Uniqlo finds Federer perfect fit in bid to lift brand value

Roger Federer says his move to end a 20-year partnership with Nike was largely influenced by Uniqlo’s commitment to stay with him even after he retires.
Roger Federer says his move to end a 20-year partnership with Nike was largely influenced by Uniqlo’s commitment to stay with him even after he retires. PHOTO: DPA

LONDON • When Roger Federer walked out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon last year decked out in full Uniqlo outfit for the first time, it may have signalled something more than just prime exposure at a Grand Slam event for the Japanese clothing company.

Observers noted that it was a path to getting onto an even bigger world stage in sport, and the Swiss maestro has yet again helped Uniqlo continue its journey this season by promoting the brand all the way to the final at the All England Club.

Federer - arguably the biggest name in the sport with the most number of Grand Slam men's singles titles (20) - would be one of the obvious choices when it comes to choosing an ambassador for the brand.

According to business and brand strategist Martin Roll's analysis, the most important attributes Uniqlo looks for in its brand ambassadors are "great resilience" and "strong character" to overcome adversity.

At 37, Federer is still playing top-level tennis and is a good example of how one does not allow age, injury, or any other challenges to defy his ambitions.

But, perhaps more significantly, tennis insider Jon Wertheim believes that Uniqlo's decision has a bigger picture in mind - the 2020 Olympics.

SHARED VALUES

One day, I will retire from tennis, but I will not retire from life. Life will go on and Uniqlo and CEO Mr (Tadashi) Yanai believed in me very strongly as being very important to their brand.

ROGER FEDERER, Swiss tennis great, on his role as a Uniqlo global ambassador.

Tokyo is hosting the Games next year and it presents the Japanese company with a perfect opportunity to showcase its brand on a world stage if Federer were to compete, although the Swiss did say there is no clause in his reported 10-year, US$300 million (S$407 million) contract that insists he must play in the tournament.

"As Roger Federer nears retirement, the media impressions of him will skyrocket, further enhancing their ROI (return on investment)," said Wertheim in a podcast.

Regardless of whether he will be in Tokyo, or if he can play on for another decade, it is still a step in the right direction for Uniqlo as the legacy of Federer has staying power.

Nigel Currie, founder of sports consultancy NC Partnership, explained in the Financial Times that corporations "typically sponsor athletes so that their brand is seen by large audiences" and, more importantly, superstars like Federer "are able to stay in the public consciousness after the end of their careers".

This is said to be a profitable strategy as this means that Federer will still be able to generate sales long after his retirement.

"The benefits are much more about awareness and exposure," Currie added. "This is about seeing the brand name, but also selling millions and millions of shoes, shorts, kit and whatever else."

Uniqlo, a wholly owned subsidiary of parent company Fast Retailing, was founded in 1949, but has since grown to more than 2,000 stores in 20 countries across Asia, Europe and the United States in the past 20 years.

In Asia alone, it has about 2,000 stores as of May, including 28 in Singapore.

Global management magazine Forbes reported in a 2018 article that Uniqlo has a brand value of US$7 billion and is 91st on the list of the World's Most Valuable Brands.

In a financial summary posted on Fast Retailing's website, the total revenue of Uniqlo Japan and Uniqlo International was 1.52 trillion yen (S$19.1 billion) in the nine months to May.

Their combined operating profit was 221.5 billion yen (S$2.79 billion). The total revenue of Fast Retailing (with six other subsidiaries) in the same period was 1.82 trillion yen, with operating profit at 247.6 billion yen.

According to the London-based NS Business website, Fast Retailing is targeting a revenue of 3 trillion yen by the end of next year, and could well be boosted by Uniqlo's global exposure at the Olympics.

Uniqlo also sponsors Japan's No. 1 men's player Kei Nishikori, and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic up until 2017 when the Serb inked a five-year Lacoste deal.

Other ambassadors include 2013 golf Masters champion Adam Scott, Japanese wheelchair tennis champion Shingo Kunieda, Gordon Reid, the youngest national wheelchair tennis champion in the United Kingdom, and Ayumu Hirano, a two-time gold medallist in the men's superpipe competition at the Winter X Games.

When compared against its group operating profit, a US$30 million annual deal for Federer and a reported US$10 million a year for Nishikori are considerably small investments in tennis for Uniqlo, and Federer believes the aim is not just about bringing in sales through big-name athletes like himself.

It also involves a strong commitment to its social responsibility to build a strong and positive image.

One of his goals in his retirement days is to focus on charity work through his foundation, which aims to empower children in poverty through education.

Federer said that Uniqlo shared and supported his views, with the company constantly providing recycled clothing to people in need in poorer countries, among its many sustainability efforts.

In that regard, the Swiss feels that Uniqlo has a clear vision that aligns with his own, and also said that his decision to end a 20-year partnership with Nike was largely influenced by Uniqlo's vow to stay with him even when he retired.

He said: "One day, I will retire from tennis, but I will not retire from life. Life will go on and Uniqlo and CEO Mr (Tadashi) Yanai believed in me very strongly as being very important to their brand.

"Some people cannot go to school, even though they want to, some people do go to school but do not get a quality education and so this is where the Roger Federer Foundation has tried to make a difference in the region of southern Africa."

So what's next for Uniqlo?

We could see female athletes donning the company's outfits on the tennis courts, on the golf courses, and that is one possibility which Uniqlo is also looking at.

Shu Hung, the brand's global creative director, who has worked at Nike before, previously said: "I think we're competing with everyone (like Adidas, Nike and Reebok).

"You might notice we're lacking female ambassadors and that's a huge opportunity. So looking at how we can highlight people in that way would be great."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2019, with the headline 'Uniqlo finds Federer perfect fit in bid to lift brand value'. Print Edition | Subscribe