Celtic in Japan: A masterclass in how not to build a brand

Let me preface this blog with a little bit of background. For those who don’t know me I have lived in Asia for the past 17 years. The vast majority of that time has been spent in Japan.  When I first moved to Tokyo in 2006, Shunsuke Nakamura was entering his second season with Celtic and the club were doing well under Gordon Strachan. The commercial side of things wasn’t quite as switched on sadly.

I read stories in club media, and the Scottish press about “Celtic shirts all over Tokyo” and “Huge commercial markets just waiting for Celtic to tap into”. Yet, in those first two years I spent working in the greater Tokyo area, I saw no evidence of this. I did see plenty of EPL brands on show, but more on them later.

Back then, I tried to open a dialogue with the club about helping them expand into the Japanese market. There are various important steps to consider when doing business in Japan. These are steps that, ultimately, one can only fully appreciate after they’ve spent some time working and doing business here.

17 years later, I’m still awaiting a response.

History repeating – Celtic failing to capitalise on commercial potential

Unfortunately, it does seem that the club have learned nothing from those days, when they just conveniently ignored anything that went against the commercial department’s prevailing narrative.

I still read the same nonsensical guff today about “huge demand for Celtic merchandise in Japan, Celtic tops flying off the shelves” etc.

Until late last year, there was no mechanism available to order Celtic jerseys officially unless you bought directly from the club website. In Japan, this of course entailed a 2-3 week wait for delivery. Even now, Adidas Japan’s online shop has a limited supply of jerseys. Funnily enough, my wife, a Japanese woman with a typical Japanese woman’s stature, could not find one in her size. Like most football fans over here, she wants to make sure she’s properly dressed for when we go to see Celtic vs Yokohama F-Marinos in a few weeks’ time.

So, I had no option but to go with a 3rd party, a China-based website, that I’m sure many of you will be familiar with.  Suffice to say, the shirt, with appropriate Asian sizing, arrived in about 10 days. Shipping was free, and the quality was indistinguishable from my own shirt that I ordered directly from the club.

Suffice to say, however, my wife’s jersey cost a lot less than 65 quid!

Now, this blog isn’t just a case of “let’s all rant about the club’s commercial failings”. I tell you all this because it gives some much-needed background and context to the main thrust of today’s article.

Shambolic tour organisation

Celtic’s tour to Japan this summer is shaping up to be a shambolic mess unless there are some serious changes in how we operate.  I read yesterday (Thursday, at the time of writing) about Wolves deciding to pull out of their tour to Korea, citing various contractual obligations not being met by the local organizers.

Thankfully, Celtic’s two games here in Japan will not be affected by this, as it is a different agency handling the logistics over here. However, that’s not to say there aren’t serious issues with how this tour has been organized.

Now, I will give Celtic the benefit of the doubt here and assume that pricing was something organized by local agents, rather than the club. Because the idea of paying more to watch a friendly against, with the greatest of respect, two J-League clubs, than we pay for Champions League matches at Celtic Park is ludicrous. However, that is the pricing structure we are looking at.

Unless you are going to see the game on your own, which not many of us do these days, you’ll want to reserve your seat, so you can be sat with your friends and family. Until last week, the cheapest available reserved seats for either the Yokohama or Osaka games cost 9,500 yen, plus a 200 yen booking fee. On today’s exchange rate, that’s 53 pounds per ticket. Remember, these are the cheapest available reserved seats. Prices can go as high as 30,000 yen (About 160 pounds). This does not include any hospitality. This is purely for your seat in the stadium, and nothing else.

It gets worse. I bought tickets for our game with Yokohama as soon as they became available. However, seeing that that game, as of last week, was still nowhere close to selling out, I decided to hold off on buying my tickets for the Gamba Osaka match in the hope the promoters might suddenly have a brush with reality.  With less than a month to go until both games, I finally caved in last Friday and decided to buy my tickets for the Gamba Osaka match.

Pricing double-standards

As a first port of call, naturally, I went to the link on Celtic’s website concerning the fixture.  The link for tickets contained therein leads to a dead website.  So, with Google’s help, I found a link to purchase tickets directly from the promoter over here in Japan.

This is where things get really murky.

The aforementioned 9,500 yen tickets were no longer available. The cheapest option now was 12,500 yen (70 quid).  Or at least, that’s what the English site led me to believe.

Luckily for me, I’ve picked up enough Japanese in my time here that I was able to go back and look up the Japanese version of the same site. And guess what? Those 9,500 yen tickets for the Celtic end were still available, provided you could read Japanese and had the use of a Japanese issued credit/debit card. In fact, all areas of the stadium still showed plenty of tickets available.

Now, is this a translation error? A consequence of the recent slump of the yen against the pound? An “honest mistake”?  I genuinely don’t know. What I do know, is that charging English speakers 30% more than their Japanese counterparts purely on account of their lack of Japanese isn’t a good look for Celtic.




Paying for Champagne and getting Buckfast

So why are these tickets so expensive anyway? Shouldn’t the priority be to get as many fans in to see Celtic as possible, and maximize our brand exposure?

Well, of course it should, but I think I understand what’s happened here.

Much like my previously mentioned issues with jerseys and lack of communication from the club, it simply appears to be a case of laziness on Celtic’s part. Around the same time Celtic are here, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain will also be in Japan to play similarly meaningless, yet grotesquely overpriced friendlies.

A bit of journalistic digging showed that the same ticketing agency is handling all these fixtures, and prices. They seem to have applied a standard pricing model to all “visiting European teams”. In other words, you’ll pay the same to watch Manchester City, PSG or Bayern Munich as you will to watch Celtic.

As much as I love Celtic, I’ll be the first to admit that paying the same price to watch us as the best teams in Germany, France and England is a bit like ordering a magnum of the finest champagne, only to be presented with a half bottle of Buckfast from the fridge.

From a commercial point of view, all of these teams have been to Japan recently. I went to watch Man City play Yokohama back in 2019, when Marinos were managed by a certain Ange Postecoglou.

They have brand recognition here, they have established fan bases, and have nurtured relationships with Japanese commercial partners over a number of years.

Time to establishing the brand

Celtic haven’t been to Asia since 2005. We are not in a position to charge the same as clubs with an established brand here. We have Japanese players, players with a certain level of profile. However, they are not even close to same level of interest as other teams in Japan this summer.

There is one bright spot in all of this. Both Gamba Osaka and Yokohama F Marinos are massive clubs in a J-League context. We can depend on both of them to bring 20-25,000 fans to their respective games regardless of cost. At these prices, and given what our competition is, Celtic will be lucky to draw even half that number.

I hope the lesson is learned, and Celtic will take it upon themselves to set fairer ticket prices next time they visit Asia. Unfortunately, past experience tells me that won’t happen.

This tour to Japan will probably be a one-off, written down as a commercial flop, and I’ll have to wait another 18 years before Celtic try it again.

I really hope I am wrong. I hope that next year, as I get ready to go and watch Brendan Rodgers’ treble winners visit Japan once again, I will look back on this blog and see it as an “old man yells at cloud” moment.

Time will tell.

Liam Carrigan, Celtic Down Under

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