IKEA: A Storm in a Flatpack

IKEA, the Swedish lifestyle and furniture goliath, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism on Tuesday after it emerged that the company airbrushed images of women from the Saudi edition of its consumer bible.

Not surprisingly this decision has created a mega PR storm in a flat pack. Will the hue and cry harm the blue and yellow consumer icon with an estimated brand value of over $11 billion? Speculation suggests the gaffe is akin to a Soviet information ministry official airbrushing Trotsky from Politburo publicity. But is this a brand wounding blow? Or just another example of brand hubris?

Ikea’s crisis management is in fair shape; it acted quickly in an attempt to extinguish the negative chatter by offering a full mea culpa. Noticeably, the vacuum is temporarily plugged, although the social media sites perpetuate the embarrassing mistake. Its on-going actions will be studied with some interest. Hopefully they’ll take greater care and not ignore the warning.

A lesson learnt, earlier in my career when representing the likes of Cirque du Soleil and the Bolshoi Ballet, both companies of world renown, is that it isn’t always easy to translate a global brand to the local idiom. The brand ethos and global marketing assets sometimes disengaged with a local audience who didn’t buy into a homogenised corporate entertainment approach. The Saudi example proves that as Ikea expands it must take greater care to elongate the IKEA clichés across cultures. Many brands are focused on this issue, tuning their offering to suit local sensibilities. But that doesn’t mean blindly adhering to a simplistic reading of a region’s values. It means cultivating a sophisticated understanding of the native terrain- with investment in deep research- in order to foster an approach to communications that genuinely chimes with the needs and desires of local people, while remaining true to the heart of the brand.

The shrinking media universe continually proves brand mishaps are consumed with glee. Perhaps IKEA needs to do some long and hard thinking about the gospel of the flat pack. “Happiness is not reaching your goal. Happiness is being on the way.” This was the Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad’s message to his co-workers. It was written in the mid-70s and yet has echoing resonance when considering the airbrush SNAFU.