The Japanese clothing company signed a deal with the Swedish Olympic Committee to provide outfits to the country’s Olympic and Paralympic teams for the next four years, replacing the domestic brand H&M.
The deal means Uniqlo, which is not an Olympic partner, will have a presence at Tokyo 2020 and the Beijing 2022 winter games.
It is understood that Uniqlo’s first choice had been to dress the Japanese team, but it was unable to do so for undisclosed reasons. Tadashi Yanai, the head of parent company Fast Retailing, said at a press conference in Tokyo that aligning with Sweden was also a natural move. He noted that the Swedish sense of aesthetics and design reflected Uniqlo’s origins as a Japanese brand. Uniqlo opened its first retail premises in Stockholm last year.
Uniqlo is putting emphasis on growing its business and brand outside Asia and particularly in Europe, noted Masato Suematsu, executive strategy director for ADK's international business, commenting as a neutral observer.
"Putting a brand logo beside a national flag can drive not only awareness but also authority, especially when the brand is in its early stages after launching in a market," he said. He said the alignment would also be likely to impress Japanese audiences, in that being recognised internationally serves as a stamp of quality for homegrown brands. Such recognition can help give a brand better pricing power, he said.
The move highlights the progress Uniqlo has made as a legitimate sportswear brand, as well as a fast fashion one. The company continues to emphasise the technical qualities of its products, which has helped it gain ground with athletes, first in Japan, and now internationally.
"This sponsorship is a very savvy move deeper into sports," said John Woodward, chief strategy officer for McCann Worldgroup Japan. "The 2020 Olympics has a very strong image especially among younger people, who see it as a positive, unifying force, given all the political conflicts today, so it’s extremely good for Uniqlo to be involved in it."
Woodward added that there was a risk in sponsoring one team over another, but said: "The good thing is that everybody loves the Swedes: they are seen as wholesome, healthy, athletic and perhaps best of all politically neutral.
"So, this sponsorship won’t make the electric impact in Japan that sponsoring the Japanese team would have done, and it won’t make Uniqlo a pure ‘athletes/performance company’ overnight. But it will help to expand the brand’s relevance and appeal around the world.”
Last year, Roger Federer ended a decade-long relationship with Nike to sign with Uniqlo in a deal reportedly worth around $30 million a year. While Uniqlo aligned with Federer late in his career, it made an early bet on Kei Nishikori, now ranked ninth, in 2011.
The brand also sponsors wheelchair tennis players Shingo Kuneida and Gordon Reid, golfer Adam Scott, and snowboarder Ayumu Hirano. In 2016, it named mountaineer Marin Minamiya as its first female brand ambassador after she became the youngest Japanese national to climb Everest. Last year, she travelled to the North Pole wearing Uniqlo-designed performance clothing.