Selling “American-ness”

Japan’s Uniqlo

By Neena Kapur

There’s a recent slang term has grown in popularity in Japan: unibare. This word is a combination of the two words, Uniqlo, the company, and bareru, which is the Japanese word equivalent to the phrase “letting the cat out of the bag.” This term is used when someone is caught wearing Uniqlo clothing, what is now the equivalent of social suicide among Japanese youth.

But despite a seemingly negative image held against the clothing brand, Uniqlo has grown to be Asia’s biggest clothing retailer, and the president, Tadashi Yanai, is the richest man in Japan. Clearly they’re doing something right. But with such an image, how are they maintaining sales domestically, and how are they effectively projecting their image abroad? The answer lies in the brilliant globalization strategy of this company, as well as the core truth of how an affordable retail company can succeed on the global scale: you have to sell American-ness. Before elaborating on the latter, let’s look at how and why Uniqlo has grown to be the retail giant it is today.

It’s rare to see Asian fashion companies making the same mark in Western markets that Uniqlo has—rather, many either fail to break into Western markets, or only enter through another pre-established Western company. Fashion trends are dominated by both European and American brands, and thus tend to disseminate throughout the world from fashion capitals such as New York, London and Paris. When Uniqlo first began spreading West, it sought to maintain it’s emphasis on the “basics” of fashion—clothing that was simple and did not go out of style. It marketed itself as a Japan-led-fashion brand, and hoped to project the image of simple fashion to the global market.

However, it failed. In 2001, Uniqlo opened 21 stores in London, all but eight of which closed within five years. Why? Because Uniqlo’s simple, no-brand clothing did not catch on in the London fashion scene. So like most companies in their globalization stage, Uniqlo decided to localize and cater to the audience to whom they were selling. In London, they worked with local celebrities and organizations to pick up on fashion trends and develop lines that consumers would wear. Uniqlo’s globalization strategy was then centered around research and development, and in accordance with it’s motto, “Made for All,” it truly (and successfully) sought to make it’s clothing affordable, available, and desirable to all. For example, in China, it was one of the first international companies to market via Chinese social media, rather than the conventional social media platforms that tend to be the norm. When entering the US, this localization was taken a step further, as Uniqlo sought to develop special lines and products not only for the American public, but also for the entire Uniqlo consumer base.

But why did Uniqlo need the distinctly American clothing lines (SPRZ NYC, a line in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Pharell Williams “Other” line, etc.) to finally spread a global trend? Why were they not able to do it with the original, distinctly Japanese styles and lines they sell within Asia? There is no clear answer to this, but it does bring us to the second important reason why Uniqlo is incredibly successful: it learned quickly that America is the gateway to disseminate affordable clothing styles across the world. When looking at distinctly American fashion brands that are marketed around the world, it becomes clear that the actual clothing design is not significantly altered depending on the audience—rather, the “American style” is what sells.

While Uniqlo does take artistic license in each of its regional lines, it’s important to note that the only regional clothing lines that Uniqlo markets around the world (disregarding the original styles marketed domestically) are the American ones. And, not only that, but these American lines are incredibly popular. It seems to be a strategy used not only to appeal on a global scale, but to also re-spark the novelty of Uniqlo products back home, in Japan.

Unibare, no more? While looking at trends in global fashion trends and marketing may seem trite in the larger scheme of international relations and politics, it actually serves as an important point when looking at globalization strategies of companies in different regions. This selling of “American-ness” is something that is not strictly related to the fashion world, but can be applied to different sectors, such as technology. To what extent does a country’s reputation, in any sector, lend to the market value of products? Uniqlo certainly figured out that the American stamp, even on a “Japan-led-fashion” brand, was key for effective global expansion.

Neena Kapur is a junior majoring in International Relations