26th Jun 2015

Marketing the IKEA Way

Why do we treat a day out to IKEA like it was a day trip at the beach? For some reason IKEA has managed to capture our heart, minds and wallets in a way that we actually love going there just for ‘something’ to do. Somehow those clever Swedish marketers have managed to suck in even the most hardened, savvy, market aware consumers and convince them that they need a trip to IKEA even if they don’t intend to buy anything. It really is marketing genius, but how do they do it?

We can all breathe a sigh of relief in the marketing world as bullet proof as IKEA is, like everyone else, they’ve had their problems.

They opened their first North American store in Dartmouth, NS in 1975 — and then closed it 13 years later saying the market was too small. This is a fact that is well used in marketing circles as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, even the best make mistakes’, but owing to the fact that the Richmond BC store was opened in 1976 and at one time was the largest IKEA store in the world, it would appear to be more correct that IKEA had a marketing strategy ahead of its time that didn’t appeal to masses straight away. And that futuristic strategy, if subjective, was uncompromisingly clung to through the years and has proved to be a bulletproof one.

IKEA offers an unusual retail experience that hasn’t changed since it opened in Sweden in 1958. Even though it’s in its 6th decade, IKEA’s distinctive contemporary design has been evident right from the start and was ground breaking by any country’s standards. It raised the bar on marketing and set a new standard right from the get go as it established itself as a brand – with the products to sell that matched the attitude of the company, when a true brand was hard to come by. They were fresh, quirky and cheap and they were not ashamed to capitalize on it, even today. It has produced a delicious marketing irony – everyone loves IKEA, but hates flat pack.

When you walk round IKEA you see every sort of human life. The stay at home moms out for a converting session, business men looking for something cheap to ‘spice up the office’, the harried husband looking for the right thing, right through to teenagers who have come to see what the latest bedroom trend is and then spend the afternoon jumping on the beds. As far as marketing is concerned – IKEA has it licked.


When you have marketed yourself as a brand for nearly sixty years you’re going to be pretty good at creating a shopping experience rather than just fulfilling a retail function. Nobody goes into IKEA to ‘quickly grab’ anything. For a start the way they shepherd you round the store removes any sense of direction you ever had making time become irrelevant and somehow seducing you into stopping and opening every cupboard door and unfold every folding table. It’s like a Swedish alternative universe!

The way the store is set out forces you to go through a virtual dream home of ideas suggesting fabrics, shapes and nik nacks that are highly stylised but put into perspective in a room setting. You simply HAVE to go into each room vignette and see what they have done. All these ideas are presented on a smorgasbord of reality that makes you think that this enticing look is everything you need it to be – impressive, stylish, affordable but most of all, attainable. It always makes you believe that that magazine look is right within your grasp when you walk through the hallowed halls of IKEA. It truly is genius and it’s so subtle you really don’t notice that you are captivated by it until you are at home $200 poorer.

These snapshots of small rooms are based around their core customer, young, urban dwelling professionals and city families who live in small spaces marketing persona. In Europe these clever space saving designs are not a luxury, but a necessity due to the size of the housing, but their very continental styling and the way they are presented as complete rooms, with shopping lists, attracts a larger audience. Those downsizing or going for the small house revolution can also find practical and beautiful solutions, visualizing what their home may look like before they purchase. The IKEA dream can be enjoyed by everyone.


To compliment that attainable atmosphere, IKEA have put much marketing energy into the practical side of the retail experience. The aisles are wide, they offer a play area for parents to enjoy hassle free shopping, large bathrooms for families (or those that are safety conscious) and staff that are always happy to help.

Their range is also comprehensive so that you don’t need to go anywhere else – for anything! Even stopping for a cheap meal that will fill the hungriest of bellies is possible with the tasty meal options they have in the cafeteria. And because it’s IKEA, you can buy all the ingredients to take the taste of Sweden home with you at the end of your shopping trip. Their marketing genius never ends.


IKEA is one on its own. There is no other store to rival it. If there were, there wouldn’t be thousands of letters arriving in Stockholm every month from people all over the world pleading for a store in their town. Everything about it is new and unique, but there are also some strategies that are well used and universally successful but with a delicious Swedish twist.

Marketing has long been leveraging the ‘eyelevel’ rule. The most visible shelf in a store is the one at eyelevel. IKEA has hell to heaven length shelves, but they are all stacked with no more than three types of goods, and all are around eyelevel.

They also know that if people pick things up they are more likely to buy it as the human mind seems to associate touch with acquisition. It’s a case of, ‘I have it, and I’m NOT going to let it go’. There are lots of things around the store that you can pick up and put in your bag, even in the large furniture department. If it’s not a bookend in the shape of squirrel, it’s a lighted globe or a pen and pencil to make a shopping list of the items you see and absolutely HAVE to buy. Nothing in an IKEA store is left to chance.

Small to medium businesses (SMB’s) may not have the purchasing power or marketing budget that IKEA has, but there are still some valuable lessons to be learned:

  • Build a brand, not a store.
  • Don’t be afraid. Just because no one else is doing it, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
  • Be bold. Fortune favours the bold, and the determined. An IKEA sale is never hidden on page 3, its always right out there with lights and side serving of cranberry jelly.
  • Use colour. Wood is good, but wood, white, black, green and Dr Seuss options are definitely better.
  • Be smart. Use context. Those informatics posters about the back ground of the designer and how they designed the item work – and work well.
  • Be flexible. Give them flexible payment options. Make sure you’re mobile. Have a user friendly website.
  • Establish a culture. Don’t just build a company, build a culture. Make sure everything you do has consumer and employee buy in. If it’s in your company it needs to be building the brand and the culture, if it doesn’t – get rid of it.
  • Document your brand and culture. Then live by it. In 1976 the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad wrote “A Furniture Dealer’s Testament” and it became the rules that all IKEA employees and suppliers live by – even today.

IKEA’s popularity does not seem to be waning, it even seems they have the marketing Midas touch, but until it stops being effective, there’s no need to change it. If you want to futureproof your company, learning from IKEA’s branding is a great place to start. Until then – Lycka till med försäljningen!