Over the last few weeks, the BBC has been showing a documentary called Flatpack empire. Their cameras were allowed unprecedented access into the world of IKEA over the course of a year. It followed product designers as they attempted to make and launch a ‘bed sofa’. It followed the creative team pushing for a new direction for the iconic catalogue, and it followed the team responsible for opening the first of 25 stores planned for India over the next decade. I found the series fascinating for many reasons but mostly because IKEA is a brand that truly seems to live by its values and its core principles. It may have been clever editing or planning, but everyone in the series had the same passion and dedication to the brand. Everyone from the CEO to the guy serving meatballs had truly bought into the IKEA story.
I was talking to a fellow designer after the first episode and I described it as a bit like a cult. But that's unfair. A cult has negative connotations attached to it, and that is not what came across at all. It seemed much more like a community or a family; a collective desire to be part of the IKEA journey. What the Swedish giant seems to have managed to achieve is the holy grail of brands – an authentic brand story and values that each and every co-worker believes in, feel part of and wants to share with the world. IKEA has managed to create 149,000 brand ambassadors!
Over the years I have written a lot of brand guidelines for companies large and small, and the bit that always makes me draw breath is the brand values. I’ve written the words proactive, collaborative, transparent, knowledgeable and all the other business buzz words, countless times. And there’s sometimes a little voice inside my head saying; are you really? Does your company truly operate in a collaborative way and would your staff agree? Would your clients really describe you as transparent or proactive? These words may all sound great on a page in your brand guidelines, or look good in a large colourful font on the office wall, but if there’s a disconnect between the words and the perceived reality of your company, product or service both internally and externally, then you have already lost both your potential brand ambassadors and some of your credibility.
So how have IKEA managed to create such a strong brand? By having a deceptively simple and consistent belief in ‘making home a better place.’ In their own words ‘The IKEA Concept starts with the idea of providing a range of home furnishing products that are affordable to the many people, not just the few. It is achieved by combining function, quality, design and value - always with sustainability in mind. The IKEA Concept exists in every part of our company, from design, sourcing, packing and distributing through to our business model. Our aim is to help more people live a better life at home.’
The 34 billion pound organisation began a furniture revolution back in 1956 when it started selling flatpack furniture. Founder Ingvar Kamprad grew up on a small farm called Elmtrad near a village called Agunnaryd (hence the initials I K E A). The story goes that the land was poor and covered in large stones. Each of these stones had to be dug up and moved by hand. They were then used to build walls on the property. This process of working together to build something better is what is said to have inspired the spirit in which Ingvar grew his company. The mantra of ‘building it together’ was born.
Every year staff from all levels of seniority from all around the world are given the opportunity to visit Almhult which is considered to be the spiritual home of IKEA. Here they get to visit the IKEA museum and experience first hand the culture and values of the company. In the documentary, there seemed to be a genuine excitement and sense of privilege among the staff who got to visit the sacred blue box.
I was interested enough to do some research to try and find out what the eight guiding values of IKEA are, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that each and every one of them is in the very DNA of the company. They are lived and breathed and passed on throughout the world. Each of the 399 stores around the globe expects its staff to live by the same beliefs. So no matter if the idea of a Sunday trip to buy flatpack is your idea of hell, or you are a Billy bookcase superfan, there’s no denying the IKEA global brand is a strong and instantly recognisable one.
And if you are curious about what the values are, here's what I managed to find:
Caring for people and planet
Simplicity (Instead of adding something, try taking something away.)
Renew and improve (I love the sentiment behind this one, 'It's impossible? Great, let's do it!')
Different with a meaning
Give and take responsibility
Lead by example