Recently, Ikea made headlines for something other than its affordable-chic furniture. It bowed to cultural pressure in the Middle East and airbrushed all female models out of the catalogs it distributes in that part of the world. The faux pas was widely reported. The episode was clearly not a good story for a global brand, especially given the fact that its primary audience is women. The company, realizing the potential backlash its mistake could cause, went into damage-control mode. The Swedish furniture giant issued an apology claiming that its decision was not in line with its corporate values. The firm promised to enact procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again.
There is much to learn from the incident. It shows how potentially dangerous even a seemingly trivial compromise (in this case, photos in a product catalog for an ancillary region) can be to a large brand. The realities are that brands must always abide by the values they espouse. This is nothing new, but in a globalized and increasingly transparent world, this is more true and important than ever. There is nowhere a brand can hide. Every single place consumers see or hear about the brand is an opportunity to convey the company’s core principles. In last month’s Harvard Business Review, we argue that creative and non-creative companies have a greater chance of succeeding if they are guided by a clear vision and a unique set of values. The Ikea story shows how difficult it can be for a corporate philosophy to translate into every aspect of the company—even for Ikea, which has a tremendously strong culture, invests heavily in making sure every employee internalizes the Ikea way, and has a crystal-clear vision about democratizing well-designed furniture. Other great brands, like Nike (remember child labor) and Google (privacy breaches), have struggled with it as well.
So how can a company avoid making similar mistakes? By treating absolutely everything it does as a product, the integral vehicle for delivering value to its customers. In a previous post, we have argued that the shift toward hyper-transparency has increased the importance of the product at the expense of other parts of the marketing mix. Now, it’s time to broaden the definition of "product."
Ikea has come far with a product-over-everything-else philosophy. The company’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, famously says that Ikea’s identity is its product range. Conversely, the product range embodies and expresses the Ikea philosophy. Values and vision drive product development, performed by a select group of designers with a deep understanding of the Ikea concept.
But the catalog issue demonstrates that Ikea must take its product-centric approach a step further, to treat all of its marketing activities as part of its product mix. The catalog—the publication with the largest circulation in the world—is not just a book of furniture; in the eyes of consumers, it is a part of the Ikea product and service offerings. That’s why a catalog that doesn’t live up to Ikea’s principles of diversity and equal rights is as big a PR problem for Ikea as tainted bottles of Coke would be for Coca-Cola.
For all brands, treating every touch point with the same care, the same attention to detail, and the same focus on value to customers is not only a tremendous challenge but also a big opportunity. Among other things, it means that everyone becomes a product manager. An insightful analysis in the McKinsey Quarterly, "We’re All Marketers Now," argues that to create true pull and engage customers, companies must expand the grasp of marketing to all parts of its organization. The consultants compare this to the challenge many companies faced in the early days of the quality movement of the late ’70s, when quality control went from being an organizational unit to an integrated part of general management. In the same way, branding is changing from being the responsibility of a dedicated team to being the responsibility of everyone. As a result, McKinsey recommends smaller dedicated marketing teams with traditional marketing duties spread out over other departments.
Much of this, especially the organizational implications, is right, but the consultancy is mistaken in one important aspect: where this movement should start. Rather than everyone becoming marketers, they become good product managers, developing materials and events that contain the same qualities as their products. It’s time everyone must become product managers. Ikea, already very product focused, could learn from the Middle East fiasco and show the way.
Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.
Rasmus Bech Hansen is the London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.
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