By Clark Turner
When most international brand look at opening in the UK, they look at creating a big noise in the country’s capital. But Warrington? This was the site of the first ever Ikea store in the UK, which opened its doors in 1987.
Unusual perhaps, but the furniture and homeware retailer’s approach has never been conventional by the standards of others.
For a start it’s always played on its Swedish credentials from the outset with yellow and blue branding (the same colours as feature in the national flag of Sweden). Products are identified by single word names, with most coming from Scandinavian origin.
But celebrating 21 years of retail success in the UK, its major presence in the market cannot be denied. IKEA welcomes 110,000 customers a day, making for approaching 40 million a year.
But when Brits have a reputation for being loyal die-hards to UK high street brands and retailers, just how did Swedish stalwart IKEA win a place in the hearts of British consumers and achieve cult personality?
“Consumers have always been at the heart of our success, embracing the brand and its love of design,” explained Acting Marketing Director for the UK and Ireland, Anna Crona. “We’ve always been about functionality and high design, but we’ve always tried to make that in tune with the British and their way of life.”
Every new store has been strategically sited to take advantage of a highly developed transport infrastructure. The UK’s first store may not have been in London but it was still ideally positioned to capture shoppers in the North West.
“From our view it wasn’t exactly a soft launch and just one year later we launched our Wembley (Brent Park) store to capture the London market,” said Crona. “Each opening has been supported with special promotions and competitions. And it’s a formula that has worked well to date in encouraging shoppers to visit a newly opened store.”
Entering the UK market however did prompt a radical rethink in terms of brand identity for the retailer. In Sweden the stores had been red and white but opening in the UK prompted a new colour scheme for the brand.
“We’re very proud of our Swedish roots and style, value and heritage,” revealed Crona. “One way we can demonstrate that is though our colour scheme branding. At first it was only the stores outside of Sweden where we used the yellow and blue from the national flag, but soon we realised it made sense to implement this in all markets – both domestic and international.
“We faced some very real challenges getting British shoppers to buy into the IKEA concept. Some 21 years ago there was not much choice for consumers in the mass market.
She added, “It was very unique to have everything under one roof – from furniture to our marketplace.”
“But we were very keen to raise the style stakes in the UK and so led with the message of offering low prices but with quality.”
IKEA’s ad campaigns have played a key role in both creating brand positioning as well as well as driving sales. Decidedly controversial, they’ve been highly critical of the domestic habits of the very consumers they’ve been trying to attract.
For example in 1996, the retailer launched the ‘Chuck Out Your Chintz’ TV campaign. Announcing IKEA’s arrival with the lowering of a big blue skip in a suburban street, housewives were rallied with the call, “Fight chintz oppression with bold self-expression” to rip their homes’ interiors apart.
Meanwhile, 'Stop Being So English' in 2000 lampooned the lifestyle of uptight Middle-England residents with pretensions above their station. Criticising fans of litrerary icons such as Charlotte Bronte, and lovers of ketchup, earnt the retailer some enemies.
But Crona stands defiant and said, “We’ve always had to adopt a global approach to our advertising and challenge the way people live in whatever country that may be. It’s about living for today.
“Too many people are buying houses theses days as a property investment rather than looking to make it a home. But homes are something we should be celebrating. We want to wake people up and convince them to make an investment in their living spaces.”
So just how do you keep a brand fresh over 21 years? For Crona the key is never to rest on ones laurels but to keep pushing ranges and development.
Key milestones include the launch of the design led PS collections in 1995 and the introduction of IKEA Stockholm two years ago - combining design with high quality functionality and materials together with the retailers usual low prices.
The retailer has built loyalty through its Family loyalty programme launched in 2007. In the space of a year it has 1.5 million members who receive member discounts and are regularly updated on special offers through direct mail and e-mail.
Many high street retailers today are desperate to project their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) credentials in a bid to win over environmentally aware consumers.
They could do no worse than look to IKEA which was built on CSR principles from the outset. Way back in 1990 it launched its first environmental policy to ensure that the company and its co-workers took environmental responsibility for all activities conducted in the business.
Other initiatives include a forestry management programme (launched in 1998), a community programme in association with UNICEF to address the root causes of child labour in India.
More recently IKEA joined forces with the WWF Partnership to curb illegal logging in Russia, while a Woodland Trust Partnership means that every time an IKEA Family member swipes their card at a till, 10p is donated to help save the UK’s woodland.
Crona explained, “We have a big responsibility to act in the right way. But for us it goes back to our Swedish heritage and is more of a tradition than a trend.
“We provide energy-saving light bulbs for free to co-workers and were the first to remove plastic bags from our stores.”
Estimates suggest 100 million plastic bags have been taken out of use to date, making for a sizeable saving.
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