Adweek's 2012 Brand Genius Awards
Retail: Kensuke Suwa, Uniqlo
In the world of fast fashion where teens flock to mega chains like H&M and Forever 21 for flashy, inexpensive outfits they’ll end up wearing all of four weeks, any newcomer would have its work cut out for it.
That’s why Uniqlo’s arrival on U.S. shores six years ago, touting cotton basics and bargain-priced cashmere sweaters, barely registered in the adolescent shopping cortex.
After all, Uniqlo was essentially a Japanese version of the Gap.
Its mistake was marketing itself as such.
Then Kensuke Suwa took over as the retailer’s director of global marketing, and suddenly everything changed.
Suwa’s approach has brought much needed focus to what the Uniqlo brand is—and is not.
“We do not try to provide the latest trend of the season and say to the customer, this is what you should wear,” Suwa says. “However, we are a brand that makes the best effort to provide the perfect components to our customer’s everyday life.”
Under Suwa’s leadership, Uniqlo has managed to keep its central identity intact at the same time it has Americanized its offerings so they will grab consumers’ attention—but not so much that they look like something out of a Gap or Old Navy store. Uniqlo has kept its core offerings simple (“Made for All” is its egalitarian motto) but has also rolled out limited edition collections with designers like Jil Sander and Lulu Guinness.
Deploying some clever crowdsourcing, the chain has also tapped directly into the young-adult customization trend. Its Grand Prix platform lets customers create their own designs for T-shirts, with winning designs sold in stores globally.
Taking a cue from Starbucks, the brand also encourages customers to hang out in its stores (and with some locations in excess of 40,000 square feet, there’s room) and hosts celebrity appearances and art exhibitions to create a cultural connection with the public.
Suwa’s approach seems to be working. At a time when many retailers have put the brakes on expansion as they wait for the economy to heat up, Uniqlo is moving ahead with plans to open 20 to 30 new locations per year.
The payoff: Sales in the company’s international division soared 68 percent to $1.07 billion in the first half of fiscal year 2012 while Suwa projects that global sales will hit $10 billion by 2020. —Emma Bazilian