The Story of IKEA
IKEA is a very successful global brand due to its unique cultural branding strategies that merge valued fashionable design with affordable prices for the middle-class user. The company stands for “affordable contemporary design household goods” (see website), which implies that their products are addressed to a wide range of different consumers. Due to its accessibility and popularity IKEA has become an iconic brand, known and valued all over the world. The brand is iconic, since it embodies the ideal of Swedish furniture, that is charming and affordable as well as stylish and modern. People around the world see IKEA as equivalent to the Swedish culture, which makes the brand a representative symbol for this culture.
Cultural icons, such as Steve Jobs or Audrey Hepburn, as well as iconic brands, such as Coca Cola or Nike, dominate our contemporary world. As Naomi Klein argues, wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations can be traced back to the idea of producing brands instead of producing mere products. In her book No Logo (1999), Klein speaks of cultural expansionism, which implies that branding is no longer just traditional corporate sponsorship. Brands become lived realities that we encounter and discuss in every sphere of life.
Douglas Holt introduces the term cultural branding as opposite to conventional banding and points out strategies that enable the creation of iconic brands. People attach individual and collective meaning to different icons, which makes them powerful and popular. Holt claims that a brand can only reach the status of an iconic brand, by approaching the identity value of a cultural icon, such as cartoon heroes or movie stars (Holt, 2004, p.11). Cultural branding is therefore based on the identity value of a brand, which derives from the brand’s contribution to self-expression. People want to identify with a brand and be part of a community that shares the same cultural values. Iconic brands therefore help consumers to construct their identities by showing them valuable stories and solutions.
The Strategies of Cultural Branding
According to Holt there are three strategies of cultural branding. The first one is mythmaking, which is achieves through creating a product with a story. Before IKEA one had to decide between buying expensive designed products or purchase cheap and easily constructed furniture. IKEA invented the myth of designing one’s household with valued expensive-looking equipment that is available and affordable for anyone with a middle-class income. On their official website, the company explains what their brand is all about. The IKEA concept aims to help more people to live a better life at home, which they “achieved by combining function, quality, design and value – always with sustainability in mind” (see website). IKEA is more than a brand; it is a lifestyle that gives everyone in this world the opportunity to design their own home. These distinctive features perform a myth that resolves tensions and anxieties in society and enables customers to experience identity value and self-expression. Creating emotions is a crucial part of IKEA’s cultural branding strategy, since “emotional attachment is the consequence of a great myth” (Holt, 2004,p.28).
The second principle of cultural branding is cultural expression. Iconic brands are cultural activists that contribute to the transformation of culture and society. Not only the content of the myth plays a role, but the specific way in that the brand communicates and expresses it. According to Holt, features of iconic brands should not be abstracted to general expressions. IKEA ads speak to a wide range of different people, not concerned about class, age, race, nationality or religion. In addition, IKEA tries to change with the time and always goes with the cultural zeitgeist.
The third strategy introduces the historical fit of a brand. As mentioned above, a brand has to change within time and myths should always address the most important social tensions of the nation. IKEA has therefore not been successful because of its consistency, but because of the ability to adjust to historical exigencies. Identity value is transformed in particular historical context, which implies that a company has to refresh the brand in a way that is culturally relevant at the time. However, IKEA stays true to itself by maintaining the iconic design, affordability and easy-to-assemble principle.
Reflections on Cultural Branding
Naomi Klein’s No Logo is generally seen as one of the crucial works of the anti-corporate globalisation movement. She is concerned with the way in which powerful brands control our lives and give us little opportunity for criticism, as corporate interests manage all our media. She addresses worries about companies being more concerned about marketing than manufacturing, which often leads to environmental damage, human-rights abuse and the exploitation of labour. Although IKEA is exemplifying the typical iconic brand, they do a lot against a bad reputation. The company is involved in social organisations, such as UNICEF and Save the Children and was named as one of the best companies for working mothers in 2004 and 2005. Furthermore, many reforms and inventions of IKEA focus on sustainability, recycling and renewable energy.
Holt, D. B. (2004). How Brands become Icons. The Principles of Cultural Branding. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.
Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: no space, no choice, no jobs: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador.