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SoftBank's Son inspires Zozo marketing giveaways

Online fashion retailer to offer 100,000 free measurement bodysuits worldwide

Yusaku Maezawa, chief executive of Zozo, aims to attract enough customers to produce a "fashion revolution." (Photo by Ken Kobayshi) 

TOKYO -- Start Today, operator of top Japanese online fashion website Zozotown, will give out 100,000 free examples of its Zozosuit, a high-tech body measurement suit, around the world. It is a marketing model that appears to draw on the ideas of Masayoshi Son, the Japanese business magnate who is chairman and CEO of SoftBank Group.

Start Today will also offer globally and free of charge jeans and T-shirts made using measurement data taken by the Zozosuit, under its private label Zozo. The Zozosuit is a tight-fitting garment marked by up to 400 dots that allows accurate body measurements to be taken with a smartphone.

The marketing strategy is aimed at enhancing the name recognition of Start Today and the Zozo brand, but it echoes a sales campaign adopted by SoftBank 17 years ago when it launched its Yahoo BB asymmetric digital subscriber line, or ADSL Internet services. During the campaign, SoftBank set up parasols and tables near train stations and other busy places, while employees wearing red and white shirts gave out free modems to passers-by.

The campaign led by the "parasol unit" of employees contributed to the widespread use of ADSL internet access services in Japan.

The strategy is traceable to Son's childhood. When Son was an elementary school boy, his father Mitsunori opened a cafe, but struggled to attract customers. Asked by the father for advice, Son recommended the distribution of free coupons. The advice reportedly helped the cafe flourish.

Start Today founder and CEO Yusaku Maezawa is said to have a close relationship with Son. According to people who know them, the two hit if off when they played golf and took a bath together after the game.

Maezawa and Son have similar business mottos. Maezawa says "I will change the world and realize world peace through fashion," while Son wants to "make people happy through the information revolution."

It is no surprise that Son provided Maezawa with the clues that lead to the new strategy.

With its ADSL service, SoftBank aimed to earni usage fees after ensuring the widespread use of its equipment through free distribution.

This strategy is common practice around SoftBank. When online shopping mall operator Rakuten decided to break into the mobile phone market, a SoftBank executive said bluntly: "There is only one way for Rakuten's [plan] to succeed, namely a massive offering of free iPhones."

Start Today is already giving out free Zozosuits to its Japanese customers. It can be seen as a cheap advertising campaign, since the cost for producing each Zozosuit is about 1,000 yen ($9). To order the bodysuit, new customers have to sign up to Start Today's online shopping mall, which will then send messages and coupons to encourage them to buy other items.

The need for Start Today's more generous global offer is due to the fact that its name is mostly unknown to international customers. Size measuring technologies are not new. Success for Start Today would be attracting enough customers to declare a "fashion revolution," as Maezawa described his vision.

But overseas rivals are watching Start Today's progress closely. Israel-based service Like A Glove offers shorts that measure your size, that can then be used to purchase jeans from various brands. U.S.-based Original Stitch uses artificial intelligence to calculate sizes based on simple criteria such as height and weight, so that customers can order made-to-measure dress shirts online.

These cases all imply that if online giants like Amazon or Alibaba Group Holding decide to invest in something similar to Zozo, they could become serious competitors. Start Today has no time to waste to secure its standing.

While the initial cost of giving out goods for free is high, the strategy, if successful, can quickly attract a large number of customers. Start Today is testing whether it can attain global name recognition through its Son-like giveaway strategy.

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