Uniqlo Reborn

Over-ambitious expansion and over-reliance on one product nearly ruined Uniqlo, but now, thanks to employing an array of creative talent, the Japanese retailer is back in style. By Michael Fitzpatrick

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Over-ambitious expansion and over-reliance on one product nearly ruined Uniqlo, but now, thanks to employing an array of creative talent, the Japanese retailer is back in style. By Michael Fitzpatrick

The chairman of Japan’s biggest clothes retailer probably never wants to see another fleece again. After casual clothes chain Uniqlo sold more than 2.6 million of the warm but ubiquitous jerkins in one year, Tadashi Yanaii’s best-selling item became a victim of its own success and symbol of the company’s rise then demise both in Japan and famously in the UK. A 26-shop expansion venture there in the early noughties led to the company’s near collapse.

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The first Uniqlo store, opened in Hiroshima in 1984

Image was a big part of the problem. Originally a pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap C&A of the East, a resurgent Uniqlo has now remade itself as a more upmarket, hip, cashmere-toting, internationally-minded store while tapping Japan’s newly acquired cool and some of its edgiest creatives to do it.

Renewed success has been the result. Following the reinstatement of Yanaii as chairman (he resigned after the UK failure) and a shift in Uniqlo’s marketing focus, the brand’s sales have soared once more. Buoyed by his phoenix-like rise at home, Yanaii is now back on track with his new look Uniqlo and has grand plans to make it a truly global brand.

Dozens of stores are set to open worldwide, while Yanaii promises he will make Uniqlo the world’s number one apparel retailer by 2010. This time he, says, there will be no mistakes. Though there were plenty. “Uniqlo failed to build a uk business in part because of serious cultural differences, but equally because it badly misjudged the market,” says Japan retail consultant Michael Causton.

To help overcome previous failings in his marketing strategy Yanaii was advised to hire one of Japan’s top creative director talents, Kashiwa Sato, to help him rebrand and reposition the label, though initially he says he was dead against the idea. “When a mutual acquaintance told me that I should meet with Mr Sato, I was rather reluctant; wary of meeting with a ‘creative’. Those who call themselves creatives may or may not always be creative. There are so many self-proclaimed ‘creatives’ out there,”says Yanaii.“But I was very impressed when I saw a TV special about Mr. Sato. So, I set out right away to meet him.”

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Sato, who established his award-winning studio Samurai in 2000, has made a name for himself as a designer and art director of some distinction. His most recent triumph was to oversee both the product design and ad campaign for one of Japan’s now iconic mobile phones, the retro styled Foma n702id (above). After the meeting, Yanaii hired Sato as head creative director for the Uniqlo brand. Immediately the director set about picking a team to overhaul the tired-looking Uniqlo DNA.

Tokyo-based web designer Yugo Nakamura, noted for the wit and complexity of the interactive animations he creates for his Flash-driven sites, was hired to bring fresh ideas to Uniqlo’s websites and other digital content. Markus Kiersztan, of mp creative in New York was also hired (on the recommendation of Yanaii’s friend, Wieden + Kennedy creative director John Jay), as consulting creative director, with a remit to develop marketing and brand strategy. Together, Uniqlo’s team created new shop interiors, a new global logo, a new ad campaign and designed a new flagship store for New York that would be a blueprint for subsequent outlets. A widely acclaimed integrated marketing campaign, and new fully e-commerce-enabled websites spread the word.

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Uniqlo’s US site houses Yugo Nakamura’s Uniqlo Explorer microsite. The base image is transformed into a mosaic of Uniqlo products. Each square gains access to a different item. Click on one and a new mosaic of hundreds more pieces of clothing is formed.

It seems to be working. Uniqlo has now become symbolic of a new Japanese take on a global brand which, unlike the past – think of Toyota’s dreary image – is not afraid of stamping its Japanese-ness on the brand, says Tokyo-based brand consultant Patrick Williamson. “They have done a tremendous job with their brand identity. It’s part of their strategy of creating a very distinctive brand image that generates some buzz. It is not only limited to their ads and websites, either. They are bringing in rising stars of design to create limited edition T-shirt runs, and the parent company, Fast Retailing, is trying like mad to borrow equity through ballsy moves like their attempt to buy out Barneys New York.”

The Barneys bid might have failed but its New York store, opened earlier this year, has been a success. Previously known for his interior work for the cult brand Bathing Ape, the hiring of Masamichi Katayama for the NY store interior signalled the final blowing away of the old style cobwebs. Critics of previous Uniqlo overseas stores had commented sharply, in the past, on the blandness of their design. With new designers no longer afraid of flaunting Japanese design credentials, the result in NY is one shoppers might expect to experience in downtown Tokyo rather than SoHo.

There are minimalist hints at the spareness of traditional Japanese design, with nods towards Manga, hi-tech and industrial chic but with some softer Japanese trad elements such as tatami. Directed by Sato, the look he wanted for the store and the Uniqlo brand overall was “the ultra-contemporary cool aspect of Japan, its pop culture rather than something traditional and Japanesey,” he says.

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SoHo New York store

Katayama calls it: “beauty conscious, ultra rational style”. Each element, from advertising to the new logo, to the shop floor is designed to reflect this fusion and the clothes themselves. “I considered how this concept and the brand identity of Uniqlo could be expressed as a space. Since the store has an abundance of variety of merchandise, I resorted to creating an environment with their products with very little ‘designing’ of the actual space. The interior design was based on how to enhance the merchandising,” says Katayama.

Uniqlo’s American invasion is a successful blend of Japonism with creative marketing techniques says Williamson. “Just a decade ago, because of trade friction, Japan was happier to disguise its Japanese-ness, now companies like Uniqlo can trade on a new taste for Japanese pop culture.” The brand’s new global logo, for instance, spells out Uniqlo in Japanese ‘Katakana’ script. The Japanese logo, in Roman letters only, doesn’t have that.

Sato says that transferring this look from Japan was an important part of raising the brand abroad and a matter of exploiting those design elements he sees as Japanese: “They are logical, clean, high-quality, speed, flat, graphical,” he says.

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The old Uniqlo logo, far left, has now been replaced with a dual Roman/Katakana version

Personifying this resurgence of pride in Japanese design and craftsmanship is Uniqlo’s new webmeister Yugo Nakamura. When Sato decided to rethink Uniqlo’s internet presence and fire up a series of viral marketing campaigns, untried by big name Japanese retailers until then, he choose Nakamura to come up with websites and programmes that would spread the Uniqlo name worldwide.

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Grid, by Yugo Nakamura’s Tha studio, invites users to play with the Uniqlo logo

Already noted in Japan for its consistently stunning and engaging promotional sites, perhaps Uniqlo’s biggest international success to date has been the Uniqlock viral advertising campaign. Such a campaign is a big departure for a large Japanese concern such as Fast Retailing, which tend to take a conservative approach to marketing.

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Uniqlock is a downloadable ‘blog part’ created by Projector. It’s a simple clock that anyone can place on their blog to give the time and location of the blog’s writer. Each hour, it plays a specially written chime by DJ/producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, aka Fantastic Plastic Machine. Nearly 20,000 are in use worldwide. Uniqlo recently updated the concept with the addition of video: in the new version (shown), each hour is marked by a short dance piece performed by dance group, Core of Woomin, and directed and choreographed by Yuichi Kodama and AIRMAN.

The embrace of boutique agencies, such as Nakamura’s Tha Co., or Projector, which produced the downloadable ‘blogpart’ Uniqlock, and the use of edgy viral marketing marks a striking shift for Uniqlo. Quite a gamble, in fact, say Japan retail industry insiders, for a company that up to now sold cheap tame clothes for no-one in particular. Now, it seems, Uniqlo is determined to throw its lot in with the distinctly cool and cutting edge.

Launched in June, the Worldclock section of the imaginatively wrought Uniqlock site will inform you that more than 19,000 Uniqlocks have been set, and the site has been viewed nearly 46 million times by visitors from 204 countries. Impressive for one of Japan’s behemoth’s first stab at viral marketing. The attraction? An exceptionally sticky blend of neat graphic tricks, performance art — dancers in Uniqlo garb moving in staccato — and the hipster sounds of Fantastic Plastic Machine’s catchy modern jazz mix. The clock can be downloaded as a screensaver or incorporated into blogs.

The Uniqlo Explorer microsite, an infinite voyage into the company’s products, expresses the Yugo Nakamura philosophy beautifully with his usual mix of wit and invention. The other Uniqlo sites (including the UK site, designed by pod1) maintain the same playful ingenuity that will do no harm for Uniqlo’s image. Likewise the UT Project, overseen by Markus Kiersztan. Launched in April, the project will eventually see Uniqlo produce over 1000 unique styles of limited edition T-shirts by renowned artists, designers, photographers and musicians, such as Terry Richardson, Nobuyoshi Araki, Peter Saville, and Sølve Sundsbø. Each season, Richardson will shoot musicians, artists and actors wearing the shirts, the images appearing in the retailer’s self-promotional magazine, Paper (below, also designed by Kiersztan) and in a book. Kiersztan also devises Uniqlo’s print advertising, including the current People campaign.

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Devised and art directed by Markus Kiersztan of mp creative in New York, Paper is Uniqlo’s in-house bi-annual magazine.

But the question is, do such activities really reflect what Uniqlo is actually selling? Determined to put its ‘fleece people’ image behind it Uniqlo’s rebranding has certainly upped its cool quotient and is bound to create interest in the new shops it is poised to open worldwide but Williamson wonders if the product will now match the skillful marketing. “They have done a tremendous job with their brand identity. But I still think they need a better product. I don’t see large-scale success in foreign markets for them unless they apply the same creativity to their product as they do to their marketing.”

This article first appeared in the January 2007 issue of CR

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