For New Yorkers — as well as denizens of other booming metropolises around the globe with bitterly cold winters — Uniqlo's line of Heattech products has become a popular weapon of choice in the fight to stay warm. For the uninitiated, Heattech is an ultrathin material designed for cold-weather layering without the bulk, made from a mix of synthetic fabrics like rayon, nylon and acrylic coated in camellia oil for softness. Since the development of Heattech began in 2003, it's evolved from a tight range of well-designed "innerwear" (think Long Johns) to a more fashion-forward collection that contains over 320 items, from fisherman sweaters to denim, and a collaboration with designer Orla Kiely under its belt.
Uniqlo is determined to push the line further every year with expanded product offerings and increased functionality. In fact, the ultimate goal is to get one out of every two people worldwide into its Heattech gear, including those who live in tropical climates. This would be an intimidating objective for any company, but Uniqlo has one particularly large obstacle on its path to global domination: brand awareness outside of its home country.
According to a recent study conducted by Uniqlo, 95 percent of people in Japan are knowledgable about the the brand, and 64.5 percent of that group have purchased a Heattech item. However, those numbers dip drastically outside of Asia: In New York, 64.7 percent of consumers polled have visited a Uniqlo store, but only 20.7 percent have bought Heattech. The stats drop even lower in San Francisco, Los Angeles, the UK, Russia and France, despite Uniqlo's brick-and-mortar presence in those areas.
Raising awareness outside of Asia is one of the retailer's top goals in the coming year, and it has a number of plans in place to get the word out. I recently visited the Uniqlo headquarters in Tokyo, where Executive Vice President of Production Yoshihiro Kunii explained the brand's "domino strategy": establishing a strong presence in one area before it can become well-known in another. In order to replicate the success it's had in Japan, it needs to focus on its global marketing, especially on the digital front, by investing more in its e-commerce business, focusing on customer feedback (it's received 80,000+ comments from consumers that have been used to improve Heattech products) and trying to leverage all digital channels to drive in-store traffic.
Kunii admitted that Uniqlo's e-commerce footprint around the world is still very small, but existing customers show high engagement rates, repeat purchases and average order value. Products and store layouts are the same in all markets, but Kunii said that the company is working to improve customer service, store management, marketing strategy and clear communication of brand messaging to be on par with Japan. In addition, the retailer has shifted its mindset from expanding its store fleet as rapidly as possible to carefully considering locations and logistics before entering new regions. (To that effect, Uniqlo recently announced its plans to scale back its US store openings, though its next opening in Seattle will go ahead on Nov. 6.)
While in Japan, I also stopped by Toray's factory in Kyoto for a crash course on how Heattech is made and tested. Aside from sitting in on a series of tests for heat retention, odor absorption, moisture wicking and shape retention (very scientific!), I stepped inside its environment simulation lab, called the Technorama, which is able to simulate every climate condition on Earth — including those from the North and South Poles — in order to see how the gear functions in extreme weather. We watched a man walk on a treadmill inside what was basically a refrigerator, and with the help of infrared cameras that can detect body temperatures, saw that he was able to stay toasty and dry wearing a Heattech shirt and down jacket. This specialized lab is how Uniqlo can ensure that these products are waterproof, windproof and durable, too.
After selling 200,000,000 units of Heattech globally over the years, this technology can objectively be considered a huge success. But until Uniqlo can get its awareness percentages up in major metropolitan areas outside of Japan, it won't be satisfied. While the retailer's already proven its prowess at building buzz around its understated designer collaborations, we'll be watching to see how its digital and marketing strategies evolve in the coming year to help it meet its ambitious goal.
Disclosure: Uniqlo paid for my travel and accommodations to visit its offices and factory in Japan.