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:
“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