Ikea: Selling Swedishly

This fall in Australia, a Sydney-area IKEA store opened an area called “Manland” where husbands and boyfriends could watch television, play table football and Xbox, and eat hotdogs while their womenfolk shopped.


In Singapore, the Swedish home furnishings giant has partnered with Nickelodeon to redecorate kids’ bedrooms to look like television studios, then broadcast from the bedrooms. In China, IKEA redecorated elevators in apartment buildings to demonstrate what can be done with a small space.


In Germany, IKEA designers swooped in on a Berlin train station and transformed it with lamps and fabric on the walls. In a series of television ads in Spain about changing decor, real people made announcements about how they were going to change their lives. One woman quit her job. A man told his parents he was gay.


In Sweden, where IKEA has had its roots since 1943, an advertising campaign featured an outspoken 11-year-old Iranian immigrant whose idiosyncratic candour moved a lot of kitchen cabinets.


In the U.S., the international behemoth took a leap of faith by allowing comic Illeanna Douglas to tape a web series in the store. Easy to Assemble stars Douglas as a version of herself, a world-weary out-ofwork actress who goes to work at the Burbank IKEA.


Easy to Assemble gently mocks IKEA’s corporate culture. In the first episode, Douglas is instructed on how to name products. (“It’s grey. It’s depressing,” she says, caressing a mouse pad. “I’m going to call it ‘Ingmar Bergman.’ “)


In another episode, she competes with actress Justine Bateman for the title of “co-worker of the year”- a poke at IKEA’s collaborative corporate culture where workers are not called “employees.”


Easy to Assemble has a spinoff about a fictitious Swedish ’70s pop band called Spärhusen, which had a No. 12 hit called Ice Fishin’. Keanu Reeves sometimes appears.


“Our vision is to create a better everyday vision for the many, but to try not to be like the many,” IKEA’s Nils Larsson explained to Advertising Age. “We try to be different. We have formulated this way of thinking in our internal manuals. It is a way of making an umbrella that secures a similar way of thinking globally.”


The secret to IKEA’s marketing success is this very wide umbrella. It is free to be whatever it wants – old or young, straight or gay, any ethnicity – as long as it also happens to be quirky, simple and authentic. And unabashedly Swedish.


“The key to a great campaign is to have an idea you can sustain over time, but you can execute in different ways,” says Carleton University marketing professor Robin Ritchie.


A really good ad can be stripped of all signifiers, and viewers will still be able to identify the product. IKEA does that, says Ritchie. You don’t need the logo to know when you’re watching an IKEA ad. “IKEA ads are as iconic as Apple’s.”