ikea, globalization, advertisement

How typically Swedish is IKEA all over the world?

9 minutes to read
Article
Malou Janssen
25/03/2019

IKEA is known as the furniture giant that spreads Swedish culture all over the world. However, in order to operate on a global level, the company makes many regional adjustments to their marketing campaign. As a result, IKEA is not as "Swedish" as it presents itself.

IKEA is a Swedish furniture giant founded by Ingvar Kamprad. The company claims to be typically Swedish. Their culture and set of values are based on Swedish culture. On their website, you find descriptions of typically Swedish scenes, such as picturesque fishing villages and endless forests. Nature plays an important role in Swedish life and the society is known for being open, innovative, caring, and authentic.

This public profile raises some questions. IKEA claims that things are a little different in Sweden. But what is so different in Sweden? They claim that their success arises from their passion for the things they dot and that their values emerge from one place: the heart. But is it love and passion that made the company the biggest furniture retailer? Or is it just a good business concept and marketing strategy? Is IKEA the same all over the world? And is the presentation of Swedish culture successful all over the world or do they make changes in their business strategies?

IKEA’s Swedish image

Besides offering affordable furniture, IKEA claims that it wants to create a better everyday life for as many people as possible around the world. They go beyond selling affordable basic furniture, they also want to change the world into a better place. Therefore, they have the IKEA foundation. Ingvar Kamprad says:

“We all share basic needs: a secure home, good health, a regular income, a desire to keep our children safe, to see them get a good education and succeed in life. That’s why the IKEA foundation has decided to focus our funding on these key necessities.” (IKEA foundation, n.d.)

The IKEA foundation has a long-term vision in making the world a better place. They collect money for charities and they have special projects to let children in peripheries play again. The climate is also an important aspect the foundation focusses on. Linked to the important role nature plays in Swedish culture, they focus on climate change and becoming a sustainable company. (IKEA foundation, n.d.)

IKEA blends global and local characteristics in their catalogue.

Does this sweet and caring image make us want to buy IKEA furniture even more? Or is it just the fact that the furniture is affordable? It is possible that we buy this furniture because we want to become part of their culture. We want to be identified as someone who cares about nature, climate change, and other people. This is a characteristic we can link to cultural or soft globalization (Appadurai, 1996). We want to become a part of that identity community through buying certain commodities that go together with this identity, e.g. by buying IKEA furniture. Therefore, our house can show the things we care about and who we are. 

Regional editions of the IKEA catalogue 

The IKEA catalogue is their most important marketing tool for distributing "IKEA culture". It takes up 70% of their marketing budget (Just great database, 2019). With more than 200 million copies, the catalogue is one of the most widely distributed books worldwide (Quito, 2017). It comes out in 72 editions, specified on region or country (Fenwick Elliot, 2017).

These different editions show us that the IKEA marketing strategy is adjusted to specific contexts and therefore not typically "Swedish". This strategy is an example of Appadurai's (1996) mediascape. The catalogue looks almost the same everywhere, but has some specific regional or national adjustments. The company blends global and local characteristics in their catalogue. For this adjustment, they work with an ethnographic approach, conducting field research through home visits, interviews, and panels. This leads to consumer insights which are used for product development and which helps the catalogue creators to plan the content and styling of the different editions (Quito, 2017). 

The overall IKEA catalogue looks the same everywhere but a lot of photoshop is used to make the pictures fitting within the region it is published in. An example of the differences in catalogues is shown in the pictures below. The kitchen in the USA is much bigger than the kitchen in the Chinese catalogue (Fenwick Elliot, 2017). In the American catalogue, they focus on the American standard: "the bigger the better" (Sale, 2017).  In the Chinese catalogue, they take into account that people in China often live in small, compact apartments with limited space (Wilson, n.d.). 

Another example is the catalogue aimed at Orthodox Jews in Israel. In this catalogue there are no women and girls in the pictures, only men and boys. Also, the pictures show the actors studying religious texts. By which the catalogue focuses on the religious aspects of their target audience. (Fenwick Elliot, 2017) With this Jewish version, IKEA tries to reach a different audience and to tap into a new market. In this case, small adjustments created through photoshop do not suffice. They create a whole new catalogue. Here, we do not see a blending global with local, but a focus on the local characteristics of the market. 

             

In the Saudi Arabian catalogue, too, women are removed from the pictures. The first picture below is taken from the UK catalogue and the second from the Saudi Arabian catalogue. In the latter, the woman is removed and the text is changed (Fenwick Elliot, 2017). Where the text in the UK advertisement has an indexical meaning referring to a “wild” night, the text in the Saudi Arabian picture only refers to the products. With these changes, IKEA takes the cultural norms and values of the region into account. 

Models are not the only ones who can be removed from the catalogue. When IKEA showed their designers in their 2012 catalogue, the one female designer is removed in the Saudi Arabian edition. Below, we see the Swedish version (top) and the Saudi Arabian version of that catalogue (bottom). This disregard of women is not something that can be related with Swedish culture. So, does the company lose its “typical Swedish” identity with this kind of photoshopping? 

Differences do not only exist in the content of the catalogue, such as language use and pictures. the compnay also uses five different kinds of paper depending on how different markets perceive the quality of the paper. Tanja Dolphin, IKEA Group catalogue leader explains:

It’s different market-to-market. Sometimes matte paper is perceived as better quality, sometimes glossy.” (Quito, 2017)

But if the company claims that it values nature, why then does it print over 200 million catalogues, when it is also possible to see them online? Or why use different kinds of paper depending on the perceived quality, instead of choosing recycled paper? With these actions, it deviates from its "typical Swedish" values. 

But would their marketing strategy still work globally if they do not adjust? Probably not, because how would people in Saudi Arabia react to the UK version of the picture above? Probably not in a positive way. And would people still look at the catalogue if it is just visible online? Nature is not valued so highly in every culture. 

Ikea does not spread their “typically Swedish” identity all over the world. They make a lot of adjustments in many aspects of their marketing strategies.

Not only the catalogue is adjusted to region preferences, the slogans are also adjusted (Just great database, 2019). They use different commercials and advertisement methods adapted to the culture of the country. For example, in the United Kingdom their slogan at the moment is “The wonderful everyday” while in the USA their slogan is “Make the dream yours”. The slogan is a way of showing wat IKEA stands for, but is “Make the dream yours” a Swedish thing or does it refer to the “American dream”? 

The commercials, too, respond to cultural or social issues in a region. The latest commercial in the USA is aimed at individual goals for becoming a better person this year. The duration of the commercials is about 15 seconds and there are different commercials with this message. The commercial in Saudi Arabia on the other hand, is just one commercial with a duration of over a minute. In this commercial, they want to show that visiting IKEA is fun and a family occasion. So, with their commercials, just like with their catalogues, they blend global and local aspects. They adjust it to the region it is shown in. They adjust it to the cultural norms and values or social issues of a region. 

The same goes for other marketing tools used by IKEA: every country has its own YouTube channel, and Facebook or Instagram page. And some countries don’t have any social media accounts. 

Mistakes in IKEA’s regionalization

But adjusting to a specific region is not as easy as it looks and IKEA made some mistakes in the past. For example, the removal of women in catalogues has been criticized (Quito, 2017). As a result, the compnay apologized and nowadays women are not been removed anymore. 

Another example: in China, they made a commercial in which a mother criticizes her daughter for not having a boyfriend. When the daughter finally brings home a boyfriend their parents “celebrate” with IKEA furniture: the house is decorated with IKEA items like new plates, table covers, and other accessories. This commercial referred to the "leftover wives" in China: unmarried women over the age of 27. This add was criticized as sexist and damaged the trust of Chinese in the company (BBC News, 2017).  

IKEA's localized Swedish culture

Ikea does not spread their “typically Swedish” identity all over the world. They make a lot of adjustments in many aspects of their marketing strategies. They use mediascapes to blend global and cultural aspects in their marketing strategies. As a result, it looks sometimes as if it is not one international company but rather different companies depending on the region they are operating in.

IKEA uses Appadurai’s (1996) cultural scapes to specifically address the culture in every region but the products they sell are the same everywhere.  And where can we find the Swedish culture in their marketing? I don’t think we can say IKEA has one strategy with which it conquers the world. 

References

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minnesota, United States: University of Minnesota Press.

BBC News (2017, October 26). Ikea apologises for 'sexist' China advert. Retrieved January 27, 2019.

Fenwick Elliott, A. (2017, August 2). How Ikea adapts its catalogues to suit different cultures. Retrieved January 27, 2019.

IKEA foundation. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved January 7, 2019, from https://www.ikeafoundation.org/about-us-ikea-foundation/

IKEA Systems B.V.. (2017). The IKEA concept. Retrieved January 6, 2019.

Just great database. (2019). IKEA Marketing Strategy Essay Example. Retrieved January 27, 2019.

Quito, A. (2017, November 6). IKEA catalogue 2018: Defining "domestic bliss" in different cultures. Retrieved January 27, 2019.

Sale, K. (2017, May 22). In modern America, bigger is not only better, it’s the best. Retrieved January 27, 2019.

Wilson, L. (n.d.). How big is a house? Average house size by country Retrieved January 27, 2019,