What IKEA Told Us

With the growth of global consumer market, many companies start expanding their business to foreign countries. When they get into a new market they are not very familiar with, new marketing strategies would be usually created to adapt to local culture and consumers. When you are waiting for the kids meals in Mcdonald’s in Japan, you probably can get a promotional toy of Japanese sumo instead of a superman that is very common to get in the U.S. for your child; when you step into a store of Shiseido in the U.S., you probably can find out most products have the function of anti-aging instead of whitening skin that is primarily promoted in Asia. Companies need to change their marketing strategies to fit in different countries. However, adjusting marketing strategies to meet the standard of foreign culture sometimes might hurt the branding imagine especially when it cannot correspond to human-rights policies.

IKEA recently gave us a good lesson about adapting marketing strategies to local culture. The story begins with its catalog of this year released in Saudi Arabia in early October. People in other countries felt women were totally offended on the catalog because they were even not shown on the catalog! This Swedish furniture giant totally removed women from the photos on its catalogs shipped to Saudi Arabia. As you can see on the following pictures, all the women are wiped out and only men are left on the photos. In most countries, a family means a man and a woman with kids, but on the catalog in Saudi Arabia, a family only means a man with boys. Each year IKEA publishes about 200 million copies of the catalogs with 62 version in different countries, and the pictures printed on these catalogs are very similar. This year is the first time for the company to make a big change on its marketing materials globally, and the purpose of tailoring the photos is to suit local markets and culture, as the company claims.

After the new catalog was released to public, tons of people criticized that the catalog should not omit the women on its marketing materials in Saudi Arabia because the photos conflicted with IKEA’s values to “gender equality”. Many people even photoshopped some famous photos and artworks involved in female figures to oppose IKEA’s marketing practice. Although it’s very common that women in Saudi Arabia need to gain approval from their male guardians if they want to work, study or even drive a car, the government doesn’t have any rules to ban women showing up in marketing materials. IKEA finally apologized on its official website for their changing on the catalog to Saudi Arabia: “We regret the current situation. We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”

Besides this, IKEA also changed its marketing materials in Russia. Just a few days before IKEA released the catalog in Saudi Arabia, it removed a picture of four young people in Pussy Riot-style balaclavas from the gallery of IKEA’s Russian website. The photo was part of the marketing campaign in Russia, took the lead in the photo gallery and would become the cover for the catalog of next year. However, because three members of Pussy Riot in Russia were involved in the crimes this year, IKEA felt the photo could be viewed as a support to these three members. The company finally decided to remove the photo and replaced it with a statement to show its online users that “IKEA is a commercial organization that operates beyond politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda of any kind.”

When companies try to adjust their marketing strategies in different countries, they should not only consider the interior cultural influence but also need to know how the changes influence exterior environment. We are not living in a single country anymore and information tends to connect people more tightly nowadays. Before a company makes a different marketing decision in a different country, it must rethink that whether the change can benefit its brand globally instead of locally.

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10 Responses to What IKEA Told Us

  1. zhaoyunw says:

    Thank you for sharing the story with us.

    Localization is an issue for a global company; and many companies have succeed in the local market such as KFC and McDonalds. They customized the food or cosmetics according to the consumers’ needs. However, IKEA took a wrong step to bring its products to Saudi Arabia. As far as I see, the reason is that it bring the religion and gender issue into their commercials. These kind of topics are very sensitive, and easy to be against by radicals. Companies should be very cautious when choose their marketing strategies. It is better for them to avoid race, gender and religion issues in ads.

  2. jianshan says:

    Thanks for sharing this Chen. This is absolutely very interesting. Every country has a culture code for marketers from global companies to crack. It’s like unlocking the door to success in this particular country and is certainly a huge challenge. Simply removing all women from the images is reckless of the consequences. Culture is not mathematics and so it doesn’t work with an addition or subtraction. I’m not sure if those protesting photoshopped images were made by Saudi Arabians or women’s rights activists from other countries. Those pictures are genius by the way, especially the one with John Lenon and Yoko Ono. It’s like imagining the world without women. I’m also very curious about what both men and women as well as the government in Saudi Arabia think of this catalog.

  3. boweidon says:

    Ikea has been known as for accurate positioning in global wide markets. For instance, it successfully rebuilt the brand image as a high-end furniture provider in Chinese market. And as for the marketing practices you introduced, I believe it’s another wonderful attempt. Even though it’s to some extent controversial, quite a lot discussions and debates were engaged thus boosting Ikea’s exposure rate. Ikea should have anticipated the criticizes when they planned touching local cultures. Maybe they even had evaluations of the impact beforehand.
    Still controversy in marketing practices can be dangerous. The brand image can be hurt if the messages were inappropriately interpreted. In the Ikea case, the John and Yoko should be fine, but the Saudi Arabic comparison needs more polishing.

  4. saijiali says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Chen
    Well I found this very interesting even though the campaign itself created a controversial discussion around this culture adapting marketing plan.
    The ad itself is obviously different from other furniture companies. I think its unique and attention getting, and that’s all that matter at the end of the day.
    I think the idea of the ads doesn’t really matter in the end. The only function it has is to get the attention. We can see a beautiful home or an individual item that everyone wants to put at home, and that’s all you need from IKEA.
    I think the campaign is effective and I really like them
    Thanks again!

  5. Ziwei Guo says:

    Thanks Chen for informing us of IKEA’s recent controversial advertising. It is interesting and meaningful as we have already talked about the importance of paying attention to the ethical aspect of advertising campaign several times during this term.

    There are a lot of other controversial advertisements that have also been accused of showing no respect for women. For example, one of the Dolce & Gabbana’s ads featured a woman being overpowered by several men. The ads were banned because it showed ‘a praise of the violence towards the woman’.

    Besides the gender discrimination conveyed from the IKEA ads, it also reminds me of the racial discrimination ads. For example, Sony PSP once made billboard ads in the Netherlands to advertise its new PSP model – the PSP white. The ad showed a white woman grasping the jaw of a black woman. No doubt the ad caused immediate criticism.

    Back to the IKEA’s ads, I believe if IKEA wants to make their ads more adaptable to the local culture, it won’t be smart to use the same ads and erase the images of women. People who see these different versions of ads will apparently notice the gender discrimination in the ads. Perhaps a brand new advertising campaign for Saudi Arabic would be more helpful.

    Thanks again!

  6. June Xue says:

    Thanks for sharing the interesting information & pictures!

    IKEA’s situation is not rare in the marketing world because as more communication barriers are being torn down, a lot of sensitive issues could rise more easily. This often leads creative public to parody these brands’ work, which might result in traumatic effects to these brands. For IKEA, I do not think the situation is that serious although they do need to be cautious on this issue. I do love the picture featuring John & Yoko and the one without Yoko.

    However, I do think one of the attributes many successful branding shares is that they cause discussion even debates, parodies or other seemingly negative feedbacks. If a campaign is calm and everybody is lukewarmly fine with it, what’s the point of that campaign? But of course, companies should strive to avoid utterly negative disputes.

  7. Amy Duan says:

    Thank you Chen. I never knew Ikea has such an aggressive tone regarding its marketing strategy in different countries.
    For the “No Woman” theme in Saudi Arabia, I would say Ikea either made a mistake when conducting its marketing research or did it on purpose to create conversation. For the marketing research, they must get evidence to show the low status of women in this country, but they fail to pay attention to the tendency of “gender equality” and local people’s attitude toward the old convention.
    For the Russian case,I don’t have any particular comments regarding the riot-style criminals, but I do feel how liberal the Swedish is and there is nothing they feel inappropriate to do. No wonder they don’t have such a clear and localized strategy in China, cuz the government will shut you down if you want to deliver any sensitive message.

  8. Qingwei says:

    Thanks Chen! This article really gives us a glimpse of the localization of advertising.

    IKEA is a successful brand and in my perception, it always conveys a consistent brand image and value to the consumers. IKEA also exploits the catalog marketing to extreme. When I was in China, IKEA is one of my must-visit places when I went shopping. Actually I seldom buy items from the store. But I enjoy the interior design. IKEA is providing not only products but also a unique shopping experience.

    The topic of the localized marketing strategy mentioned in this article is very interesting. I cannot recall any factors in IKEA China which will remind me of similar localized strategy. The message IKEA delivered is undoubtedly controversial in the Saudi Arabia case. It’s always a heated topic in marketing industry how a brand should strike a balance between keeping its consistent value and tap into local consumers’ emotional needs. As far as I am concerned, controversy is not always a bad thing as long as it is not against the universal set of value. But there is always a more appropriate way to launch a localized campaign which can create buzz without causing to much ethical controversy.

  9. Tansy Tang says:

    Thank you for reminding us of the importance of proper localization for a brand. It’s always a fascinating topic of how a foreign brand could melt into local cultures. Taking IKEA as an example, IKEA is famous for its” Do it yourself” or what we call DIY concept so that all its products are easy for customers to assemble and dismantle on themselves. However, Chinese people aren’t really big fans of DIY, instead we prefer using the ready products so that we save time and energy. That’s what we pay for. IKEA is smart enough to realize this difference so that it adjusted its position a little in Chinese market. Now IKEA in China is a symbol of modern, young, novel furniture for the new generation and city residents. It has more ready-to-use products in China while still keeps some of its assembled products for the needs of DIY favored young Chinese. This strategy has been proven to be a huge success.

  10. tumacder says:

    Wow. This is a very interesting post. This really relates to me because I used to work in the Brand Marketing team that developed catalogs for TVs all over the world. We used to make different versions based on the market the booklet will enter, and I remember how we had a different version for the Middle East that excluded women, children and people of certain races. It is strange that people complained about the Saudi Arabian version, since the company I worked for was not involved in such issues. Rather, people in their market wanted it to be even more conservative.

    I definitely agree that all brands need to localize their ads in order to really achieve the objective that they intend. It is always so difficult to know how the audience will respond, and also very difficult to maintain consistency amongst ads around the world since every market is different. Our team was still trying to figure out a way to be neutral enough to match all cultures, but I guess that would be impossible 🙂