So it is refreshing when a Japanese brand discards discretion for an emboldened embrace of its culture in brand identity. The contemporary consumer is multicultural, seeks the exotic, and may even perceive Japan as being (kookily) cool.
One brand that wears its national colors on its sleeve is UNIQLO, a fashion retailer that combines the back-to-basics approach of American Apparel, the competitive pricing of Old Navy, and the foreign edge of a Zara or H&M. If not yet Gap-like in scale, UNIQLO (its name coined from "unique clothes") is a retail juggernaut in Japan, with 760 stores in six countries, 20,000 employees, and earnings of US$ 3.5 billion in 2004. But most of its stores are domestic, and with little room for expansion in a saturated home market, CEO Tadashi Yanai is looking to sew up the US market.
Like many Japanese brands, UNIQLO's message is heavily product-oriented, touting garment quality as a major selling point. To maintain high production values they rely on a strategy of "Total Systems Control"—which does not exactly impart an image of sexy, edgy fashion—sounding more appropriate hanging on the wall of a silicon-chip plant or on the bridge of a battleship. Still, it does ensure the company is accountable for all aspects of production, down to rigorous quality checks in their Chinese factories. Again, though, these are the kind of production values people take for granted from Japanese manufacturers.
Another technique for quality control that is equally widespread in Japan, but less well-known in other countries, is the use of takumi, or master craftsmen, to oversee important processes and educate new staff. The takumi concept has deep roots in the aesthetic values of Japan, where artisans have been placed on a cultural pedestal since the Edo era. UNIQLO's branding team was quick to capitalize on this very Japanese element in its communications, featuring some of these crustily hip tailors in the UNIQLO Paper, a brand magazine sold at stores.
But where the brand really begins to take shape is with its philosophy of "un-branded" fashion. UNIQLO-thes sport no overt logos, which fans of the (paradoxical) "no-brand" Japanese brand MUJI will no doubt warm to. The premise is that consumers can make their own fashion choices. They do not need to have a style dictated to them from on high. In a country like Japan, where a surprising majority of young dressers in the street can be classified by the fashion magazine they subscribe to, this is nothing short of a seismic shift in thinking. The idea is simple yet empowering: Your clothes don't define you; you define your clothes.
So far, so good. A high-quality, democratic clothing line. Is it enough to cut through the noise in the highly competitive world of American retail? Probably not, and that is why the UNIQLO marketers have blended Japonism with creative marketing techniques for its American invasion.
In part, the brand is learning from mistakes made in its incursion into the UK in 2001. There UNIQLO expanded aggressively and rapidly but with little focus on building a strong brand. A bland product offering that failed to stand up to the likes of Zara, and store retrograde interiors that communicated few values, forced Yanai and his team to rethink their strategy.
To avoid similar missteps in the US, UNIQLO has moved cautiously, entering the market nearly unnoticed with a couple of pilot stores in New Jersey. Programs to bring in more foreign talent to the design team, and major acquisitions by their parent company of headliner brands such as the formerly defunct Helmut Lang, are steps UNIQLO is taking to be sure its products have enough style to appeal to American consumers.
Just as important as stocking clothes that sell was the task of raising brand awareness, and the UNIQLO marketing team adopted some unorthodox but effective multidisciplinary marketing approaches to generate buzz from the ground up. As a buildup to the launch of the New York flagship store in November of last year, the UNIQLO team embarked on a guerilla campaign called "UNIQLO Is Everywhere," with "container stores" appearing at random on New York City street corners. Further efforts include an ad campaign featuring Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame. The company also produced a CD of 15 contemporary genre-bending Japanese artists that cleverly communicates the brand's Japanese essence, as well as its eclectic, cutting-edge, global style.
But it was in the design of the flagship store that the brand's Japanese DNA was most fully revealed. The involvement of a predominantly Japanese team—including renowned interior designer Masamichi Katayama—in the store development was a clear vote of confidence in Japanese heritage over red-white-and-blue-washing the brand. "We didn't set out to create a typically exotic traditional Japanese atmosphere," says Kashiwa Sato, the creative director of the SoHo store design. "The aim was rather to express contemporary Tokyo pop culture."
Sato wanted to transport the fetishistic artistry of Tokyo boutiques to New York, hence the centerpiece of the store: a giant glass cocoon that incubates twirling mannequins modeling UNIQLO combinations. It is a spectacle reminiscent of a display of a couple of years ago in one of the branches of BEAMS, a trendy Tokyo retailer, in which t-shirts were displayed on a glass-encased rotating clothing rack, perhaps inspired by conveyor-belt sushi. While other design elements are somewhat more expected, from sliding panel doors to tatami floor coverings, the overall environment embraces modern minimalism, everything clean and bright, placing product at the center without giving too much distracting context. This lack of context is a physical cue to empower consumers to create their own styles and combinations.
The signage and logo are also optimally aligned with the brand identity. The red and white logo colors link implicitly to the Japanese flag. Further, the flagship store is outfitted with both English and katakana versions of signage. This seems to further enhance the Japanese-ness of the brand while adding a practical communicative element for the large Japanese and Asian population living in New York City. It also cashes in on the undercurrent of "cool Japonica" that has been more or less simmering in the underground since American adolescents discovered Akira in the mid-1980s. In all, the experience is both Japanese and infused with the kind of dynamic futurism people associate with Tokyo, though such associations are based more on pop-culture references like the movie Blade Runner than on actual experience. Sato believes this uniquely Japanese identity will contribute greatly to the success of UNIQLO in the States.
UNIQLO execs seem to agree with their expectation of US$ 1 billion in annual sales from the US in five years—a lofty goal. But, as they say, if you don't dream big, you won't win big. The bottom line is that only the bottom line will reveal success or failure for this Japanese casual-wear behemoth. If buzz translates into sales, a result far from guaranteed, then expect to see a UNIQLO moving to a Gap near you in the near future.