IKEA and advertising

For the wise rather than the wealthy.

Ever since Ingvar Kamprad’s first black and white ads for IKEA, the company has had the ability to attract shoppers and talk about its vision, to contribute to a better everyday life for the many people. Ingvar and IKEA were ahead of their time in marketing, both tactically and strategically – just the combination that many experts consider the basic recipe for effective advertising.

Most successful brands have mastered the art of explaining what they do for their customers and why customers should pick them – all in an interesting way. A few have also managed to produce advertising that has become popular, or even stuck firmly in people’s memories, arousing emotions long after its appearance. Some would say that IKEA qualifies for this latter group.

It is said that all communication takes place on the recipient’s terms. When it comes to advertising, another way of saying this is: if the recipient understands and likes what you’re saying and showing, you increase your chances of doing business. So in other words, it’s worth knowing who the recipients are, how they think and where you’ll find them. Not only so you can tell them what they want to hear, but also to provoke thought and interest in new ideas. The basic principle is to know who you’re talking to, and why they should care about what you’re saying.

Ingvar Kamprad understood all this early on, and the insight would become a hallmark of the company’s communication, whatever the medium and whatever the channel. The archives are packed with ad campaigns that surprise, provoke, include, question and take a standpoint, from the late 1940s to modern times.

Cover of mail order catalogue ikéa-nytt 1949-50, with a long text headlined
Even when IKEA was still a mail order company in Agunnaryd, the communication had a straightforward, personal style. One example is the ikéa-nytt mail order catalogue from 1949. In it, Ingvar Kamprad writes directly to “the rural folk” about how hard it is to make ends meet, and about his idea of removing middlemen in order to offer quality at low prices.

Advertising with respect

One of the earliest examples of how IKEA applied insights about its target group, or potential customers, was when the predecessor of the IKEA catalogue, ikéa-nytt, was included as a supplement in farming paper Jordbrukarnas Föreningsblad in 1949. Ingvar Kamprad directly targeted the magazine’s readers with the almost propaganda-like: “For the rural folk”. In his text, Ingvar’s starting point was the situation and finances of the farming community, which obviously led to an offer of good products at low prices. By showing respect for the people he was talking to Ingvar created sympathy, which led to more people discovering his products.

Black and white 1950s newspaper ad with text and big logo
In the early years, IKEA sometimes sold its products at furniture fairs across Sweden. This ad from 1950 attracted people to an IKEA stand at S:t Eriksmässan in Stockholm, with the header “Småland furniture direct from the factory at the lowest prices in the land!”

Communicating ‘why’

From the very start, all advertising from Ingvar Kamprad and IKEA contained an offer of a considerable range of products of good quality, at prices that ordinary people could afford. But it also added something else important: a purpose. Today, purpose-driven communication is a genre in itself, discussed extensively by marketing professors and well-known YouTubers, in tune with millions of communicators around the world. For Ingvar Kamprad, it went without saying even back in the late Forties. He understood that it wasn’t enough just to say ‘cheap’. In one 1950 ad, he explained in detail how IKEA could sell quality furniture at such low prices. He pointed out that unnecessary, price-raising stages had been eliminated. This reasoning returned later on in different versions and guises: perhaps the best known is the slogan “low prices with meaning”, launched in the 1969 catalogue. Loved by customers, but somewhat less so by competitors.

IKEA takes a stand

Ingvar Kamprad definitely had an instinct when it came to constructing a message that would hit the customer in the heart, on their terms and in their language. He seemed to intuitively understand that effective advertising is based on having something important to say, or a unique selling proposition, as marketing theories call it. And that everything you say should be true, relevant and meaningful. But for IKEA, it was not enough to explain how it could sell quality at low prices. It was just as important to take a stand and be on the side of the many people.

One early example was when Sweden was introducing a controversial extra tax of 4% on all goods. It would come into force in January 1960, and everyone was talking about it during the Christmas shopping season of 1959. Here was an opportunity to take a stand, so IKEA took out a full-page ad in Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter – not a common practice in those days – which reached further than the catalogue’s distribution channels. As the daily papers of the time were usually full of smaller ads, the IKEA ‘full page’ established a media platform that would become legendary in the advertising industry.

“… we feel it is our duty to try to find a sensible solution to an acute problem.”

In the ad, Ingvar Kamprad and IKEA outlined what impact the new tax, and therefore higher prices, could have, partly on the industry, and also on all the customers who had planned to buy furniture for their homes by mail order before the end of the year, for delivery during the spring. “For our company, which already works with a well-known low-margin system, it is directly financially noticeable to go our own way in this manner, but we feel it is our duty to try to find a sensible solution to an acute problem.”

Black and white ad with a drawing of the IKEA store in Älmhult, headline
When a brand new tax was to be introduced in Sweden in 1960, Ingvar Kamprad took the opportunity to formulate an offer that could attract customers. It was published on a full page in Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, a very uncommon practice in those days. The ad provoked a lot of attention, and in Sweden ‘page 3 of Dagens Nyheter’ became a thing and a well-used method when the advertising industry wanted to really promote a brand.

The ad may seem quite complicated by today’s standards, but the criticism of the new tax was combined with a smart offer. IKEA offered a solution. If customers sent for a catalogue and placed an order before 23 December, IKEA would cover the extra costs arising from the tax. There is no doubt that Ingvar Kamprad was genuinely annoyed, but the main point of the ad was still to send out more catalogues and get more orders – which did happen as well.

IKEA is discovered by the ad people

Until the end of the 1950s, Ingvar Kamprad dealt with most of the communication himself, or alongside his head of advertising, Gillis Lundgren. But more and more people soon started noticing the unconventional company from Älmhult. Creatives at advertising agencies were particularly interested and got in touch, and Ingvar Kamprad was happy to listen to good advice. Important new people were taken on, such as the shrewd Brita Lang, who knew about advertising and worked on improving the catalogue. A decade or so later, the couple Mary and Lennart Ekmark were employed. Together they breathed new life into the IKEA range in the new store at Kungens Kurva. Mary specialised in the in-store furniture displays, while Lennart dealt with store communication and advertising. All of these new talents helped to evolve IKEA from a pure furniture store to a provider of complete home furnishing solutions. More focus and space was devoted to the room settings. Since the catalogue was important in the marketing mix, this change had a huge impact on the image of IKEA. The catalogue was now increasingly about inspiration, and therefore also brand-building. But soon an inspiring, well-made catalogue was not enough, even though it reached millions of customers. Mass communication of a different kind was also needed.

Up until then, IKEA had engaged in advertising to bring customers to the stores, which were growing in number. Now the company saw the need for more strategic communication, in order to spread news of what IKEA represented to other markets as well. In 1979, Sweden’s leading ad creatives at the time, Leon Nordin and Hans Brindfors at Brindfors ad agency, took over at the helm. It would prove to be a rewarding time. During the 1980s especially, several ground-breaking campaigns were produced with IKEA that have virtually become part of the cultural heritage in Sweden and several other countries. Most Swedes born before 1975 probably remember a slogan like “For the wise rather than the wealthy”. Brindfors ad agency and IKEA both knew to combine tactical advertising, such as time-limited special offers, with strategic advertising with more in-depth content.

Humour became such an important feature that it was written into internal steering documents. Another approach was to tell the story of IKEA in an emotive, philosophical way, like in the print ad about the IKEA soul, a forerunner to modern storytelling.

Whole page ad with photo of an older stone wall in Swedish landscape, headline IKEA’s soul and a long text.
In 1980s Sweden, concept advertising for brands was unusual. But creatives Leon Nordin and Hans Brindfors were pioneers and designed ads for IKEA that broke new ground. Above an ancient Småland stone wall is the heading “The Ikea Soul”. The text gives a simple description of Ingvar Kamprad’s thoughts and visions.
Ad with headline
During election times, IKEA has often taken the opportunity to make some fun of the generous promises made by politicians. The classic ad with the elephant balancing on the seemingly indestructible ÖGLA chair is a good example.
Ad with a myriad of photos depicting kitchen utensils and Christmas foods, all price marked.
Ad with a myriad of photos depicting glasses and other things needed to throw a party, all price marked.
In the 1980s, Brindfors ad agency created ads that a lot of people came to recognise. Full pages with a host of products with attractively low prices, always with a clear price tag. Often the ads were connected to festivals like the German ad to the left, which included everything you needed for traditional Christmas celebrations. To the right, glasses and everything else needed for a party are advertised, in a Swedish ad that ends with “Save where you can!”.
Big ad with headline
Print campaign, Brindfors ad agency, 1980s. A campaign that attracted a lot of attention and is still emulated today. When the IKEA range moved into more exclusive settings, it was a way of showing quality and design to new target groups who otherwise shopped on ‘Fashion Street’.

IKEA was also a pioneer when it came to internal communication. In the mid-1980s there was a training programme for senior managers, new and old, who would get to meet Ingvar Kamprad, and find out more about IKEA values and overall purpose. The project was called IKEA Way, a name that was long used for all kinds of manuals and internal branding documents. The main aim was that everyone should know about and understand the story of IKEA and then share it, a phenomenon now known as corporate storytelling. Skilled copywriter Leon Nordin now took yet another step in the art of storytelling, when in 1984 he wrote Möjligheternas tid är inte förbi (The future is filled with opportunities) – a now almost mythical attempt to put the IKEA culture into words. Today, IKEA Way is the name of an internal training programme for co-workers.

Brochure cover with heading
Möjligheternas tid är inte förbi (The future is filled with opportunities) from 1984 was expert copywriter Leon Nordin’s attempt to use the art of storytelling to put the IKEA culture into print. It soon became an important document for communicators at IKEA.

Taking advertising global

Brindfors ad agency was also there when IKEA started expanding outside of Sweden. The agency opened local branches where required. IKEA has Swedish roots, and the communication often alluded to this in the early campaigns. The common theme, also on markets outside of Sweden, was to base the communication on who IKEA was talking to, and why they should want to listen. Instead of standardised global campaigns, the solution for IKEA was localised messages and customised creative activities, based on a strong common approach. Eventually, IKEA increasingly began working with local creatives on its different markets, with clear guidelines on the well-formulated, well-established basic concept that had evolved over a long time. This was shared with everyone who worked in communication. That way, everyone knew what they had to say – but exactly how they did it was something they had the freedom to come up with themselves.

The framework was, and is still today, very clearly expressed. To achieve success, advertising for IKEA should be honest, uncomplicated and positive, with a humorous twist and tongue in cheek. It is important to “create the right expectations” in consumers. One way of doing this is to clearly show the product alongside the price, and explain the benefits of shopping at IKEA. To maximise the impact of the advertising, other recommendations were also formulated. For example, by reflecting current events or topics, one could “draw full benefit from an unforeseen, favourable retail situation”. This was all clearly in line with Ingvar Kamprad’s first efforts at advertising.

Ad headlined
Ad campaign, Möblera efter eget huvud (Let your mind guide your interior design), IKEA Sweden with Brindfors ad agency, 1980s. The ad’s payoff, “For the wise rather than the wealthy” instantly changed the public’s image of IKEA from a low-price store to the obvious choice for smart people.

On the innovators’ side

While IKEA was growing globally in the 1990s, the media world was changing. It was now possible to advertise globally as commercial TV and radio increased, and all kinds of new, creative mass communication platforms were established. A huge amount of advertising was now reaching people 24 hours a day, everywhere. This development meant that it was even more important to find a voice that could reach through what was now called the ‘media noise’. It required IKEA to focus, and yet again to go its own way.

Facsimile of IKEA ad with close-up black and white photo of frustrated man biting on an Allen key.
Ad campaign in Norway with Brindfors ad agency, 1993. As IKEA was increasingly internationalised, Brindfors ad agency initially accompanied it to new markets. In this way, advertising helped to strengthen the brand and keep it coherent.

On certain markets, the IKEA product range assumed a distinctive position automatically, and this could be used in advertising. This was done perhaps more effectively than ever in the UK in 1996, when IKEA and St Luke’s ad agency challenged centuries of interior design tradition with light, Scandinavian design. Under the slogan “Chuck out your Chintz”, IKEA wanted to inspire Brits to get rid of the big floral patterns, wall-to-wall carpeting and dark decor that had been a part of Britain since the early Empire. The strategy was to challenge British tastes fundamentally and get rid of its chintzy past. As usual IKEA knew its target group well, but it was also lucky with the timing. The following year the young and, according to many, forward-thinking Tony Blair of Labour beat Conservative candidate John Major in the general election. This prompted the national Daily Express newspaper to describe the change of prime minister with the words: “Downing Street chucks out its chintz”. Proof that the IKEA campaign had become part of the popular culture in the UK, and an example of how IKEA is often associated with renewal.

Woman seen from behind tearing down floral curtains from a large window.
Large group of women gathered around garbage container in townhouse area, sending things from front doors to the container.
Photos from commercial, IKEA Great Britain with ad agency St Luke’s, 1996. The TV commercial “Chuck out your Chintz” was part of one of the 1990s’ best-known campaigns in the UK, and for Brits it associated IKEA with renewal.

Pushing the limits

IKEA has often chosen to push the limits through its advertising, but is rarely or never provocative just for the sake of it. The underlying message should always be inclusive on a universal level, even though it is all right to challenge traditions and conventions. This happened for example when a same-sex couple appeared in an American commercial for IKEA, made by the Deutsch NY agency in 1994. The commercial is seen as the first ever in the USA to feature a same-sex couple, and it caused quite a stir. IKEA was inundated with calls from angry consumers, who felt that IKEA was promoting a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. Conservative groups in the USA threatened to boycott the company, and one IKEA store in Hicksville, New York, received a bomb threat. The press officer at IKEA USA calmly responded to the complaints, explaining that the commercial was fully in line with the overriding strategy at IKEA, to speak directly to all different kinds of consumers. Another campaign, from the late 2010s in Sweden, showed that communication at IKEA is founded on insights into the everyday lives of the many, and sometimes different, people. The “Där livet händer/Where life happens” campaign showed everything from children moving between different parents following a divorce, to rehearsing rock bands and meetings between generations.

Big posters on tube station wall with photos from a club and a coffee break, with IKEA logo and text
Ad campaign, IKEA Sweden and Åkestam Holst NoA ad agency, 2016–2017. The contemporary concept of “Where life happens” was developed to emphasise how IKEA takes a natural place and offers solutions in the everyday lives of the many people.

Do first, then tell

If the beginning of the 1990s was a media revolution on a par with the Gutenberg printing press, it was nothing compared to what would come at the end of the decade. The internet arrived, changing not only the media landscape, sales channels and social structures, but also the very essence of how we shop, socialise and consume media. Social media quickly became a natural part of the marketing mix, and today they are vital communication channels. The most obvious consequences of the communication revolution for IKEA are perhaps that more and more people find inspiration and shop on digital platforms. Since the media landscape is more fragmented, it is also harder to reach ‘everyone’, but in return new channels are constantly coming along that directly target a specific group. For advertising, this might mean that broad, inclusive ad campaigns run simultaneously with very narrow, targeted initiatives for selected consumer groups.

IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Canada, Jordan. Historically speaking, the catalogue had been by far the most important tool for positioning IKEA as a brand. At most there were 220 million copies printed, in 69 different versions, 32 languages and more than 50 markets, and every catalogue cover became a huge display window. The IKEA catalogue was reviewed and discussed in the culture and financial sections, especially in Sweden. But as digitisation increased generally, the number of copies decreased. The 2021 IKEA catalogue, published in autumn 2020, was the final printed one.

Social media has opened up the dialogue between consumers and companies, but also between consumers. In simplified terms, you could say that if you’re a company and you do something wrong, somebody is going to tell you or their friends about it – and probably somewhere very visible where others can read it too. Consumers can comment and ask questions directly on all the various social media platforms. But in this flow of influencers, bloggers, apps and new media platforms, the very idea of advertising is being challenged: What actually is an advertising campaign today? For IKEA, it is partly about adding something with substance. The rule of thumb for the content of communication is to first create something new or implement a real change, and then tell people about what has been done. This can mean that IKEA invites people to a party with a local DJ to introduce new plant-based ‘meatballs’, plant balls, or releases a limited edition of rugs in a surprising collaboration with a new designer.

Person holding up rug that looks like a huge IKEA cashier receipt.
Art installation of plastic cube illuminated by red and white light in dark room.
In the 2010s, awareness of IKEA was bolstered among new generations through high-profile collaborations with designers like Virgil Abloh, whose MARKERAD rug collection was launched with a special event in Paris in 2018.

On the surface, it may seem like IKEA advertising has come a long way from the call to “the rural folk”. But look closely, and you’ll see that the communication is still based on knowing who you’re talking to, and why those people should care – whether they’re an Indian student, a Swedish family with young children or a young couple in Australia. And if the price is low there’s always an explanation, with meaning.