How IKEA Conquered the World

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How IKEA Conquered the World

In 2006 I had only heard rumors about IKEA. My otherwise unimpressed-of-all-things-corporate daughter visited their newly opened South Florida location and was raving about it. A few years later she moved to NY where, after decking her studio in IKEA gear, she would make the trip form Midtown Manhattan to Red Hook Brooklyn (a trip of almost an hour requiring two different subways and a bus) for candles and meatballs. Intrigued, I finally paid them a visit in 2009, just in time for their massive and controversial decision to switch their catalogue typeface from Futura to Verdana.

Beyond making simple, smartly designed, inexpensive furniture with hard to pronounce names, IKEA is the perfect embodiment of sensorial retail. It’s a shopper’s paradise, boldly designed like a hybrid museum and amusement park. You start at their ultra cheap cafeteria where a decent lunch costs no more than $3, and is not your usual array of hamburgers and Chinese food – it’s a delicious Swedish home-style meal.

You continue by stepping into their showroom, a life-size dollhouse where you explore and imagine yourself living in a myriad of carefully planned rooms designed for every person in every color, shape and size imaginable. After a good two or even three hours of exploration, and a cart full of trinkets, you reach their jaw-dropping warehouse, where mountains of easily assembled furniture parts wait patiently for a new owner.

This visit was enough to convince me that IKEA committing graphic design blasphemy by using a font designed by Microsoft in print actually made sense to the brand. I also knew that this switch, while symbolically meaningful, was not going to have a major effect in the company. It had, for one, a completely rational explanation; it is effective on a global scale and clearer online. Now, in 2012, I see that it also came in handy when developing their upcoming augmented reality catalogue. In retrospect, it seems that IKEA in 2009 understood that the digital world would soon devour the catalogue and had the wisdom to prepare for a smooth transition. They continue to break boundaries in the field of marketing for the sake of efficiency by using computer generated images rather than traditional photographs in their catalogues, thus saving time and money.

This rationality and sagacity are two of IKEA’s strongest and most compelling brand principles. These values combined with a clear identity (I know exactly what IKEA looks, smells, feels and even tastes like), and a timeless value proposition (better living for all) are the core with which the company has built an empire that some might argue doesn’t even require media and marketing investment to maintain. But IKEA also takes home prizes at Cannes.

When looking at the company’s marketing repertoire, it is worth noting what is left out. Rarely do IKEA commercials market their ultra low pricing. Instead they focus on recreating the magical shopping experience that is unique to IKEA such as their incredible inventory or the lifestyle of a chic furniture owner. IKEA is aware that the consumer knows that their products are cheap. By focusing on their other values they are making you want that inexpensive furniture. Just take a look at this ad directed by the great Spike Jonze:

Here we see the embodiment of the values mentioned above: rationality, good design (that is functional) and intelligence. The Swedish man reminds us that while we are easily manipulated with music and lighting, a lamp is a lamp, an object that can and should be replaced for something better. This simple yet powerful message forms the base of their company: improving everything that can and should be improved, from changing the font of their catalogue for functionality to getting rid of real photography because it’s time consuming and expensive.