Why Japan's Uniqlo Launched Its First Big Global Brand Campaign

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Japanese retailer Uniqlo has been getting philosophical lately about clothes. In a global brand campaign from Droga 5, Japanese streetscapes unwind in slow motion, and people pass by wearing simple but chic clothes. A narrator starts in with questions: "Do you put on jeans because you don't care? What does not caring look like? Can jeans make you more open?"

The unusual, highbrow approach to selling $39.90 jeans (and $14.90 thermal innerwear, and $29.90 jogger pants) is part of Uniqlo's first-ever global brand campaign. The first phase has rolled out since August in six videos asking why people dress the way they do, and the brand is preparing a second phase with Droga that will answer questions as well as ask more.

John C. Jay
John C. Jay Credit: Fast Retailing

John C. Jay, the longtime Wieden & Kennedy partner and iconic creative director, joined Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing in January 2015 in the new role of president of global creative. The campaign is an attempt to define Uniqlo better as it grows internationally, and to explain the principle of what it calls "LifeWear," or simple styles that are universal, affordable and designed with Japanese attention to detail.

Uniqlo, which has over 1,700 stores globally, seems to be proclaiming itself the thoughtful apparel brand, the anti-fast fashion brand.

"As I sat there for a year and a half learning about the company, it was clear to me that the world did not understand just how much thought goes behind LifeWear and the product," Mr. Jay said in an interview during a visit to Shanghai. "It's very easy to get associated, and wrongly so, in terms of the world of fast fashion, where you're just chasing trends and copying things off the runways ... I wanted to show the world that there is a certain thinking process that we go through, and that we're not just chasing after influencers and whoever has the highest social media imprint, you know. That there's a purpose to what we do, that we have a philosophy, we have values, and we want to in time make sure that people will get a better understanding of us."

The company, which comes in after Zara, H&M and Gap in global sales, has been adjusting its goals for itself lately, too. Fast Retailing Chairman Tadashi Yanai, who wants to build the world's biggest clothing retailer, had long predicted annual sales of $48 billion by fiscal 2020. He acknowledged this month that the goal would take more time and scaled down the 2020 target by 40%.

Mr. Jay said the campaign is not a response to any sales issues, but an opportunity to present its mission and its Japanese heritage, which differentiates it from the competition. (There are visual cues evoking urban Japan throughout the videos, from schoolchildren's uniforms to taxis.) For a company that has expanded quickly, it was also an opportunity to harmonize its image across markets.

In Japan, where the Uniqlo brand was founded in 1984, "everyone owns a piece of Uniqlo," and the danger is being ubiquitous, Mr. Jay said. From that perspective, the brand has been making more efforts to show that it's fashionable, and that "style is not the enemy here."

In China, Uniqlo is growing fast, adding 80 to 100 stores a year and building a strong e-commerce presence. In the U.S., where it has struggled and reported an operating loss in the year through August, it could use better name recognition.

"We're unknown in America, right? We have 40 stores. I tell people Starbucks has more stores on a block in Manhattan," Mr. Jay jokes. But he also acknowledges it's "taking us time to get America right." He points to London as a market where the brand struggled before turning things around.

Uniqlo continues to expand to new markets; it just opened in Canada, enlisting the help of Leo Burnett Toronto. Besides working with Droga on the brand campaign, and a strong relationship with Dentsu in Japan, it's tapping local agencies for individual projects. (In the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2015, Fast Retailing spent $581 million on advertising and marketing, according to public documents).

Mr. Jay was named one of Ad Age's Creativity 50 in December 2014, soon after the news broke that he would become Fast Retailing's first global creative director in charge of product and store design, marketing, media and branding strategies. He even has a hand in what the mannequins wear, though he notes: "I'm not in there pinning and steaming them myself."

That range of experience is half the reason he took the job, he said. When he first joined Wieden, for a brief on a print ad, "I would come in with the shoe box, and the event, and the store ... I can't help myself. I can't think just in terms of what that print ad is. I'm thinking of the entire consumer experience. What's the journey, what's the entire experience?"

Mr. Jay first worked with Fast Retailing in 1998, when Uniqlo was his first Japanese client as he opened Wieden in Tokyo and developed a close relationship with Fast Retailing's founder Mr. Yanai. At the time, Uniqlo was so small that it didn't even have a shop in Tokyo yet. Mr. Jay spends a week every month in Japan, though he still lives in Portland, where W&K co-founder Dan Wieden often visits his Studio J creative salon. He says Mr. Wieden was encouraging about his new venture: "He said to me, 'free yourself. Don't let loyalty stop you from finding a new challenge for yourself.'"