Chief executive Henrik Tjärnström discusses the thinking behind Unibet’s rebranding to Kindred and why the motto ‘By players, for players’ is still key.
By Julian Rogers
When the Kindred Group – the new name for Unibet at group level – was officially unveiled it was trumpeted as a means to “improve synergy, clarity and flexibility”.
However, the simple fact is that the sprawling, multi-brand Unibet Group had grown too large to only include the founding but dominant brand, Unibet, in its name and logo.
The switch to Kindred Group, however, addresses this concern by creating an umbrella identity to reflect the growing number of igaming businesses the group now owns.
“Unibet is our biggest brand, but the group is so much more than just Unibet,” Tjärnström tells iGaming Business from the group’s Stockholm office and tech hub where the websites and core systems are built and maintained.
Indeed, ever since 2007, when Unibet Group snapped up Maria Bingo — which has since become Maria Casino — and the business morphed into a dual-brand operator, a change of name has been a possibility.
“We had two customer-facing brands but the group name was the largest of those brands,” Tjärnström says. “It has always created a bit of tension internally among the employees who were working for Maria [Casino] and felt a bit neglected in certain circumstances when we talked about Unibet, albeit Unibet the group rather than Unibet the customer-facing brand.”
So at an extraordinary meeting in Stockholm in December, shareholders rubber-stamped the proposed switch.
The Kindred rebrand wasn’t a snap decision, though. In fact, it was an exhaustive, year-long process as management and the board evaluated and dismissed hundreds of potential names and brand designs before eventually settling on Kindred Group, together with a symmetrical, multi-coloured logo.
“We had to sift through a shortlist but Kindred was the one that we all found was the best for us,” the 46-year-old Swede explains.
“It has the kindred spirit, which is about belonging, cooperation, family and relationships. This is very much what we pride ourselves on from a cultural point of view. We want everyone among the employees to feel part of a family and have a very close relationship, work-wise.”
An upward curve
The brand overhaul comes hard on the heels of an all-time-high performance in the third quarter 2016 for the group as gross win revenue soared by 65% over the same period last year to £142.3m.
In fact, this has been a particularly stellar year as gross win revenue for the first three quarters topped £390m, aided by record highs in customer activity during Euro 2016.
Unibet Group also surpassed the milestone of one million active customers after five years of sustained 20-25% year-on-year growth in the active user base.
And Tjärnström (pictured, right), who assumed the position of chief executive in 2010 after a two-year stint as chief financial officer, has “high ambitions” this positive and consistent trend can be maintained in 2017 when the Unibet brand marks its 20th anniversary.
Indeed, the roots of the business can be traced back to the mid-90s when founder Anders Ström relocated from Sweden to the UK, secured a bookmaking licence and launched Unibet in 1997 from his bedroom in London’s Earls Court.
Targeting the Nordic region, bets were initially only accepted by telephone. It wasn’t until 1999 that Unibet’s English- and Swedish-language websites first flickered into life.
After that, Unibet, which became Unibet Group in 2000, didn’t look back and was soon serving customers in more than 50 countries and 12 languages.
When Tjärnström joined in 2003 as a non-executive director, the group had around 40 employees focused solely on nurturing a growing sportsbook brand and product. But it was during his very first board meeting the divisive idea to spread beyond just laying sports wagers was given the green light.
“We took the decision to launch casino, which was quite controversial at the time because we were of the opinion that sportsbook was a bit more sophisticated than perhaps casino. But it was an instant success and the customers really wanted the casino offering as well. So that was the point when we went from a single-product to a multi-product operator.”
A year later, online poker was added to the product suite, followed by bingo in 2006. These games, along with the core offering of sports betting and casino, became the four key engines for the group’s growth.
Yet at a time now when many multi-vertical operators have tossed their hands into the muck when it comes to poker, Unibet bucks this trend after taking the bold step in 2014 to leave the Microgaming Poker Network to launch its own Relax Gaming-powered product.
An overhauled, multi-channel version of Unibet Poker, touted as Unibet Poker 2.0 and which was built from the ground up primarily in HTML5, launched in early December.
It would appear that being unshackled from the constraints of a network model, coupled with distinctive software and games targeting recreational players, is paying off.
Unibet Poker’s revenue more than doubled to £3.2m in the third quarter compared to the same period a year earlier. It prompted management to dub it “the fastest growing licensed poker site in the industry”.
“The product has returned to growth for the first time in many, many years. We really feel that we are on the right track to becoming one of the largest poker operators again.”
Tjärnström says there were “definite flaws in the network model” and that Unibet Poker saw an opportunity to create a product appealing to casual players and novices rather than high-stakes card sharks.
“There are a lot of people who want to play poker but not necessarily on an extremely aggressive level.”
These past few years the online gambling industry has witnessed a flurry of M&A, redefining the landscape of the sector.
While Kindred Group, or specifically Unibet, hasn’t hitherto been involved in any of the blockbuster deals, it has managed to fly under the radar stealthily picking off igaming businesses over the course of nine acquisitions.
The first purchase was back in 2005 with French-language operator Mr Bookmaker, and culminated with the most recent acquisitions last year of casino operator iGame and online bookmaker Stan James in separate deals worth €59m and £19m, respectively.
In total, Kindred Group has amassed 13 brands serving customers in over 100 countries and 20 languages, while the total workforce currently stands at more than 1,100.
Yet acquiring a business and its staff is very rarely a straightforward, one-size-fits-all process, as Tjärnström can attest.
“We have been quite active with M&As in our industry for the past 10 years,” he says, “but no acquisition is a done deal or a guaranteed success. You have to work very hard both in the process up to the announcement and then, of course, after the announcement when you take care of it and integrate it. We have learnt a lot during those 10 to 12 years and from those nine acquisitions…you learn new things each time.”
Kindred Group also possesses licences in 10 locally-regulated markets (responsible for 33% of the group’s third quarter gross win revenue in) besides its licence in Malta, where the head office is situated.
Rather frustratingly for an operator that started life with the Nordics central to its business plan, regulatory progress has been slow in Ström and Tjärnström’s home market of Sweden in terms of passing laws to allow overseas companies to serve the population alongside state-owned monopoly Svenska Spel.
However, Tjärnström is confident an expanded online gambling marketplace will be up and running in a shade over 18 months from now.
“There is an enquiry that will be completed on the 31st March next year, and we believe it is on track and the stakeholders have committed their ambition to go live with the system ahead of the next general election in September 2018. So the system will go live in July 2018.”
As it stands, the business’s core markets continue to be much of Europe, the Nordics and Australia, thanks to the acquisition of local bookmaker Betchoice four years ago.
The UK is where Unibet launched, but it did take some time to muscle in on the market and become a recognised brand among gamblers there.
With strong marketing and player acquisition campaigns, the past five years have seen Unibet increase its presence and share of the betting pie.
“Every market has its specifics, and having an offering suited for the Nordic region doesn’t necessarily mean it is [right] for the UK market. That is something that we have started to address in the last four or five years since we really started to push on marketing in the UK and improving the product offering.”
The acquisition of Stan James was a strategic play to aid expansion in the UK. “By buying a niche operator in the local market with strong knowledge and expertise, it compliments our own global scale very well,” Tjärnström notes.
Nevertheless, he is all too aware of the competitive nature of this important market, especially with a slew of new sportsbooks having entered the fray of late.
“It’s the largest locally regulated market in the world, so, of course, it is a very interesting market for everyone and for that reason it is very competitive, which means you need to have a very good offering before you can get much traction.”
As the Kindred Group enters 2017, the focus for Tjärnström and his teams will be to continue this year’s momentum whilst focusing hard on taking the products to the next level.
Mobile will still be key, especially now that 64% of the group’s gross winnings revenue derives from handheld devices. “The mobile channel has been a massive growth driver for the last five or six years,” Tjärnström states.
Unibet also hasn’t been afraid to explore new technologies in the pursuit of innovation and gaining an edge; the operator has experimented with Siri-like voice betting, was one of the first to develop an Apple Watch app, and launched Commologic’s second-screen live betting game, BetUP, earlier this year. And the tech teams are constantly trialing new platforms, such as virtual reality.
“We are very much keeping our finger on the pulse and what’s coming from a technology point of view to see how it would fit into our business.”
He also stresses that Unibet’s famous motto, ‘By players, for players’, isn’t disappearing. In fact, it will be central to the group’s future, even if it now has a new identity.
“It’s in our DNA as employees. We want to take that part onto Kindred, really see it from the customer’s point of view and develop the Kindred Group in the direction of what the customers want. He concludes: “The one who takes care of customers in the best possible way will have a huge advantage over its competitors.”