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Ikea 'lacks credibility' on Saudi catalogue uproar

2 Oct 2012, 16:05

Published: 02 Oct 2012 16:05 GMT+02:00

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On Monday, Ikea moved from being at the centre of the global furnishing industry to being at the centre of heated discussions on Twitter, Facebook and in the traditional media.

The spark that ignited the fire was an "anti-women" furniture catalogue released by Ikea in Saudi Arabia.

In the catalogue, Ikea decided to airbrush out or otherwise digitally remove the women from images which appeared in versions of the catalogue published in other countries.

The move was widely condemned in Sweden, prompting critical comments from at least two government ministers.

A chorus of angry voices cried out that "erasing" the woman from Ikea's Saudi catalogue was tantamount to bowing down to some "evil culture" in a dictatorship which made a habit of trampling on women's rights.

But was Ikea's move really unacceptable?

Or was it simply an example of savvy marketing?

I would argue that Ikea made a mistake, just not the one most people think.

It's worth recalling that, back in the 1980s, marketing books were full of the case studies and discussions exploring the friction between "globalization" and "localization".

Should companies adhere to universal principles or focus only on local circumstances?

The answer was found in the Japanese concept of "Dochakuka" or, as it would become known in the west "glocalization": the adaptation of a product, service or its marketing to each specific locality or culture where it was sold.

And that seems to be exactly what Ikea has done by adapting its catalogue to stay in line with the local laws, regulations and customs of Saudi Arabia, as well as the other markets in which Ikea operates.

Granted, it may have been more elegant if Ikea had made a new, separate catalogue instead of just airbrushing the old pictures, but the principle applies just the same.

What Ikea did (and has by the way been doing for the last seven or eight years) is to adapt its marketing strategy to fit local customs and regulations. Most people agree that this makes perfect (business) sense.

To judge this action from our Western perspective is to be just as culturally insensitive as Ikea's critics accuse it of being.

Even Saudi Arabian feminists have spoken out in favour of the Saudi Ikea catalogue since they disapprove of the commercialization of the female image in Western marketing.

So what did Ikea do wrong?

In the wake of the controversy unleashed by Monday morning's media reports, Ikea later released a statement that "the mistake happened during the working process occurring before presenting the draft catalogue".

Despite the fact that Ikea HQ "takes full responsibility", the aforementioned explanation leaves ample room for ambiguity as to who is really to blame and is simply not very credible.

The company took a conscious decision to fit in that backfired years later in how it was applied in Saudi Arabia.

And now, by backtracking, apologizing, and recalling the catalogue, Ikea has allowed itself to get drawn into the discussion on what is wrong and what is right.

It would have been easier, more honest, and more credible if Ikea had released a statement along the following lines in response to the catalogue controversy:

Story continues below…

"Gender equality and the position of women in society is at the heart of the cultural values in which we believe. We employ XX percent of women at our Saudi Arabian locations under the same conditions as their male counterparts and actively stimulate the participation of women in our Middle East marketing team. However in order to be active on the Saudi Arabian market we – as all other companies – must adhere to the national rules and legislation and adapt our marketing products accordingly."

These days, credibility is everything and Ikea’s post-catalogue story was simply not credible.

Standing by its own catalogue and explaining the reasons for its decision might have meant a few days of rough weather for Ikea, but by creating ambiguity the Swedish furniture maker is only prolonging the storm.

So yes, Ikea certainly did commit a mistake. But their slip up wasn't in trying to make adjustments to the local market.

Rather, it was clumsily responding to those who found fault with their efforts.

If only sound communications strategy in a globalized world was as easy to assemble as flat pack furniture.

Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques

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Your comments about this article

13:48 October 4, 2012 by 007
i couldn't disagree more. IKEA is being honest by entering into the debate of what is wrong and right regarding the treatment of women within IKEA marketing. and by acknowledging that they shall never again approve having women photo edited out of their catalog they made a bold statement that the values and ideals they espouse cannot be compromised by local cultural injustices. IKEA is not a publicly traded company and has a long tradition of prioritizing long-term growth rather than short term profits. their greatest value is their brand and its global perception. 3% of turnover in three stores in saudi isn't worth that. the mistake they made was vetting their saudi franchises and their requests for special, local adjustments. it is the franchise who is responsible for its own local marketing and submitting requests for exceptions to the basic format of the annual catalog.) every company messes up. and i agree that how the mistake is handled is what sets one company above another. foolish for the initial response to blame the franchise, but very responsible to understand that the ultimate place to allay blame is the with franchise owner.
11:53 October 5, 2012 by Lanthus Clark
I agree with you here Ruben, IKEA was clumsy in it's handling of a fairly standard business practice. In it's attempts to placate the liberal Western thinking folks back at home they unintentionally turned the whole thing into a bit of a "mountain out of a molehill" situation.

I think we in the West need to realign our thinking to become more globally aware and tolerant of other cultures while at the same time advocating for the human rights we value so much. Global companies face the reality of having to operate within different cultures every day and had IKEA released the original catalog into Saudi Arabia they would have had to face the wrath of the local population/customers, as well as the local government. Their business could have been seriously and maybe permanently harmed as a result, and lets face it they are not a charity or non-profit organization, they have to cover the bottom line or shut down operations altogether.

In the end though, there is no such thing as bad publicity and IKEA has received their fair share of free press on a global scale. Maybe next time they should take a moment to think before reacting to a similar situation in the future.
11:39 October 6, 2012 by calebian22
"Even Saudi Arabian feminists have spoken out in favour of the Saudi Ikea catalogue since they disapprove of the commercialization of the female image in Western marketing."

Oh yes! No doubt they are speaking freely and openly since women have the right to open their mouths and say anything that they wish in SA. Any culture or religion that perpetually puts women down to compensate for small manhood sizes, is inferior and should be judged by superior, Western standards. Period.
10:05 October 7, 2012 by spongepaddy
Please stop saying "airbrush". There are no brushes involved. Nor any air. It's digital, people!
07:46 October 9, 2012 by entry
@ 10:05 October 7, 2012 by spongepaddy

"Please stop saying "airbrush". There are no brushes involved. Nor any air. It's digital, people!"

Do you require multiple helpers to extract your chair from your rectum due to your anal retentive propensity?

Airbrush has been in the common vernacular and now so is photoshopped...
16:59 October 10, 2012 by Grokh
it sickens me that they are calling it a mistake. lets call it what it is, Ikea trying to be on good terms of backwater thinking ,women oppressing countries by following their oppressive cultural trends.

calling it a mistake is so false ,no one photoshops a person away by mistake specially when the person is a woman, to pander to an arabic nation.

Ikea should try and change them instead its too busy selling, makes me think really low of ikea
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