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What Global Brands Can Learn from IKEA’s Blunder
Posted by Vijayalaxmi Hegde on October 16, 2012  in the following blogs: Best Practices, Translation and Localization
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In its 2013 catalog for Saudi Arabia, furniture retailer IKEA removed women from its pages (see image) in a half-hearted bid to “localize.” The ensuing controversy forced IKEA to admit its mistake and say that the images should not have been re-touched after all. However, there’s more to learn from this debacle than just what IKEA should have avoided in its quest to reach more Saudi consumers.

IKEA is no stranger to international markets. After all, it makes its catalog available in 27 languages for distribution in 38 countries. But IKEA made a critical error by taking a shortcut and forgetting that all branding is local (see “The Global Branding Myth,” Aug12). Simply investing a little more time in researching the culture and local business practices would have saved IKEA from controversy and spared it the sexist label. It would also not have lost face back home in Sweden.

What should IKEA have done instead, that other companies should do to avoid the same problem?

  1. Get local market feedback. If anyone had bothered to get feedback from people living in Saudi Arabia – or even Saudi ex-pats living abroad – they would have learned that including photos of any human beings – be they men, women, or children – can be viewed as taboo by many people in Saudi culture, in which religion plays a critical role in shaping consumer behavior. In other words, simply removing women from the catalog did not actually reflect the complexity of the local market. The catalog still had photos of Caucasian-looking men and children and would have been seen by many as inappropriate and notably foreign. Thus, it showed the company’s lack of familiarity with the culture.
  2. Develop or adjust an existing campaign by using transcreation. If your brand needs to be accepted in a target country, take the time to understand the local market and build a dedicated campaign when necessary. A transcreation process entails adapting marketing and advertising content to resonate in local markets in order to deliver the same impact as the original. It starts not with a source text, but with a creative concept. It is priced not by the word, but by the hour or project (see “Reaching New Markets through Transcreation,” Mar10). It’s also one of the fastest-growing services in the language services market (see “The Language Services Market: 2012”).
  3. Learn from past experience. It is not the first time that IKEA has run into unwanted news. Last month, it had to pull photos evoking the punk band Pussy Riot from its Russian corporate website. In Thailand, some of IKEA’s product names had consumers blushing. IKEA reacted quickly and hired a team of linguists to carefully transliterate its product names into the Thai alphabet. That should have been a warning to be more sensitive to cultural issues going forward. But it wasn’t. If IKEA’s brand managers had done more research into localized branding, they could have learned from Starbucks’ faux pas: When Starbucks set up its first Saudi stores in 2000, it got rid of the mermaid from the logo and only kept her crown. The uproar it caused forced Starbucks to bring the mermaid back just three months later.

The real problem? Companies need global leaders who are proactive, not reactive, when it comes to localization. Too many companies approach global business with an attitude of ignorance and ethnocentricism.  We’ve argued in the past that more companies need executives that convey a message of global leadership that the entire company can espouse. Building a truly successful global brand requires a global vision and a local commitment.


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