How Ikea smartened up its image through ads

The 2011 Cannes Advertiser of the Year once saw Argos as a competitor. Katherine Levy looks at how it changed its persona.

Ikea...Cannes Advertiser of the Year winner
Ikea...Cannes Advertiser of the Year winner

When Mother lured away the Ikea account from Beattie McGuinness Bungay 18 months ago, the agency inherited a brand whose advertising was in good shape and which had assembled profits of £2.2 billion in the recession-ravaged 2009. If the agency could help maintain this brand resilience in the stormy marketplace, its job would arguably have been done.

But Mother did much better than that. First, it overhauled the company's image. It took the furniture retailer, synonymous with students needing a temporary bedroom fix, and repositioned the advertising as more John Lewis, say, than Argos. Second, it produced some of the most talked-about work the industry saw last year. Third, as one of its key roster agencies along with Ogilvy & Mather in the US and Forsman & Bodenfors in Sweden, Mother's efforts have contributed to Ikea being named this year's Advertiser of the Year at Cannes.

In fact, ever since Forsman & Bodenfors introduced the "Ikea showroom" campaign, which has become known as the Facebook campaign to beat, Ikea has garnered a reputation as an innovative and forward-thinking brand.

This even comes down to the retailer's devolved marketing structure, which means that, despite the existence of global Ikea guidelines, on a local level the work can be cooked up separately and hit cultural touchpoints.

Away from the UK, this has been proved with eye-catching campaigns such as "365", created by the Dutch agency Lemz, which featured a new TV ad every day to promote different Ikea products, and "the mysterious passenger", an ad by La Chose Paris, which encouraged consumers to sign up to the Ikea carpool service by giving them the chance to win EUR1,000 if they end up taking the mysterious passenger to the store.

And it's not just in the past year that Ikea's ads have been well received; the brand has won 50 Cannes Lions since scooping its first award in 1991 and, in 2003, Crispin Porter & Bogusky's "lamp" film won the Grand Prix.

But picking up the festival's Advertiser of the Year award was by no means a formality. Especially when you consider that the last two recipients, Unilever and Volkswagen, both have global ad budgets in the billions rather than the mid-millions of the Swedish retailer. Luckily, Nils Larsson, the marketing manager for Ikea Sweden, says: "We strive to make use of every penny that we spend. It is a fun challenge to use creativity to its maximum to make it fly."

Mother's UK work has lived up to this ambition. "When Ikea came to us, it was alarming that it saw Argos as a competitor," Stephen Butler, a creative director at Mother, says. "People have this perception that if you're cheap, your quality must be crap. Part of the way to break that is to depict the brand in a premium way."

Mother's first spot for the retailer was "happy inside", where it let 100 cats loose in Ikea's Wembley branch at night and filmed them snuggling into the beds and chairs. The work, part of a push to launch its summer catalogue, pulled on the heartstrings of at least the eight million cat owners in the UK.

The tone of the ad also built on the emotional thrust of a previous BMB campaign that used the strapline: "Home - the most important place in the world." Jacob Wright, a senior strategist at Mother, says: "BMB wasn't wrong in terms of the emotional territory it was going for, it just wasn't well-constructed as a campaign. The ad showed the exterior of different homes but didn't feature any Ikea products."

However, Butler admits Mother's greatest challenge was "meeting the bar BMB set on its kitchen squad campaign". The campaign showed a guerrilla squad kidnapping someone's kitchen and replacing it with an Ikea one. "Ikea was reluctant to move away from that," Butler continues. "But whereas I would describe BMB's Ikea work as a great one-night stand encased in history, we're trying to give a more timeless quality that adds to a bigger legacy piece."

Mother has created further strong TV spots, which include "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties", and the humorous "peace, love & storage", as it continues to build the retailer's reputation. On a global scale, thanks to its quality roster of agencies and a brave approach, Ikea continues to fly.