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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The word IKEA does not have a tradition definition. It is the name of a retail home products company that designs, produces, and sells furniture and housewares. The name IKEA is composed of the initials of the company's founder, Ingvar Kamprad, as well as the first letters of his family's farm, Elmtaryd, and the village of Agunnaryd, in which he was born.

Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in 1943 when he was 17 years old. It was the final manifestation of a business he had developed when he was a young boy, selling matches on his bicycle. Ingvar gradually introduced new products to his inventory, which he sold at reduced prices. By 1948, IKEA began to sell furniture produced by local craftsmen, and published their first catalogue in 1951. Continuing to grow, Ingvar opened his first  IKEA store in 1958 in Almhult, and began collaborating with designer Gillis Lundgren.[1] Over time, the IKEA franchise expanded into a global enterprise, and it now has 332 stores in 38 countries[2],  having generated $23.5 billion dollars in revenue in 2010.

The history of IKEA, which originates with this humble image of a young boy selling matches, is an integral part of the company's brand image. It characterizes the core values that IKEA was founded on - humility, thrift and economy, family, and low prices. These values are the foundation of IKEA's brand identity and marketing image; the definition of IKEA that its owners want to produce. Ingvar himself is known to perpetuate these values. He is known for flying economy class, recycling tea bags, and collecting packets of salt and pepper from restaurants.[3] Ingvar Kamprad, although incredibly wealthy, still exhibits the characteristics that made IKEA a success.

As a marketing heavyweight, IKEA relies on a language system invented to enforce its brand identity. In its literate form, the IKEA language is a repurposing of Scandinavian common names and places. Every item is given a unique single word name according to a special naming system. For instance, all bookcases are named after occupations, bathroom articles are given the names of Scandinavian bodies of water, chairs and desks have men's names, and fabrics and curtains have women's names. This system effectively produces items with quirky, memorable, and identifiably Swedish names (although it occasionally have an unfortunate result, such as the jerker desk and the fartfull workbench[4]), and the use of Scandinavian embellishments such as the umlaut create a visual iconography throughout the store's signage, catalogues, and advertisements.

IKEA's design language refers back to the store's origin story as well. Perhaps the principle purpose of the brand has always been to make quality products available at an affordable price. The need to make good design available to the largest possible audience continues to be the primary motivating force behind IKEA's design team, who borrow heavily from the bauhaus and modernist aesthetics to produce cost-efficient, "manufactured within an inch of its life"[5] home furniture for the everyday consumer. The designers are also challenged with the task of living up to IKEA's efficient, economical shipping practices by ensuring each product is collapsible, and can be flat-packed to be installed at home by the consumer[6]. In the store, the consumer becomes part of this procedure by selecting items in the show room, then collecting them in the self-serve department. The inclusion of the consumer in the warehousing process reinforces the sense of humility and openness in the store, while involving them in the final steps of distribution and assembly.
All of these elements of the IKEA language have been carefully developed to create a unique and memorable shopping experience for the consumer, and it has become the foundation of the company's success. The corporate language of IKEA has become a vital branding tool, analogous with social responsibility, ethical manufacturing and labour practices, community building, and good, cheap furniture named Billy or Skubb - all despite having avoided corporate taxes and take-overs through a charitable foundation[7], using forced labour in East Germany[8], and replacing its Futura typeface with Verdana.

[1] "IKEA History - How It All Began," accessed November 6th, 2012. http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_CA/about_ikea/the_ikea_way/history/index.html
[2] Lauren Collins, ”House Perfect." The New Yorker, October 3, 2011. Accessed November 21, 2012.
[3] Collins, "House Perfect."
[4] "'Fartfull' Workbench, 'Jerker' Desk: Is IKEA Hiding a Grin?" Chicago Sun-Times, 17 August 2004.
[5] Donald McKay, lecture on furniture design. October 24th, 2012.
[6] "Ultimate Factories: IKEA,” National Geographic. Accessed November 3, 2012. Aired August 17, 2012 on CNBC.
[7] "Flat-Pack Accounting". The Economist. 2006-05-11. Retrieved November 17, 2012.
[8] Nicholas Kulish; Julia Werdigier (November 16, 2012). "Ikea Admits Forced Labor Was Used in 1980s". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2012.

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