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The unbranded brand- uniqlo

December 3, 2009

It takes a lot of guts to show restraint and at a time of incredible pressure on the bottom line to have the discipline to stand back and allow your brand to play a recessive role. To do this in the world of fashion where loud and brash are the norms, is even more surprising, but this is exactly what Uniqlo has done.

Somehow the stars have collided for Uniqlo and it seems to be the brand of the moment. A company that understands things have changed for consumers and is giving them exactly what they want.

Business of Fashion has a very thoughtful piece on the brand pointing to the zeitgeist that’s driven Uniqlo’s success.

“For young Japanese consumers in particular, Uniqlo’s ‘blank slate’
approach may be its greatest strength. Indeed, the days of Japanese
consumers creating and expressing identity through brand identification
is over. Judging by their embrace of Uniqlo, Japanese consumers are
definitely not becoming ‘individual’ in a Western sense
wanting to only buy things no one else has. But they no longer want to
be pigeon-holed by consuming a fashion brand that has an overly strong
or defining identity.

Uniqlo’s widespread success means it’s a socially-acceptable brand
(a huge concern for Japanese consumers), but other than that, the
clothes say almost nothing: no logos, no design flourishes, no
distinguishing marks. Uniqlo’s advertising rarely tries to inject a
particular statement or identity into the brand, unlike the hipster sex
of American Apparel or the “classic” preppie vibe of The Gap. Uniqlo is
basically a Pantone-hued commodity, making it a perfect fit for both
highly sophisticated and completely disengaged fashion consumers.”

Uniqlo has created a template for the brand and provided some cues, but left it up to people to define the brand in their terms. This flexible template is attractive because it can be molded and shaped. Many brands could learn a lot from Uniqlo in how to let the customer in to play and shape. In many respects, it pays homage to it compatriot Muji, who played exactly the same game a few years back

The critical part of Uniqlo’s success in NYC has been in finding a way to make its Japanness cool and relevant, much of this has been built around great collaborations and brilliant communication, but you can’t overlook the product, there’s something they’ve got right with product design, something that The Gap hasn’t yet mastered.

I also believe there’s a huge strategic upside in scarcity- having just one store in NYC and no online presence is very smart. It makes these potentially commodity products, special and exclusive. The chaos that the launch of the Jill Sander line created was all good PR for the brand and proved that discipline and restraint can pay dividends.

In the end, there’s something uniquely Japanese at work here in the business culture, because you can’t imagine a US corporation with shareholders of new company backed by private equity showing the same kind of discipline. In US hands, by now, Uniqlo could easily have 400 stores across the country.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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