Uniqlo’s new UT 2013 Truckshop Pop-up campaign is analogous to their iconic T-shirt designs: simple on the outside, but tactful and complex in conception. The Japanese retail giants, who pride their designs as “more than a T-shirt,” are proving their inventive marketing methods are more than a conventional campaign. The latest initiative for their Spring/Summer 2013 T-shirt line features an LED-lit “pop-up” clothing truck, surprise musical performances around New York City, and an implementation of new online media for consumer interactivity. Through nabbing local NYC celebrities to front the brand and commoditizing NYC street artists on their apparel, Uniqlo has become the nexus of cool. Their newest campaign proves that the company is staying on the cutting edge of a modish lifestyle, creating new tastes for the NYC youth and tapping into the zeitgeist of online culture.

While Uniqlo is investing in several different media channels to carry their campaign to consumers, their most efficient initiative has been the mobile Pop-Up shop.

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[Image via Complex]

Decorated in a sheet of colorful lights, the official UT “Truckshop” is a trailer-sized truck that drives around the city, parking in various hot spots (like Astor Place, Meatpacking, etc) to allow local pedestrians to venture inside and shop. The truck features two walls of their new men and women’s T-shirt designs, friendly retail associates for assistance, and a “gif station” to create looped videos of you and your friends in Uniqlo gear. On top of the truck is a mini stage—complete with speakers, DJ turntables, et al—for surprise musical performances. The truck not only hosts a special shopping experience for passer-bys, but creates an entire aural environment around the truck itself. While sociologists Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson claim advertisements call on the consumer to participate, Uniqlo’s pop-up truck literally hails us, inviting us in to participate in the campaign’s narrative to create a relationship with the company. “Interpreting the stories that ad tells is always conditional on how they address, or “hail” us—how we are positioned, how the commodity is positioned,” the two authors write. “When ads hail us, they appellate us, naming us and inviting us to take up a position in relation to the advertisements. Consumer ads greet us as individual viewers with what seem to be our own (already) ideological assumptions and personalities (Goldman & Papson, p. 82).” Uniqlo’s innovative modes of advertising are able to break through the clutter of everyday mediated campaigns to physically engage with the public’s consumption practices.

The flashy truck proves that lived experiences can be commoditized for a generational population. In Naomi Klein’s essay, “Alt. Everything,” the author attempts to understand what marketers understand about the youth culture and the marketing of cool. Compared to the generation of Woodstock, the generations thereafter are inundated with stimulating media, sponsorship and merchandising, and they’re not resisting. Quoting Advertising Age reporter Jeff Jenson, Kelin writes, “’Selling out is not only accepted, it’s considered hip. To object would be, well, unhip (Klein, p. 65).” And cool-hunting companies like Uniqlo have come to understand this very clearly. “For the most part, branding’s insatiable cultural thirst just creates more marketing. Marketing that think it is culture (Klein, p. 66).” When you maneuver through the cute, boxy Uniqlo store-on-wheels, allow their staff to take a snapshot of you in their tees, and enjoy the live concert outside the space, you are experiencing “culture” through a corporate lens. Uniqlo’s marketing team has compiled the ingredients to cultivate a niche youthful lifestyle around their graphic T-shirts—street-chic tees that also have stains of commodification, that is.

Uniqlo’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection consists of collaborative efforts between local little-known artists and the corporate chain store. Designers like Celia Birtwell, a clothing designer who Uniqlo dubs “an iconic figure on the global arts scene, lent her signature designs to be plastered across Uniqlo’s cotton T’s. As “iconic” as Celia Birtwell may be sold by the company, her fame only resonates among the indie circuit in fashion. This might appear to be backwards thinking for big companies who’d want to align themselves with other big-leaguers, but Klein believes that tapping into the youth market means masquerading a huge corporation under pretense of an indie image. “Being a huge corporation might sell on Wall Street, but as the brands soon learned on their cool hunt, ‘indie’ was the pitch on Cool Street (Klein, p. 77),” Klein writes, arguing that even Coke, “the most recognizable brand name on earth, has tried to go underground” for a fear that teenagers might reject the multi-billion dollar business for being too established. Uniqlo has conspicuously caught onto this idea, bringing an indie-level designer like Celia Birtwell into its corporate identity.

But as cool as this collaboration may read for the indie population, the company aimed to address the other fragments of their youth audience by introducing the local designer through an ambiguous commercial.

The minute-long advertisement features two young white models teasing the camera with coy poses in what we’ll assume to be Celia Birtwell’s colorful T-shirts against a colorful wallpaper backdrop. As simple as this video with no dialogue may appear, the short snapshots are packaged with sign values that communicate certain cultural nuances to the consumer. “The competition to build images that stand out in the media markets is based on a process of routinely unhinging signifiers from signifieds so that new signifier-signified relationships can be fashioned (Goldman & Papson, p. 85).” Although the Uniqlo commercial is wildly vague, it suggests that the subtle signifiers are to signify to a tasteful, conspicuous audience who can read the subtlety. Bourdieu, a French philosopher, believed that the distinction between aesthetic taste is based on “the capacity to see (voir)” and “a function of the knowledge (savoir).” In his essay “Introduction to Distinction,” Bourdieu identifies the value of taste by explaining that “a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded (Bourdieu, p. 2).” For Uniqlo’s segmented campaign commercial, the models’ playful gestures and the intentional juxtaposition of clashing patterns are used as sign vehicles to craft an artistic perception for someone “who possesses the cultural competence.”

Competently and conspicuously representing brands is a hip hop staple—at least in commercial hip hop. For marketers, hip hop culture is emblematic of cool, or rather having the ability to be the first to “embrace a designer or a major label” and “blow it up,” according to Klein. Uniqlo has taken a few pages out of that research by securing four local celebrities to front their brand, and carefully selecting voices to speak to these communities. One of the UT 2013 campaign spokespeople is Miss Info, a famous hip hop blogger and Hot 97 radio deejay.

Miss Info is not a nationally recognized celebrity, but among true hip hop heads, she is worshipped for her cool, blasé attitude and rich knowledge of music. Uniqlo purposefully did not nab the biggest or hottest hip hop star to entice their consumer, but strategically chose a relative celebrity to align themselves with a niche hip hop audience in New York.  To truly sell this idea, Uniqlo artfully put together a minute-long stop motion bio on Miss Info, where she does not make one mention of the brand or the product, but speaks about growing up in Southside Chicago and becoming “that good girl gone bad.” Uniqlo’s approach to bringing Miss Info onboard was not only to sell some T-shirts, but build an entire stylized lifestyle around them. Similar to the Tommy Hilfiger approach in the 90s, Klein says urban culture—which, to marketers, grew synonymous with black culture—became an entity that could be purchased and branded. “Once Tommy was firmly established as a ghetto thing, the real selling could begin—not just to the comparatively poor inner-city youth but to the much larger market of middle-class white and Asian kids who mimic black style in everything from lingo to sports to music (Klein, p. 76).” Miss Info’s public image is not “ghetto” or “inner-city” by any means, but she herself is emblematic of a new hip hop image. As a Korean-American “born into a toy store,” she conspicuously lives the urban lifestyle by conspicuously consuming it, thereby cultivating a distinct taste in this space. “An art which ever increasingly contains reference to its own history demands to be perceived historically; it asks to be referred not to an external referent, the represented or designated ‘reality,’ but to the universe of past and present works of art. Like artistic production, in that it is generated in a field, aesthetic perception is necessarily historical, inasmuch as it is differential, relational, attentive to the deviations (écarts) which make styles (Bourdieu, p. 4).” Uniqlo tapped into the fetishizing of the urban lifestyle, and their T-shirts (donned by hip hop’s faces) began to symbolize cultural currency during the modern era. “Advertising provided a means for acquiring cultural capital without entering the store,” writes authors William Leiss, Stephen Kline, Sut Jhally, and Jacqueline Botterill in their novel Social Communication in Advertising. “The lifestyles of the urban American, as we shall see were fatefully integrated with media and advertising cycles. Individuals turned to the expanded field of the sign economy to secure status (Leiss, et al, p. 307).”

To slightly counterbalance the niche signifier Miss Info embodied, Uniqlo also created short narrative videos for their mainstreaming celebrity spokesman and Hollywood actor Michael Kenneth Williams. Most known for his role in the show The Wire, Williams is a nationally recognized talent, but still manages to maintain a subcultural level of superstardom. “Celebrities are usually sought because they have high potential sign value. The referent systems that can pay off most handsomely when properly appropriated involve lifestyle and subcultures (Goldman & Papson, p. 88).” Selecting Williams meant selecting the markers and style that would create buzz in its potential market value. In Williams’ “Life In A Minute” biographical video, the actor speaks rather reluctantly about his “dark” past and being granted a second wind of life through his acting gigs. Uniqlo chose to highlight this particular facet of his personal life to humanize Williams, and in turn, effectively humanizing the Uniqlo image. These newly branded messages work in tandem with ideologies that have already been circulating. “Because sign values are constructed out of meaning, they must be articulated with reference to another system of value—a meaning system that is external to, and different from, the product. More and more frequently the referent system that is cannibalized to construct a new image comes from the land of television itself (Goldman & Papson, p. 89).”

But perhaps Uniqlo’s most unique tactic to addressing a cool, young, media-savvy generation was through their “gif” initiative on social media. Gifs are the capstone to this modern era, and Uniqlo is creatively capitalizing on the phenomenon. On every pitstop of the Pop-Up Truck tour around New York City, Uniqlo asks shoppers and browsers to put on their shirts and pose in the trucks in for their special “UT” Camera. These snapshots get made into fast-looped gif files that eventually get plastered on a mural of thousands of other gifs. (As a courtesy and thank you for voluntarily participating in their campaign, Uniqlo sends you a link via Twitter to share your spontaneous experiences with your network. Free, easy guerilla marketing.)

[Gifs via Uniqlo.com]

The company’s awareness of budding online cultures in conjunction with effectively addressing the modern youth market makes their latest campaign a successful cool-hunting venture. “The act of target marketing seeks to simplify and crystallize an entire sub-set of the population as a ‘group of individuals who share a central ethos, or a set of values and common understandings about how these shared values will be enacted in attitudes and behaviors’ towards a product, a brand, or an advertising message (Leiss, et al, p. 470).” Through their technologically innovative tactics, strategic market segmentation (as represented by their celebrity endorsements), and subtle social signifiers, Uniqlo is as cool as a commoditized cucumber.

Bibliography:

  • Naomi Klein, “Alt. Everything: The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool”
  • Pierre Bourdieu, “Introduction to Distinction”
  • Robert Goldman & Stephen Papson, “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning”
  • William Leiss, Stephen Kline, Sut Jhally, Jacqueline Botterill, Social Communication in Advertising, 2005
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