Ananya Pathak

“Our marketing task starts now”

As the Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer - Uniqlo- from the house of Fast Retailing launches its first store in India in New Delhi, we speak with Shantanu, head of marketing, Uniqlo India, to understand the brand and its philosophy better.

A few weeks ago, the seven-decade-old fashion retail brand Uniqlo, from the house of Fast Retailing, launched its first-ever store in India. The Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer announced the launch in the country in May 2018 and inaugurated its first store at Ambience Mall, New Delhi on October 4, 2019.

The Tokyo-headquartered clothing brand currently owns over 2,000 operational stores worldwide. Founded in 1949 by Tadashi Yanai, the wealthiest Japanese now, the brand opened its first unisex casual wear store in Hiroshima in May 1984, under the name ‘Unique Clothing Warehouse’. However, while listing it in Hong Kong in 1988, a spelling error resulted in the brands current name.

In the annual industry ranking by the FR Group, Uniqlo’s parent - Fast Retailing - was listed at number two with sales of $21.51 billion at the end of the last fiscal year (August 2019), sitting right under Inditex (Zara) that closed the last fiscal year (January 2019) with recorded sale of $28.89 billion.

Unlike the other dominant fashion retailers in the industry, Uniqlo does not run on the ‘trending fashion’ phenomenon. The brand’s philosophy aims at making it affordable for all and keeping it simple and comfortable. The ‘no logo policy’ is another differentiator for the brand.

At the time of the brand’s India launch, it also unveiled its first campaign for the country - ‘Together in LifeWear’. Conceptualised by BBH India, a Mumbai-headquartered creative agency, the 30-second film, along with the brand’s other products, highlights the newly launched ethnic section for the Indian market.

We spoke to Shantanu, head of marketing, Uniqlo India, to understand the brand and its philosophy better. Shantanu – he goes by just Shantanu, yes – with over 10 years of experience with Procter & Gamble, finds Uniqlo a best fit for him given the brand’s philosophy of ‘consumer first’. He says he did not have to unlearn P&G’s ‘consumer is the boss’ philosophy before joining Uniqlo in January this year.

In fact, he says that keeping consumer in the forefront is one of his best learnings from his past experiences in the industry. He believes that while making any product-related decisions, one must always keep an empty chair in the meeting room, considering it to be the consumer’s seat and giving equal weightage to what he/she might have said if he/she was physically present in the room.

Edited excerpts:

You launched your first store in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. What was the initial reaction like?

The initial response has been quite exciting. Obviously, there was some nervousness about how people will react, but so far, the response has been fabulous. In fact, some of the items like ultralight down jacket and heattech, which we did not predict would become such a big craze, have caught all the consumer’s attention. So much so that on the launch day, around 3:00 p.m., we had to get an emergency shipment made to the store because of the mad rush.

Are there plans to open other stores in pipeline?

The upcoming stores will be launched in very quick successions, say in a month or so. The plan is to launch the second store at DLF Avenue, Saket – the revamped mall in place of DLF Place, Saket – and following that, the next one at DLF Cyber Hub, Gurugram. Delhi is the starting point for us. We haven’t just come to Delhi, it’s a long-term commitment with India. We will definitely expand in the years to come. We foresee three kinds of expansions in the near future - within Delhi, then to other cities, and offline to online as well. All these are work in progress plans and will happen eventually.

We want to control the customer experience... that's what we based our decision to collaborate with e-commerce platform for the launch phase on.

Also Read: “Cutting noise out of data is the biggest challenge today”: Gaurav Jeet Singh, Unilever

Tell us about the brand’s ‘no logo’ policy...

That goes to the core brand philosophy and the brand’s origin. Uniqlo is a Japanese brand. You won’t find any show-off in the Japanese culture. That is where this no-logo philosophy comes into play from. They believe in simplicity and so does our brand. The apparels can be combined in different ways to portray different styles. One needs to feel good about the product and not show it off.

Beacuse ours is a very simple and minimalist brand, we thought the 'Indian-ness' could be common point like Bollywood or cricket.

When foraying into a new market, what are the steps involved? What did you find when you researched the Indian market?

Fundamentally, in terms of planning, we focused on three major areas: the proposition fit (product, colour, size), the business model fit (which mall, store location, human resource recruitment, partners), and the communication design.

The product and proposition feasibility and fit in India were one of our major areas of concern. Would the Indian consumers be receptive to the kind of product proposition, colours, sizes, etc? Then there was a check on the kind of communication design that we planned for the launch campaign - will it appeal to the consumers? Then we had to see where to start from.

Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, including Bengaluru, Chennai, are on our list. We started with Delhi majorly for two reasons – first, for the extremes of weather this city experiences, both in summers and winters. Although the weather conditions are a hard test for any product, Uniqlo’s product stands fit for both these weather conditions.

Second, Uniqlo is a made-for-all brand, which is very different from the way most brands operate. Most brands target a niche group – could be millennial, young ones or any specific age group. We go beyond that. Delhi has a versatile profile of people. For example, the profile of people in East Delhi is very different from that of South Delhi. Everyone has a different taste. For a brand that is made-for-all, there couldn’t be a better city to start with.

What was the brand apprehensive about before the launch?

We got the confidence to launch the brand in India from the realisation that Indians who had an exposure to the brand had accepted it wholeheartedly. However, we were a little apprehensive about the scalability and if we would be able to re-apply the store experience that the customers get outside India here in the country. The store managers underwent a year-long training in Manila to learn it the Uniqlo’s way.

Apart from this, we were a little sceptical about our simplicity philosophy. We weren’t sure if it would be accepted in the Indian market. Although it’s been only few weeks, it seems to be working well for now.

Right, but how will you define the core target group for Uniqlo?

The lifestyle or fashion category depends majorly on one’s personality and occasion. Most brands play in specific segments. Uniqlo plays across these segments. Hence, to slice a segment of customers which we will target is very hard.

The growth of the brand is a gradual process. People who will find value within Uniqlo will buy us first and this will trickle down eventually to the rest of the population. What matters the most is how much one is willing to pay for a product. We spoke to Indians who prefer our brand. For many, before the launch of the store in Delhi, whenever travelling abroad, visiting a Uniqlo store was a part of their itinerary. That’s Uniqlo’s value. Some of our products are fit for any income group. On the other hand, there are products that will take time to settle and we will need to educate people about them. It will be a sequential progress.

A Uniqlo ultralight down jacket costs between `2,999 and `5,999. Tell us about the brand’s pricing strategy....

The pricing has been designed as per the value that the product offers. ‘Value’, for us, is not defined by the money you pay for a product, but the benefits you get from it. The test is not how much you are willing to pay for a product when I show it to you, but what happens if I deprive you of it after you have had it for long enough. We focus more on the kind of difference our product makes in ones life. That’s how the price has been decided depending on the kind of value the product offers to a customer.

There are many brands that market the kind of products Uniqlo does. Who do you see as your core competitors?

It is hard to outline one competitor. We look at them in two different ways. One is, we operate across segments and see competition from different brands in each of these sections. For example, if it is a baby segment, it is well established who is going to be our competitor, and so goes for men’s formal section, inner wear section, winter thermal wears, casuals, denims, etc.

We get a volume of our consumers from these segments. We just have to set our focus point right. Let’s take winter thermal section – the category exists with some meaningful players. But what we know for sure from our research is that despite having a need for the product, a lot of people don’t use it because it makes them feel uncomfortable or bulky. This is where our product comes in. We offer them a comfortable and light product.

The second way to approach it is – we create new categories. Where usage doesn’t exist, competition doesn’t exist. For example, a bra-top. It may not be an existing category, but we you sure can create it.

Does Uniqlo have an online strategy in place, say, a collaboration with an e-commerce platform, a route you didn’t take for the launch?

We are a service-oriented brand. We want to control the customer experience. When a customer comes to our physical store or shops with us online, we aim to make the experience delightful. And that is what we based our decision to not collaborate with e-commerce platform for the launch phase on. We feel confident when we control that customer experience. That is why we prefer to limit to our own platform – at least for now.

The celebrity endorsement scene in India is exploding. Do you think Uniqlo needs a face?

For Uniqlo, the product is the hero. And the product performance is the core. Any association, if we do, will not be for the sake of getting a pretty face or its popularity. That association has to bring out the product feature. If we are able to do that without ‘a face’, great; if we need a face to enhance and highlight the product features, we are open to it. As of now, there is no such plan.

We notice the attempt to highlight the ‘Indian-ness’ of the range in your launch film...

That segment was launched to act as glue across all segments. Because ours is a very simple and minimalist brand, we thought the ‘Indian-ness’ could be the common point like Bollywood or cricket. We found it relevant from an Indian standpoint because it resonated with diversity.

But our focus on the Indian-ness was just for the launch campaign. We wanted to highlight the mother brand in the first campaign. On an ongoing basis, we’ll do product-specific campaigns. Our marketing task starts now. We have partly covered the brand awareness part in Delhi, now we can focus on popularising the mini brands based on what is relevant for the coming seasons.

Which agencies is the brand working with locally?

For the launch campaign:

Creative agency - BBH India

Media agency - Mindshare

Social media agency - We are Animal

Event and on-ground execution partner - TOAST

PR agency - PR Pundit.

(This story was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on July 1, 2o19.)

Editor's Note:

At the risk of sounding like an ignoramus, I’ll admit... I first heard of Uniqlo only about 14 months ago. I read a Forbes headline that said - ‘Roger Federer On Why He Ditched Nike For A $300 Million Uniqlo Deal’. What’s that, I wondered. And serendipitously enough, a few weeks down the line, a cousin who lives abroad gifted me a plain blue, minimalist-esque jacket – the kind we Mumbaikars, with no winters to speak of, only wear on flights! – from Uniqlo. My sense of wonder grew. This looks like a special sort of mysterious brand, I remember thinking.

Months later, when Uniqlo announced its big India launch, what piqued my interest was the fact that the team gave potential tie-ups with the Amazons and Myntras a miss for an offline strategy; Uniqlo’s door to India is located at a mall in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. That’s when I was sure... this is a brand worth getting to know. Lucky for me, doing so is my job. So this fortnight, we get to know both the brand and its local custodian Shantanu, who has a back story as interesting as his brand.

A former member of the merchant navy, who spent his time on oil tankers and in greasy engine rooms, Shantanu entered the rough seas of FMCG marketing with a job at Procter & Gamble around 2008, which took him across the company’s India, Singapore and China offices. After spending over a decade at P&G, he is now tasked with bringing a Japanese fashion and retail brand into Indian wardrobes.

What is he most apprehensive about? Will Uniqlo’s simple designs and monochrome patterns appeal to the colour-hungry Indian shopper? Who are his biggest rivals? What will Uniqlo’s advertising look and sound like? And does he have a strategy to sell his wares online? Our reporter tried getting some answers when she met Shantanu at Uniqlo’s Gurugram office recently.