TOKYO: Fast Retailing, owner of fast-fashion chain Uniqlo, is aiming to use a unique philosophy, digital media and word of mouth to fuel growth around the world.

"People buy suits about once or twice a year, which represents low turnover, while they buy casual clothes every month or so," Daisuke Hase, PR manager of Fast Retailing's global marketing and communication department, told Business & Leadership.

The first Uniqlo store opened in Japan in 1984, selling men's suits. The chain was then repositioned as a general male apparel specialist.

Having reached a new high-point in success during 1998, Uniqlo's sales slowed again, necessitating another strategic shift.

"Initially Uniqlo was a retailer, purchasing products from others and selling low-priced items of medium to low quality," said Hase.

"As time passed, we were not happy with the quality … Now we create our products and sell them ourselves. From here we came up with the brand values of 'Made for All' and the group corporate philosophy, the 'FR way.'"

This approach is based on the idea of moving beyond categorisations such as age, sex, job type or ethnic background, instead focusing on emotions including "happiness" and "joy".

"We see ourselves as completely different from other clothing manufacturers – we sell clothes not like fashion items, but products essential to an individual's lifestyle," Hase said.

The firm started to target foreign countries in 1991, beginning in the UK, followed by outlets from China and the US to France, Singapore and Russia.

It currently operates 824 branches across Japan and 150 sites elsewhere, although levels of popular awareness remain at distinct stages.

"In Japan, it is probably at its highest – people may feel familiar with the brand because it has been there for more than 20 years. It is low in other countries as we have a limited number of stores," Hase said.

"However, the image of the brand outside the domestic market is more that of a 'cool brand from Japan' … This has been driven by web marketing programmes."

The Uniqlock campaign, launched in 2005, was a key first step, using a widget netizens could add to their blogs.

It featured a clock which adjusted to the timezone where visitors lived, and girls in Uniqlo clothes dancing to music. (Warc subscribers can access a detailed discussion of Uniqlo's digital marketing strategy here.)

"The philosophy behind all of our communication now stems from what we learned from Uniqlock," Hase explains.

"At the time this was seen as innovative as nobody knew how to use blog parts as a marketing tool … We learned from this that the most important thing about communication was to be receptive to people.

"Creating buzz and brand awareness through customers' word of mouth is critical work for us."

Uniqlo is increasingly active on Facebook and Twitter, and plans to roll out online hubs in all the nations it trades in. This is because, while the web only yields 5% of Japanese sales, markets such as China huge potential for ecommerce growth.

Fast Retailing wants to be the world's number one clothing company by 2020 with global revenues of ¥5tr, up from ¥800bn in 2010, and matching its own current annual total combined with that for Gap, Inditex and H&M.

"That's how aggressive we are and we believe we will centre Uniqlo as the key brand," Hase said.

Data sourced from Business and Leadership; additional content by Warc staff