Lego has just celebrated its 60th birthday, and Ikea has announced the death of its founder, Ingvar Kamprad. These two events meant a lot to me – Lego as the toy that helped shape my imagination, and Ikea as a Sunday destination I actually enjoy (the trick is to fortify yourself with meatballs before entering the fray).
Both brands have made astonishing achievements as the world’s most profitable toy company and the world’s biggest furniture retailer. They teach us a lot about successful branding. And their Scandinavian spirit may point to a different future for the role of business in the world.
How have they built such great brands – full of meaning, universal in appeal, and just as strong as ever in the digital age? They are both examples of radical branding – creating change, and being human. And the result is two enormous brands that are big, true and shared.
"Radical" is about change, and leading consumers into new ways of doing things. Kamprad gave the world the flatpack, making it possible to buy good furniture at incredibly low prices.
He changed tastes, shopping and living. Years before other retailers, he saw the power of design, and the potential for deep discounting – and the value of drama in the customer experience, from the meatballs to the Småland play areas.
Lego saw how a toy could become a system – how a brick could be a component of a whole imaginative world – and changed how we all play.
From Star Wars toys to theme parks to Lego Serious Play, Lego has constantly stayed different, and – through ideas like Build the Change programme and its Sustainable Materials Centre – has made a difference too. By always being different, Ikea and Lego have built brands that are big.
Radical literally means "from the roots", and for Lego and Ikea, branding is fundamental – not a superficial add-on. Ikea’s branding promises "to create a better everyday life for the many people", and this spirit runs through the business.
To make design affordable, Ikea is constitutionally frugal – no employee would dream of flying business class, for instance – and product design often starts with the price: how do we make a coffee table that can sell at €5?
Lego’s mantra is "det bedste er ikke for godt", which literally means "the best is never too good". Both companies use brand to lead employees, so the business does what it says. The result is a brand that’s not spin, but true.
For corporations, radical also means not being corporate – making things simple and human. Both companies combine a huge product range with simple concepts at a human scale.
Most importantly, both depend on self-assembly. People don’t just consume their products, they make things with them. Consumers become producers. A corporate product turns into a human achievement. That’s quite a magical effect.
For that reason, Ikea and Lego have had a wide impact on society and culture: they’re embedded in our lives. There’s an Ed Sheeran song about Lego. There are Lego artists. Grown-ups join Lego fan clubs.
And psychologists have identified something called the Ikea effect: the irrational affection people have for objects that they’ve assembled.
By being simple and human, Lego and Ikea have produced brands that aren’t corporate, but shared.
Big, true and shared. Of course, both companies have problems too. Ikea’s tax arrangements are under question. And Lego announced a decline in sales in 2017, leading it to cut 1400 jobs. But both brands are strong enough to survive setbacks.
Both see business as not just commerce, but something cultural, educational, even mildly political. Of course, they can afford to: both privately owned, they don’t have to deliver short-term results to the stock markets.
But their difference is also the result of their Scandinavian home, where business is seen in a subtly different way from the Anglo-Saxon norm. The Swedish word for business, näringslivet, means literally nourishment for life.
But is this just for Scandinavians? Just days ago, Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, wrote in an open letter: "It’s clear that our responsibility isn’t just to our employees, our shareholders, or even to our community – it’s also to the next generation."
And BlackRock’s chief executive Larry Fink wrote: "Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose."
In both views, business is not just for shareholders: it has a wider, deeper and much more interesting role in life. The Scandinavian eccentricity that drove Ikea and Lego has now become the Anglo-Saxon mainstream.
Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins