Uniqlo is Asia’s biggest clothing retailer, trailing only behind industry rivals Zara, H&M and Gap in the world.
In just two decades, Uniqlo grew from one single suburban retail outlet in Hiroshima, Japan to the fashion behemoth that it is today, with flagship stores in every major global city.
How did Uniqlo achieve such rapid international growth? Read on to find out more.
1. Clear and differentiated brand focus helps Uniqlo stand out from other brands
Uniqlo’s vision is simple and clear – to “develop products of exceptionally high quality”.
Uniqlo focuses on making ‘life-enhancing’ basic apparel accessible to all. With a commitment to low prices and quality fabric, Uniqlo clothing is mass-produced and focuses on classic apparel that everyone needs.
Unlike its closest competitors who regularly conduct market research to discover the latest trends and to chase after them, Uniqlo does not.
Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai says:
“We don’t chase trends. People mistakenly say that Uniqlo is a fast-fashion brand. We’re not. We are about clothing that’s made for everyone.”
Word-of-mouth tip: Uniqlo’s differentiated brand focus is definitely what sets its apart from its closest competitors. Having a core principle that makes you markedly different from other players in your industry will naturally generate lots of WOM.
2. Constant and unique brand innovations make Uniqlo the go-to place for classic and dependable apparel
Instead of chasing fashion trends, Uniqlo instead channels its focus on research and development to constantly improve on its brand innovations.
Uniqlo brand innovations include HeatTech, AIRism and Lifewear, with HeatTech being the most famous of all.
The HeatTech brand is synonymous with Uniqlo, and has gained a cult following amongst young millennials for its thin fabric that turns moisture into heat, with air pockets in the fabric that help to retain heat.
Uniqlo constantly improves upon its technology for its innovative fabrics. When HeatTeach was first introduced in 2003, 1.5 million units were sold. Just 10 years later in 2012, 130 million units were sold, with a wider variety of items.
Word-of-mouth tip: A good, unique product that differentiates itself will spread organically via word-of-mouth. People love to own the latest in innovative design, and especially when products are kept affordable, WOM will help to spread brand awesomeness.
3. Unparalleled in-store experience gives customers another reason to keep coming back
Step into any Uniqlo and you’ll be greeted with a cheery “Welcome to Uniqlo!”, no matter which branch you visit.
Uniqlo is proud of its Japanese roots and isn’t afraid to show it. Uniqlo adopts the Japanese concept of kaizen, meaning a continuous search for perfection, and applies this to its in-store experiences.
Uniqlo staff undergo meticulous training. Their work is closely monitored and recorded, and their performance is regularly reviewed .
Uniqlo staff have to utilise the exact folding techniques they are taught, return credit cards and cash with both hands in a polite manner, and are expected to greet and assist all customers that step into the store.
In fact, Uniqlo takes the in-store experience so seriously that a Uniqlo University has been built in Tokyo with the aim of training 1,500 sales managers each year.
Uniqlo’s hands-on exceptional customer service and in-store experience has not gone unnoticed by customers.
Word-of-mouth tip: When customers receive excellent customer service, they will talk about it to their friends and families, generating heaps of good publicity for the brand.
4. Engagement with local communities through a CSR approach created positive brand recognition
Uniqlo is a socially-conscious brand that is big on corporate social responsibility.
TheAll-Product Recycling Initiative is one such programme where customers can donate their old Uniqlo items to any Uniqlo store for recycling.
These items are collected and then redistributed to refugees and other people in need around the world. Since 2001, Uniqlo has partnered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide 14 million items of recycled clothing.
Local offices are also on the lookout for meaningful ways to engage the local community and to give back to society.
This partnership was aimed at providing the beneficiaries with the opportunity to put to use the life skills they had learned at school, in order to build up their confidence and independence.
Word-of-mouth tip: Involvement with the local community in meaningful ways helps to build positive brand awareness. Customers are also made aware of the brand’s social-consciousness, and feel good about patronising the brand.
5. Sponsorship of prominent athletes through the Global Ambassador Programme helped Uniqlo break into new markets
Uniqlo also sponsors world-class athletes as part of its Global Ambassador Programme.
Djokovic was chosen because he was seen to have shared a common value with the brand — a commitment to make a positive impact on people’s lives and to contribute to society.
But more importantly, Uniqlo’s decision to sponsor Djokovic, a Serbian athlete, was a strategic one. A partnership with Djokovic would raise enough hype about the brand to pave its way for expansion into Europe.
Djokovic signed a 5-year sponsorship with the brand, and debuted his first Uniqlo outfit at the second Glam Slam of the season, with thousands watching all over the globe.
Word-of-mouth tip: By sponsoring prominent athletes, Uniqlo has made a strategic move in promoting brand awareness because these athletes are constantly under the limelight, donning Uniqlo apparel. Uniqlo also manages to cultivate brand loyalty for its retail stores amongst the massive fan bases of these world-class athletes.
6. Localised and personalised approach to social media outreach allows Uniqlo to connect to their customers
Uniqlo understands that different markets have different local cultures and lifestyle norms. Uniqlo has succeeded in expanding into different regional markets because it tailors its social media strategies to its specific audiences.
For instance, Twitter and Facebook are the main social media platforms that Uniqlo uses to engages its customers in the UK and US because market research has shown that these are the two platforms that their customers utilise the most.
In China, however, where Facebook and Twitter are banned, Uniqlo uses Renren, a social media platform that Chinese locals use.
Social media managers at Uniqlo also personally engage with their customers, providing that light-hearted human touch to their interactions, making customers feel at ease with the brand.
Dyda claims that posting from her own personal handle and occasionally engaging in friendly banter with her customers while providing them with styling advice really helps to cultivate brand loyalty amongst customers who appreciate that personal touch.
Word-of-mouth tip: Conduct research to understand which social media platforms work best in reaching out to your target audience. Consumers love when brands get close and personal with them. It makes them feel appreciated and cultivates strong brand loyalty.
Recap: What were the factors that led to Uniqlo’s success?
- Focused on creating basic, high quality clothes to differentiate against other trend-chasing brands
- Created innovative products by investing into research and technology
- Ensured that all stores provided excellent, Uniqlo-unique customer service
- Involved themselves in good causes to engage the community and build a good name for the brand
- Sponsorship of international athletes helped Uniqlo break into new markets
- Localised and personalised social media presence helped to connect Uniqlo to their customers within each market