Consumer insight is the most important thing for apparel brand Uniqlo as it seeks to maintain its growth in China, says local CMO Jalin Wu who spoke to WARC as part of a series of interviews with CMOs for the Toolkit 2019 report.

What are you most proud of in 2018? And what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned this year?

I think probably the thing I’m most proud about in the last year is that we've been able to build our brand, so that more people appreciate and using it become our fans. In China, we continue to grow double-digits in terms of sales and profit. We are the number one apparel company in China – not just a brand choice, but also we've been recognised by a lot of leading opinion leaders and seen as the most valuable digital brand. In other words, we are an apparel brand, but we are also treated as the most digital, most high-tech company. We’ve been able to drive more than 100 million fans on our social channel and digital channels. We've been able to really position the brand with technology, with a digital setting.

Toolkit 2019

This interview is part of WARC’s Toolkit 2019 series

Find the full report here

(For the biggest lesson,) I think the first one is always go back to understand the customer. The customer is our need. We are not just presenting ourselves as apparel, we are presenting ourselves as a solution for people to have a better life. We’ve been constantly capturing what will be the (future) consumer insights and trends. They are looking for brand apparel to make their life better, and to make the product more relevant. Consumer insight is the most important thing, and then we have to have to inspire consumers. The second lesson is to always think about how technology can help us to better connect and serve our customers… we have used AI technology. We have used digital payments. All the new digital technology you can think about, we have been using it in our business.

How do you expect your category to develop in 2019? To what degree is it being disrupted?

I believe that people want to find something better, something that makes them feel better and happier, and something that’s trusted quality which they can afford. (There) still remains a huge opportunity to grow in China and across the world. I think the challenge will be still, again, how can we keep the speed of growth and (keep) talking to our customers without disappointing them? How can we keep growing our fans and customers, both the in-store physical (retail) part but also the online part? These all remain very basic, traditional questions. The only answer to address that, I think, is to keep understanding consumers better, to keep introducing better products and better creative, and to better serve them with digital technology. So that’s a challenge, but also an opportunity.

What is the biggest challenge your brand faces in your market in 2019, and how will you go about solving it?

Nowadays, the consumer is becoming more sophisticated. They are smarter and more sophisticated than we expected. The traditional way of marketing the brand sometimes is not relevant if we don’t really think about the context for the consumer. For example, nowadays in China, people can actually buy anything they like in 10 seconds on a mobile phone. However, the product they buy or brand they choose really depends on whether you know them better (than other brands) or not.

I think that biggest challenge, as a business or marketers, is that we need to continue to evolve our knowledge, to better understand consumers, shoppers and what kind of context they face, what kind of shopping or consumption behaviour they face, and how have they evolved in their shopping experience. Now, I see that shoppers can be consumers, and consumers can be shoppers. Last mile is equal to first mile. First mile can be last mile. These are the kind of boundaries which are being merged. As marketers, it's very important for us to continue to evolve ourselves, understand the context, understand where our consumers are going, and then re-shift our strategy with intuition that will be able to drive the best results.

What skills will you need to hire into your marketing team in the next 12 months?

There are three important things that I’m looking for. The first one is always going back to understand your customer. The skill set in today’s market cannot just be understanding consumer insights or shopper insights on paper, or by research. You have to go there, you have to see, and you have to try it yourself. How the team can have this mindset to really act as a consumer, and really get a deeper insight with or without research to tell you? That is an important skill.

The second thing is knowing how to use technology to drive your business – that’s very important. A lot of the time, we have a specialist coming from a digital team. They might know how to do content or they might know how to do the technology or AI, but they don't know how to use the technology to benefit (the) business model… you need to know how to use the technology to improve the business operation, or the business model growth, so that you can better serve the customer.

The third one, I think, is always about leadership. Today, in the new context, as a leader, marketer or business, you cannot just say: “I know creative. I know marketing.” That is no longer working. We need to work with different agencies, they sometimes know better than us. For example, we work with Mindshare. We are not talking about just media brands – we are talking about big data. We are talking about how to make media into content, make content into data, and make data more creative. This is the kind of leadership we need to build in our team so that we can work with different kinds of providers and really find a new way to innovate, to revamp our business model, and to better serve our customer.

What is your biggest knowledge gap in terms of measuring the impact of your marketing?

I think there is a missing part in the market now on how we better quantify or measure creative. We always argue that the creative is very important, but I know creative is not (always) effective. But on the other hand, scale is also important in the efficiency part. So, how can we better manage efficiency and also the effectiveness that I would define as a creative value. That part, I think, is an area to explore for all.

Will you be changing your media mix in any significant way in the next year?

I think digital is still the way to go. At Uniqlo, we are pretty much focused on mobile sites and we use a lot of digital and social, so we will remain in that direction. What we are thinking now is how do we define media versus the content, versus data? I had this conversation with the Mindshare senior leaders recently. In my mind, I think we really redefined the future of content. Media is equal to content, content is equal to media, media is equal to data, data is equal to creative. I think, in the future, media is everything and everything is media, including data.