who ramped up their spend during the pandemic saw higher returns:

    • Merchants that spent more to promote their offers through our on-site media inventory in 2020 vs 2019 saw sales growth +14% YoY and traffic +19% YoY. At the same time many brands struggled to maintain YoY growth as the economy suffered.
    • Of the merchants with higher media spend, those that also had higher cash back percentages YoY saw sales +38% YoY and traffic +56% YoY.

COVID also highlighted the loyalty of our own Rakuten Rewards members. During the pandemic, there were cases where merchants had to temporarily come off the site because they had fulfillment challenges. What we saw was their customers pivoting to other similar retailers they identified through the Rakuten Rewards network to fill the gap. This is exactly why we go beyond the browser to cultivate store pages and merchant experiences – our customers are Rakuten shoppers through and through, and we place a high value on creating spaces where they can get introduced to other brands in our network, incentivized by cash back.

Also Read: Global Fintech Interview with Jonathan Ward, CTO at

Apart from cashback, which other mechanisms deployed by marketers are reaping significant results?

I’ve noticed a significant increase in D2C strategies coming out of traditionally brick-and-mortar brands, especially through the pandemic. For example, during the pandemic, when brands couldn’t reach consumers in-store the way they used to, we saw a lot of brands interested in increased storytelling as a part of their marketing strategies. Direct to consumer (D2C) brands are a great example of how to use brand storytelling effectively. These brands – like HelloFresh, one of our Rakuten Rewards merchants, for example – often have a shoppable video unit on their site that covers the ethos of their brand and what they’ve set out to do. This is increasingly important to younger consumers. We’ve started integrating that into the Rewards platform so brands have an opportunity to extend those messages.

What’s more, a number of brands that produce consumer products and goods have taken this pandemic as a moment to shift away from in-store purchasing to online and directly reach consumers. Not only is this an avenue to make up for lost in-store sales, but also to build a knowledge base about their customers. Consider this – a traditional brick-and-mortar brand doesn’t know exactly who their buyers are when they sell through a retailer, like Clinique selling through Macy’s. But a brand like Glossier, for example, knows exactly what their customers want and how to reach them. The pandemic has been a big moment for these brands to build their own D2C channels. This is a particularly interesting moment for CPG and with the rise of retail media, I foresee retailers and brands working together more and more to implement strategies for brands to better understand and deliver delightful experiences to their consumers.

Additionally, we’re seeing an “open playing field” arise from COVID. Consumer behavior was entirely upended, allowing new brands, in particular ones who have a stellar e-commerce presence and digital capabilities, to step into the spotlight. This is also happening in the financial vertical as more digitally native players emerge. We’ve seen a proliferation of interest from newer online banking companies like Chime, looking to use cash back rewards to attract new customers in an increasingly digital-first banking environment.

How do you see the markets for loyalty management technologies evolving in the next 2-3 years, especially with better AI and Data Science capabilities?

I’m laser-focused on the evolution of data, especially as we approach the phasing out of third-party cookies and what that will mean for brands. At Rakuten, we’re leaning into our first-party data more and more throughout our ecosystem to segment our audiences into ultra-targeted categories, and also combining our data with that of our customers’ own CRM data.

Our Cash Back Button browser extension is another example, offering brands the opportunity to reach shoppers when they’re not browsing on the Rakuten website. It provides unique conquesting opportunities, where brands can incentivize shoppers in specific moments by providing them with customized deals for whatever they’re shopping for. In the future, we anticipate that a brand will be able to use our Cash Back Button at the exact moment their potential customer is shopping for a similar good elsewhere. For example, if a customer is shopping for a wicker chair at a big box store that isn’t offering a reward, a specialized retailer can use the Cash Back Button in that moment to advertise 10% cash back on their own site, incentivizing the customer to shop with the specialized retailer over the big box store.

Tag a person from the industry whose answers you would like to see on Fintech Series

I would like to see David Kim, Co-CEO of Investing Channel.

Also Read: Global Fintech Interview with Michael Rangel, Co-founder and CEO at Novo

Thank you, Julie ! That was fun and we hope to see you back on soon.

Julie Van Ullen is Managing Director and Head of Revenue for Rakuten Rewards, where she leads commercial strategy and oversees the success and growth of the company’s 3,500+ advertiser partners. In her role, she is focused on transforming one of the largest incentivized shopping platforms in the world into a strategic, data-enabled performance marketing engine with the power to acquire and engage millions of loyal, high-value shoppers. Prior to Rakuten Rewards, Julie was Managing Director, US for Rakuten Advertising, where she drove the go-to-market strategy and vision across the company’s holistic advertising solutions, including affiliate, programmatic, social and search. Julie came to Rakuten from FreeWheel, where she was Vice President of Digital, overseeing product vision, client acquisition, and overall go-to-market strategy for its suite of video ad serving and monetization solutions. She also served as Vice President of Publisher Solutions at premium ad exchange OpenX, and as Vice President of Member Services at the IAB. In 2020, Julie joined the board of directors for the IAB, where she champions standardization and evangelism in affiliate marketing.


Rakuten is a leading shopping rewards program that offers Cash Back, deals and rewards from all your favorite brands. By partnering with thousands of brands in apparel, health and beauty, dining, grocery, travel, on-demand services, subscription boxes and more, Rakuten helps members get more from the things they buy. Since its founding in 1999, Rakuten has become the largest and most rewarding shopping experience, and its members have earned more than $2 billion in Cash Back just for shopping through Rakuten.

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