Uniqlo, Rakuten test brand power overseas

by Sarah Suk

Staff Writer

Swiss tennis star Roger Federer made headlines two weeks ago when he appeared on center court at Wimbledon wearing an outfit bearing the red-and-white squares of Uniqlo, the signature brand of Japanese apparel maker Fast Retailing Co.

Fast Retailing did not reveal the details of its contract with the 36-year-old, but on the day of the match said he had become one of its “global brand ambassadors,” a title shared by fellow player Kei Nishikori and Australian golfer and 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott.

Until the announcement, Federer, a Nike Inc. client for over two decades, was reportedly wearing unbranded tennis wear during warm-ups and a Nike shirt in the locker room when the tournament opened on July 2.

The reveal set Wimbledon abuzz.

“If we judge by the impact the announcement had on media all over the world, it seems to have created a large impact,” Aldo Liguori, Fast Retailing’s global director of corporate public relations, told The Japan Times in a recent interview in Tokyo. “I was perhaps surprised at how much picked up on the speculative amount and the speculative number of years. We didn’t announce that, and we don’t announce or comment on that anyway.”

When a reporter said he wasn’t sure whether he should congratulate Federer on his first-round win over win Serb Dusan Lajovic or his reported 10-year, $300 million deal with Uniqlo, the top seed and defending champion replied: “It’s good you know my contract, or you have no clue and you’re just saying something. But I’m very happy on both ends, absolutely.”

Andy Hata, president of Nielsen Sports Japan, which analyzes the industry, said Uniqlo’s tactic was unique.

“Making impact in this world through this type of approach is unique and very Uniqlo-like in the sense that they captured the interest,” he said. “It’s not just about the branding and exposure,” Hata said. “What they’re aiming at is a whole new category that they can create with these top stars in the tennis field and fashion . . . in addition to the features of their products.”

Uniqlo is known for the fabric technology used in its clothing lines, such as the comfort-oriented Airism brand of inner wear and its insulating Heattech wear. It also promotes a so-called Lifewear concept that aims to produce everyday outfits that are comfortable and affordable.

Munehiko Harada, professor of sport sciences at Waseda University, said Uniqlo may be targeting an older age bracket by signing Federer.

“Uniqlo seems to tend to target young people in their 20s with their inexpensive clothing, but it might be thinking of shifting to higher-end wear using Federer with a focus on people in their 30s and 40s,” Harada surmised.

The first Federer-based product line, which Uniqlo announced Friday, is a set of his game wear — shirt, shorts, headband, wristband and socks — priced at ¥13,500. The company will start taking advance orders next Monday.

Federer had predicted fans might be able to buy his Uniqlo merchandise starting early next year. But the company said it decided to go ahead and start advance sales “in response to customer demand,” adding it had received inquiries from all over the world.

Fast Retailing is not the only Japanese company sponsoring well-known athletes overseas.

E-commerce giant Rakuten Inc., which owns the J. League soccer team Vissel Kobe and Nippon Professional Baseball’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has partnerships with soccer’s FC Barcelona, the La Liga titleholders in Spain, and the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champion.

As part of Rakuten’s efforts to raise its international profile, Vissel Kobe, chaired by Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani himself, acquired Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta in May for a three-year contract reportedly worth around ¥3 billion ($27.4 million) a year. Iniesta played for Spain in the just-ended World Cup finals in Russia.

Rahul Kadavakolu, director of Rakuten’s global marketing and branding, said the company believes sports is a “very good platform” that can help it achieve brand unification involving over 70 businesses in its portfolio.

Rakuten has already experienced building its brand at home through sports, including the baseball and soccer teams as well as sponsoring the Japan Open men’s tennis tourney, and felt the field may be effective overseas as well.

“We saw a huge opportunity for us to capitalize . . . and sports brings a certain emotional quotient that’s required in the early stages of building a brand,” Kadavakolu said, adding that the entities it partners with “very clearly resonate with our philosophy.”

“For us, it was not about trying to start selling the day we do the sponsorship. Our emphasis is more on first getting our consumers to understand our company, our philosophy, our vision, our values,” he said. “Loyalty and membership are not an overnight thing.”

The strategy is already paying off.

Both Barcelona and the Warriors had a successful season after starting their partnerships with Rakuten last year.

“We’ve definitely seen positive impact,” Kadavakolu said. “We’ve seen an increase in our brand awareness in some of our core markets where the fan base of these clubs or teams are very prevalent.”

But he says it’s too early to talk about actual turnover revenue as the figures are still being calculated, and much work lies ahead despite having amassed a membership of 1.1 billion users worldwide.

“We have a long journey ahead,” he said. “We clearly know our vision is to make Rakuten a truly international brand in every sense of the word.”