Uniqlo’s John Jay: Instagram is just ‘curated BS’

As the industry zigs, John Jay tends to zag.

The head of global creative at Fast Retailing — and by all accounts an American marketing genius — is focused on changing the way the retailer thinks internally. Oh, and he couldn’t care less about your “influencer marketing,” or Instagram for that matter.

Jay moved to Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing in early 2015 with a mission to change the organization internally, not just externally. That means empowering entire departments to think more creatively beyond just chasing the latest fad. “We want to become a great client,” he said.

Jay, who was global creative director at Wieden + Kennedy (where he worked since 1997) before joining Fast Retailing, worked closely with client Uniqlo. He had even been talking to Fast Retailing chief executive Tadashi Yanai about becoming a Wieden + Kennedy client again before deciding to join the company.

Now on the other side of the aisle Jay said he’s often frustrated by the “promise” of tech in retail that ends up being disappointing. “We’ve always talked about customer service in retail, talked about brands, fancy services,” he said. “It ends up just being ‘have my size and color’.”

His aim, then, is to create a better understanding of who buys Uniqlo clothes and why. That means personalization, not gimmickry. The brand is now focused on creating customized emails and direct application of comments and feedback on the website that go to the department in charge, whether it’s marketing or R&D.

“The entire industry is in a state of chaos,” said Jay. “And it’s bubbling up to the luxury areas.” The problem with chaos is that people start looking to technology as a solution instead of a means to an end. For example, Instagram, which many brands use to inform product development, is just “curated bullshit,” he said. “The customer is a real person to me, and few people actually look at the views of a customer.”

That’s why Uniqlo now shows collections via a fashion show-type setup instead of just draping them on mannequins. It has also created the Life Wear book, a catalog that shows off Uniqlo wares by explaining how the company can be part of your lives. (It includes a content play in the form of essays by high-profile people like actress Ni Ni and Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori.)

Uniqlo is on a fast growth trajectory. There are 1,700 stores in 17 different markets. London is one of its bigger markets, although the U.S. is growing, with 49 stores and counting. The brand has run into problems domestically having to shutter stores in parts of the U.S., which remains Jay’s home base (he lives in Portland but commutes to Tokyo) and also a focus area for him.  The key, he said, to the U.S. will be to create stores that combine local flavor with Japanese culture. 

The creative idea is not to create cheap clothes, but good clothes. Before sustainability was a buzzword, the company announced a global quality declaration that said it would no longer make low-quality garments, focusing instead on cashmere and the HeatTech line of thermal clothing. There’s also no chasing of trends, since Uniqlo prides itself on classics, not replicating runway fashion.

“The human spirit is motivated by different things and different stimuli,” said Jay of the incessant chasing of trends in the fashion space. “You have to look at the customer. Everything else is just an interesting trick.”

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