Uniqlo UK head of marketing Amy Howarth
Uniqlo UK head of marketing Amy Howarth
A view from Andrew McCormick

Profile: Leading the resurgence

Amy Howarth, head of marketing at Uniqlo UK, wants to make its ecommerce site its flagship store. Interview by Andrew McCormick.

When Amy Howarth was studying fashion and marketing at Northumbria University, she drew up a list of 10 brands she wanted to work for. It included Gucci, Prada and Selfridges - but not her current employer, Uniqlo.

That's hardly a surprise, though. Back in 2000, while Uniqlo was hugely successful in Japan, it was two years away from landing in the UK, its first overseas venture.

Marketing meets Howarth at the retailer's flagship store on London's Oxford Street. It's an impressive place by most standards, but modest in comparison to the John Lewis flagship that looms on the other side of Europe's busiest shopping street.

Howarth is clearly well-prepared for the interview. She's on-brand, dressed almost entirely in Uniqlo clothes; the Prada shoes are a notable exception, but Uniqlo doesn't sell footwear.

Having spent four years at the company, Howarth is enjoying her longest spell in any job, and oozes enthusiasm for her role. As someone who clearly relishes telling a good story, Howarth has a wealth of subject matter to draw upon when it comes to Uniqlo's UK adventure so far. It is a tale of innovation, quirkiness, affordable fashion and, by way of contrast, epic failure.

Bold debut

Founded in Hiroshima in 1985 as the Unique Clothing Warehouse, the retailer expanded rapidly and now has 750 stores in Japan. In Howarth's words 'there's a Uniqlo on every street corner'. Yet a similarly ambitious expansion plan in the UK went awry.

From its start in London in 2002, Uniqlo rapidly opened 25 stores, from Manchester to Brighton. However, few consumers bought in to the brand at that stage, so it had to rethink and, at great cost, it scaled back to just four outlets.

'We opened a lot of stores very quickly with very little knowledge of the UK market - and what appeared from the outside, at least, to be very little strategy,' says Howarth, with admirable honesty. 'We were opening in strange areas like Romford without establishing the brand with a big flagship store. What you need to do first when you expand is open a flagship. If you look at Abercrombie & Fitch and Anthropologie, for example, they opened big high-street stores and they still have queues, which is incredible. We didn't do that.'

None of this was down to Howarth, of course. At that time, she had only just embarked on her career, with stints at Selfridges and Monsoon, separated by a carefree year backpacking in Australia.

With Selfridges ticked off her 'job wishlist' and growing experience in ecommerce, she applied for the marketing manager role at Uniqlo in 2006. It was perhaps understandable, given its recent history, that on application, Howarth says she was 'undersold' the company: her recruiter described Uniqlo as an obscure Japanese brand.

Thankfully for Howarth, the story has improved markedly since then. Having joined on the same day as chief executive Simon Cobley, the pair were part of a team with great knowledge of the UK retail sector, charged with revitalising the brand.

'The UK is such a difficult market,' she says. 'We have our niche in the UK, but all retailers should hold their hands up and say that the market is flooded. There are those that stand out - Zara, American Apparel, Topshop, purely by the nature of its volume - and we stand out, too.'

Employing a more considered approach, Uniqlo has expanded once more and now has 15 stores; it is adding just one or two a year. It has only recently been able to talk authoritatively about success in the UK and its position on the high street.

Using Dentsu London as its UK creative agency, Uniqlo has gained a reputation for innovative advertising, which fits well with its focus on innovative clothing.

The fashion brand is an occasional TV advertiser, most recently about a year ago, when it promoted its HeatTech garments, a line of clothing that uses a lightweight high-tech fabric that generates heat to warm the wearer up.

However, it's the brand's localised and digital marketing that matters most to Howarth. 'It's very much my primary strategy to support the London stores and the website,' she says. 'We do a lot of outdoor, Underground and free press ads, which benefit our London stores, as that's where 75% of the business comes from.'

Howarth is determined to make Uniqlo's ecommerce site into its 'flagship store'; a feasible aim, given the retailer's impressive approach to digital marketing.

'Lucky Counter' was its latest online activity, which was widely applauded. When Uniqlo's UK website was down for five days for redevelopment, Howarth decided that a bog-standard holding page wouldn't do. Instead, a microsite was built, showcasing a selection of discounted Uniqlo garments, with a message challenging visitors to 'tweet the price down'. The more Twitter users mentioned the discounts on offer, the more the price would drop. It meant that when the new-look website launched, enthused customers were lining up to buy.

Even before this, however, Uniqlo had some hits online. Uniqlock, an interactive time-keeping website, with videos of how people spend their day, won the Cyber Lions Grand Prix in Cannes in 2008; yet one gets the impression that Howarth prefers to talk fashion.

'The digital stuff excites people,' she says, before talking up the brand's ambassadors. '(But) we get to use Orlando Bloom and Charlize Theron. What other fashion brand in the UK can do that?'

Uniqlo's +J collection, created by famed designer Jil Sander, is taking up a lot of Howarth's attention at present. It involves a commitment over several years, flying in the face of some rivals, often accused of 'throwaway' fashion.

'+J is treated as a microbrand. It gets its own marketing strategy, campaigns, windows and area of the store,' says Howarth. 'There's a big education factor in our marketing. We do a lot of in-store leafleting to tell our story. We are not like other retailers like Zara, Topshop and Gap, which do big new-season campaigns; we do campaigns around products. So we might do one for HeatTech or our cashmere or +J collection.'

With new products next year, including a summer range it claims can help people keep cool, Howarth remains ambitious. 'Uniqlo is a really interesting brand, but a lot of people still need to discover it. We have a long way to go to increase our reach.'

You can bet that in 2000 someone at Uniqlo HQ uttered a similar sentence. But this time around, there appears to be clear thinking and solid strategy behind it.

2000-2002: Marketing assistant, Selfridges
2003-2004: Marketing co-ordinator, Monsoon Accessorize
2004-2006: Business partnerships and emarketing manager, Oasis Stores
2006-present: Marketing manager, rising to head of marketing, Uniqlo UK

Favourite brands: Prada, Rupert Sanderson
Music: The Black Keys, Led Zeppelin
Favourite film: Casino
Favourite book: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Favourite TV show: Mad Men
Car: Saab