5 lessons on brand creativity from Uniqlo’s John C Jay

uniqlo john c jay

John C Jay, president of brand creative for Fast Retailing

It’s relatively unique to be the former global executive creative director of an advertising agency (Wieden + Kennedy), turned president of brand creative for a major global retail group (Fast Retailing, owner of Uniqlo) – but that’s exactly what gives John C Jay, who also previously worked at Bloomingdale’s, such distinctive insight.

Speaking at the Cannes Lions International of Festivity last week, he shared some of his learnings on modern day communications in the fashion and retail space. Connecting to culture, choreographing physical spaces, launching collaborations, looking boldly to a future using data and technology, and underpinning it all with authenticity, were all referenced.

“Brands need to be worthy. We’re so busy today; there’s so much noise that no brand is going to be a part of your life if it’s not worthwhile,” was one of his key messages. Read on for the rest…


On connecting ideas to culture

“I focus not on campaigns, but connections,” Jay said with relation to finding the relevancy in local culture, or indeed current day pop culture, for any given brand he’s worked on. He emphasised how important it is to really do this properly. “Agencies are notorious for skimming the surface of culture: taking picture research of a neighborhood, sharing that in a conference room and feeling like they’ve tapped into [it],” he explained to the largely advertising crowd. “You’ve got to put the effort in and really really get to know the culture.”

On narrative spaces

This view of culture also carried over to the physical spaces a retailer owns. Jay explained how Uniqlo is turning its stores into rich playgrounds for cultural exchanges. Its latest London store has two floors dedicated to bringing the creative culture of the British capital to customers, for instance. “Agencies need to be choreographers for brands in physical spaces,” he explained in a call for the industry not just to focus on creating impacts via communications, but becoming designers of narrative in the retail environment. “This philosophy – collaboration with local communities – is more and more a part of our strategy going forward,” he added.

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On valuable collaborations

“With our collaborations, we don’t choose by fame or how many hits [the individual] has, or friends they have; it’s really about values. It has to be true to them and true to us. We have to agree on what the values are. A lot of people we choose are not the most famous brands in the world,” Jay explained. Uniqlo has recently worked with graffiti artist Kaws, for instance, launching a line of t-shirts that Jay referred to as “extraordinary in terms of sales”. It has also had two very successful collections with Christophe Lemaire, former artistic director of Hermès. That partnership felt so true, Jay said, that they were “finishing each other’s sentences”. Lemaire has recently been announced as the new artistic director of Uniqlo’s R+D centre in Paris and the new Uniqlo U line, as a result.

On a tech-enabled future

Jay put any retail tech naysayers to rest with a bold statement on the importance of data and technology looking ahead. “Get on the boat or you’re never going to be a part of the future,” he said. “Data [particularly] is another way to be creative – it’s another way of finding insight. We have to adjust our mindsets to accepting there’s no foe part to it.” The new Uniqlo R+D centres will be very much dealing with technology, he added. “We’ll be looking at the issue of how to bring the physical and virtual together into one storytelling space.” A campaign run by Uniqlo in Australia called UMood, was also referenced. This neural project saw consumers wear a headset that could read their brain activity and help them choose suitable t-shirts as a result.

On authenticity at scale

Underpinning all of these lessons came authenticity. It’s this, said Jay, that has to be at the heart of everything a brand is trying to do, particularly when looking to growth. “I would argue that authenticity is the only way to scale, because brands will change and evolve, but [with authenticity] values will stay the same. It takes a lot of effort, but you just have to enjoy it.”