| May 30, 2023

Doing More With Less: How Subverting the Norms Made IKEA an Iconic Brand

What started as a local mail-order furniture business in rural Sweden grew into a universally recognized name known for its simplicity.

You would be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t heard of IKEA. In fact, it might be a struggle to find someone who hasn’t ventured into an IKEA store. Over the past eight decades, IKEA has grown from a small furniture store in rural Sweden to a global conglomerate worth 44.6 billion ($48.2 billion) in revenue in 2022 alone.

But IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, never set out to build a multibillion-dollar business. His focus from day one was to “create a better everyday life for the many people!” This meant producing low-cost furniture without compromising on quality. His pursuit has since given the world the iconic IKEA design, the flatpack, and the famous Swedish meatballs.

Due to his humble upbringing and an unrelenting entrepreneurial spirit, Kamprad embraced frugality as the central ethos of the business. He even went as far as to say that “expensive solutions to any kind of problem are usually the work of mediocrity.” This and many other colorful beliefs outlined in his “Testament of a Furniture Dealer” embody how IKEA became what it is today. 

Doing It Differently

Kamprad passed away in 2018, but IKEA still operates as it did when he was at the helm. Unlike many large businesses, the company is privately held and has never relied on external investments in order to grow. This has allowed the business to stay true to its original values and not have its message diluted by outside interference. 

The company has proven over and again that it’s not afraid to break away from convention to get ahead. A recent ad campaign for their toddler product range had an unusual take on showcasing IKEA’s products by placing them as “second best.” The first place went, of course, to the toddler’s favorite human — their parent! By shining the light on the parent-toddler relationship, not only did the brand show it understands its customers, but it also made IKEA stand out from the myriad other ads where the focus is on the product.

IKEA also defies convention in how it hires its leadership team. Jesper Brodin, the CEO of INGKA Holding — the company behind IKEA  —  became a CEO only after relinquishing titles and serving as an assistant to Kamprad for many years. Assistant-to-CEO is not a very common path to an executive role, yet it’s in line with IKEA’s belief of keeping things humble and simple.


Learning From IKEA

Deciding on Your Why

How can leaders apply IKEA’s philosophy to their own business? It starts with decision-making. The boardroom can get noisy as more stakeholders have a say in how it operates but the IKEA example shows that all of that can be canceled out if leaders simply focus on their why. Why do you do what you do? And why does it matter?

IKEA could have easily started a luxury range for the more affluent buyer or could have decided to go public many years ago, but Kamprad was set on serving the masses. He wanted to democratize access to nice furniture, so he built the whole business around frugality and achieving more with less. 

Pursue It, Relentlessly 

Once Kamprad was clear on his goal, there was nothing stopping him. He acknowledged that had he consulted experts whether to open a store in a small community such as Älmhult in southern Sweden, they would have probably said no. He did it anyway

When IKEA printed its first catalog in 1951 to reach the widely dispersed population in his region, people started doubting the quality of the products because of their low prices. He resolved this by renting a local workshop to serve as a showroom — a move that gave birth to the immersive IKEA shopping experience we know today. 

After local manufacturers boycotted the low prices because IKEA was killing their other business, the company brought manufacturing in-house. Nothing was going to get in the way of delivering low-cost, quality products to the people.

Cut the Red Tape

IKEA embraced its focus on simplicity both in its designs and operations. In Kamprad’s view, “bureaucracy complicates and paralyzes” and can be the cause of “corporate death.” Instead, he urged everyone at IKEA to maintain simple routines both in-house and when dealing with customers. The staff was to take ownership of their work and avoid exaggerated planning.

Put Customers First

The customer takes center stage with everything IKEA does. While keeping prices low through economic uncertainty and inflationary spikes, the company also worked hard on making the shopping experience as pleasant as possible.

IKEA’s first showroom back in 1953 came with a cafe that served coffee and biscuits alone. While this was a novelty at the time, it still wasn’t enough to keep customers in-store for the full day. Kamprad observed that many people were leaving the showroom to grab lunch at one of the local restaurants, taking their money with them. 

So in 1960, IKEA invested in a fully equipped kitchen to serve hot meals and keep customers in-store. It worked so well that today IKEA Food is one of the largest grocery companies with more than 700 million customers each year.

Forging Your Own Path

Breaking away from convention can be a great way to stand out from the crowd and build a recognizable brand, but it’s not something leaders can take lightly. While Kamprad equated unconventionality with freedom, he emphasized that freedom could never be taken for granted. “We must always bear in mind that freedom implies responsibility, meaning that we must demand much of ourselves,” he wrote. That’s how the company operated when he was around and how it operates today. The results are nothing short of astounding.

Natasha Serafimovska

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Freelance writer specializing in B2B tech, future of work, and executive leadership. view profile


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