A stylish, yet affordable, spotlight is shining brightly on Ikea in the wake of Crispin Porter & Bogusky's resignation of the US business.
A terse statement from the agency cited a lack of "shared vision", but there are almost certainly other factors coming into play.
One is growth. Global turnover at the Swedish furniture giant has more than tripled over the past ten years, and new Ikea stores are opening regularly, particularly across the Atlantic. Rumour has it that Crispin Porter & Bogusky resigned the business because Ikea wants to localise its advertising still further, perhaps to the extent of using a collection of smaller agencies to look after local stores.
Bill Agee, Ikea's external marketing communications manager based in Helsingborg, Sweden, says Ikea's attitude toward marketing is constantly evolving. "It's not a static thing," he says. "We work together to establish global strategies, but selecting agencies is a local decision."
Ikea stores, its flatpacked goods and damn-near incomprehensible instructions are pretty much the same around the world, so great efforts are made to create distinctive, local advertising in individual markets. Ikea has traditionally worked with small, independent creative agencies such as Deutsch, St Luke's and Weigertpirouzwolf to help it achieve this. As Agee points out: "We tend to gravitate towards agencies that are smaller and more creatively orientated than large, more established ones."
Doubtless, Ikea would gain economies of scale by consolidating its business into a network. Yet Agee says: "Traditional advertising is one of those areas where local strengths outstrip the efficiencies of being global.
We're able to take advantage of local customs and humour in our advertising." He is guarded about specific figures, but says media budgets are "relatively small" and describes Ikea as "extremely price-conscious". The catalogue and a swathe of additional brochures are produced in-house, along with a portion of the advertising, too. Earlier this year, Ikea produced print work in-house after ditching Lowe in Singapore.
This thrifty attitude manifests itself in quirky creative communications solutions, proving that big budgets do not necessarily lead to better advertising. In Singapore, the Nickelodeon show Nick Takes Over Your Room featured children broadcasting from their bedrooms, which were redecorated by Ikea, while in China, Ikea furniture was displayed in lifts.
In Europe, the brand dominated a Berlin train station, while StrawberryFrog created blue and yellow-painted Abba-listening fans who camped out in Dutch towns where a new store was about to open.
Scott Goodson, the creative partner at StrawberryFrog, comments: "Retail is about entertainment, and Ikea believes in the idea of really understanding local markets. It doesn't want a cookie-cutter network or a distribution system: it wants best-in-class agencies."
One reason why Ikea has chosen to stay local is because attitudes to furniture can vary so hugely. Naresh Ramchandani, the creative partner at Karmarama, which handles Ikea's UK advertising, helped to pitch for Ikea at St Luke's when it won the business in 1996.
Ramchandani says: "We showed Ikea tables to women - who make 90 per cent of the decisions about home decor - and realised that there was a difference between consumers' taste and Ikea's taste. That's how we reached the 'chuck out your chintz' tagline."
Karmarama's latest work for the brand centres on Van den Puup, the fictional driving force behind the Elite Designers Against Ikea movement. Van den Puup sprang into life through an extravagant spoof photo spread in OK!
His oft-stated incredulity about Ikea's low prices refocuses attention on to Ikea's core proposition of quality, affordable design.
Across the Channel, a new campaign through CLM BBDO, called "reagissez" (react), aims to shift conservatism, which sees the French clinging on to furniture they inherit. Pascal Gregoire, the chief executive and creative director at the agency, comments: "We're trying to change the relationship between people and furniture by saying furniture will never die, so you have to change it. If you want to be the market leader, you have to push people and be different and sometimes aggressive, but always friendly and humorous."
All of which neatly sums up Ikea as a client: all the agencies working with it agree that it is demanding, but also smart, fun and surprising.
Ramchandani describes the DNA running through Ikea ads as "a twinkle in the eye, a sense of mischief", and it is true that despite using a diverse range of local agencies, its brand is consistently clear from market to market.
The retailer's ambition to maintain quality on a tight budget is perennially testing for its agencies. Increasingly, the brand strives for solutions that could just as easily be ambient executions or online ideas as 30-second television commercials or posters.
Unlike an ever-growing list of Ikea stores stretching from Seattle to Slovakia, when it comes to communicating with consumers, it's definitely not a case of "one size fits all" for Ikea.
IKEA'S VITAL STATISTICS
- 207 stores in 30 countries
- Turnover of all stores 2004: Euro 13.6 billion
- 19 new stores planned for 2005, including Dallas, Atlanta, Moscow and
- Staff: 85,000
Sample adspends 2004
- UK: Euros 11 million (Jan-Oct, Nielsen Media Research)
- France: Euros 4.3 million (Jan-Oct, Secodip TNS)
- The Netherlands: Euros 1.5 million (Jan-Nov, BBC Adex)
Key country launches
- Sweden: 1953
- Germany: 1974
- US: 1985
- UK: 1987
- China: 1998
- Russia: 2000