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"IKEA: The Narnia Of Brands" — Anneli Hansson, Brand Strategist

Anneli Hansson (00:00): Hello, I'm Anneli Hansson. I'm a brand strategist based out of Sweden and I'm also an educator. And this is my love letter to IKEA.

Sam Thorogood (00:12): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Anneli Hansson (01:05): I actually met, I don't have any memories from, I mean, I grew up in Sweden, but I don't have any memories from being at IKEA as a kid. But I do have strong memories from meeting IKEA from my teenage years and when I was ready to move from home. So, it was a little bit like a teenage crush for me, IKEA, actually. So, that kind of admiration for IKEA started growing a little bit when it was time for me to move from home. Because this kind of made me realise that I could create my own home and I've always been really interested in furniture and design and interior. And that just opened the eyes for me that this was actually accessible for someone like me without so much money.

Sam Thorogood (01:58): And what was it about the IKEA experience as you go into this very unique shopping world, almost like a theme park where you are guided around a maze floor plan and then you take the furniture home and construct it yourself? What was it about that whole experience that really drew you in?

Anneli Hansson (02:17): Yeah, I mean, I think it's something like that because I've always been very into fiction and I love sagas like Narnia and Harry Potter and fantasy worlds like that. And for me, IKEA was a little bit like that. It was like coming to a world of experience and you're kind of guided, like you said, to different rooms, different experiences. And it's not just the furniture, it's like the whole experience of you have your meatballs, maybe a coffee even, you walk around like it's an entire, full-day experience if you want to. And I just thought that was so amazing to be inspired and then at the same time have the ability to actually buy something. And I also like the idea of buying it right then, when you're there in the store. Yeah, I'm kind of spontaneous and I like that. I like to bring it home right away. So I think that was the whole thing, that it was more of an experience. Every other store I've been to is just like walking around and with no clear structure in it. It's just, you're just happy if you get to see all the things they have in the store. But with IKEA, it was like a totally different experience. It was like having a guide. So I think that made me really interested partly because I was interested in the furnitures and design, but also because I then started to study marketing and design strategy and I started to think about how we can create a brand experience. So I think that was also something that maybe made me even more interested.

Sam Thorogood (04:09): And what about this 'IKEA effect' of taking the furniture home and actually constructing it yourself? How does that influence your relationship with this brand?

Anneli Hansson (04:19): Isn't it a little bit like, you know, you love it and you hate it at the same time, in a way, because you know it makes it more inclusive and affordable for more people. I like that about it. I like the functionality in it. All products are really designed with functionality in mind. I really like that. So it's supposed to be simple and it's supposed to be possible for you to buy it to a price that you can afford. And that's the reason also why you have these packages. It also can drive you mad because you go home and it's always something missing and it takes forever. I actually started to buy IKEA furniture second-hand because I realised that it's much, much better to buy something that someone else has already built so I don't have to spend so much time doing it.

Sam Thorogood (05:21): How is IKEA perceived within Sweden?

Anneli Hansson (05:25): I would say maybe before it was a little bit more like low price and didn't have great reputation when I was a little bit younger. But then they started to work a lot with interesting designers. They did a lot of collaborations with designers that were people who you saw on TV, in different TV shows and other things. So people noticed that they had interesting products, a little bit like H&M have been doing with fashion designers too. So that's, I think, shifted the way we see it a little bit. But I also think we're kind of proud of IKEA being a global brand. It's very Swedish. I mean, even the colours are Swedish. So I think there's a story there also about the whole togetherness about IKEA, that their vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. And it's like a commitment in that, which I really like, to inclusivity and diversity. And it is a broad and kind of diverse customer base, but that's also... Sweden is a little bit or used to be having this kind of values of socialism a little bit more that we take care of each other and togetherness is a big part of the culture in IKEA. So I think we like it from that perspective. It's something that it's almost like if you would brand Sweden, it would almost be IKEA. Because we take care of each other, but it's also innovative and caring in a way.

Sam Thorogood (07:12): What emotions does this brand evoke for you?

Anneli Hansson (07:16): I think it's about that, about togetherness, about responsibility, about caring, about showing that a big company can also care deeply. I know a lot of people who work at IKEA and all of them are really almost in love with the brand and the company. They feel seen and heard and have an emotional connection to it, even though it's a big corporate. I think that's what we're aiming for when we work with building brands, that find that humanising the brand in a way. And I think Ingvar Kamprad, who is the founder, I think his soul is in the entire company. There's so many stories about him and how he started out and all the things about being more effective and productive and making it accessible. So I think there's a lot of emotions around that whole togetherness that just really draws me into that brand and makes me like it.

Sam Thorogood (08:21): And you mentioned the founder. Obviously, he gave the initials to the first two letters of the brand name. I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on both the brand name, but also the visual identity, this logo, this very simple blue and yellow logo, the typography that they use, the minimalism that's kind of embedded in all of that, in the labels that you see on the different products. Talk to me about the whole visual identity and what that is doing for you as the consumer.

Anneli Hansson (08:55): I mean, first of all, disclaimer, I'm not a graphic designer, so I don't want to pretend to be like a design professional here. I am a marketing strategist and a design strategist from design thinking and innovation perspective. I'm not doing the graphic design. But with that said, I've been working for like 15 years developing brand and worked really closely with graphic designers. So for me, the visual identity is a really big important part in a brand, although it's not, absolutely not, the entire part of branding because it's also, of course, the messaging and how we behave and all of that. So with that said, I think IKEA is like a great example of what's important when you have a logo, which is to identify something and to be very consistent. People who have really not so much experience could probably go into a company like IKEA and like, let's just change the logo. I don't think it looks good. But that would be a disaster because I've been to the museum. IKEA has a museum where it's founded in that small, small city. And it's very fascinating to see the changes they've done to the logo during the years. It's actually been changes like with a lot of other big corporate brands. They have been doing small, small, small changes, but not big ones. I think that's one thing.

(10:33): The consistency is extremely important. It's easy to read, easy to remember, easy to pronounce for most people. I love the colours because it's the colours of Sweden. Yeah, I love that they have the names on the products that are also Swedish names. So there's like a story in the entire identity, but that is still just the logo you see. I can't really put my finger on their entire brand identity. It feels like that shifts a lot during the years because they're very driven by, they have a lot of products, photos and photos of people and environments and families. And of course that changes year to year depending on how people look like. And also they look different if you're in India or if you're in Sweden or if you're in the US or Germany. It looks different.

Sam Thorogood (11:45): It's funny you mentioned about the product names. I learned yesterday that the founder was dyslexic and the furniture that had really long code names, numbers and letters, was very difficult to remember. So by giving it these very simple, very personal names, you remember it as a Billy, not as a F12896. It's a stroke of genius, isn't it? Because it personalises the entire buying experience.

Anneli Hansson (12:16): Yeah, I think it does. And I mean, we always talk about that brands are so corporate and boring, but I don't think IKEA is boring. I think IKEA feels like a warm hug, like a family. I don't know if I'm very biased because I'm from Sweden, but I think that's how it feels like. It's caring. Even people who work there, which is really branding when we talk about that, because I always have to talk about what is branding and what it's not, and branding is not just the visuals. It's really how we show up in all touch points and how we make people feel. So the branding as an activation is to shape people's perception. So if they think something about IKEA, our job as strategists and branding people is to shape that perception. So basically, we're like impression management, what we're doing. We want to create a good first impression of the company. So I think that what they're doing with training their employees in a way that it feels like you're actually coming home to someone and they feel like a family. And they have this kind of vibe between themselves also, like they're friends and family, and they include you in that culture and that feeling.

Sam Thorogood (13:31): What has this brand done over the years that has really surprised you?

Anneli Hansson (13:36): I think one thing that did surprise me a little bit is that IKEA's being big in sustainability and environmental responsibility. And that's, of course, something that's really close to my heart because that's been my focus since 2011. And I had debates with my friends about this, who live in the US, because they really don't like IKEA, a few of them. And they think like, how can you even say that you're sustainable if your business model is everything else but sustainable? But I just think it's really important too, because we need to remember that all these really big companies are actually also the one option who leads the innovation for new things. And they open the doors for a lot of smaller companies who can actually follow. And IKEA is one of them. They have committed to using renewable or recycled materials in all their products and be climate positive by 2030. So it's just about in seven years. So they're doing a lot of things. They also do a lot of social responsibility and give back to societies. So I think maybe that was something that actually surprised me a little bit, that they're so focused on that. Because for me, IKEA has always been about saving money, being productive, effective, letting everyone be part of it. But sustainability is not short term. Sustainability is long term. So that surprised me a little bit, actually.

Sam Thorogood (15:21): And have there been any times, I don't know, in your own experience, where you found it kind of difficult to love IKEA?

Anneli Hansson (15:28): I think in those moments when I really start to question, what is sustainability? And I mean, nothing is sustainable. I mean, what would be sustainable is to not consume anything. And if I want to buy a new couch or whatever it is, I really have to question if I need it. Like I said, I actually buy a lot of second-hand IKEA things too, and furniture in general. But I think that's the conflict for me. Is it really necessary to sell all the things they sell? And do they actually almost inspire people to buy more things than they have to buy? So the kind of business model in itself will then not be sustainable. I mean, I'm not talking about sustainable in the form of money, but from an environmental perspective. So I think that's maybe the inner conflict I had with myself.

Sam Thorogood (16:37): Mm. Because IKEA apparently is the single biggest consumer of wood in the world, which is maybe not surprising given the amount of products they produce. But it's interesting, your idea about buying stuff second-hand from IKEA. And do you find that the quality is still there when you take something second-hand?

Anneli Hansson (16:58): I mean, I actually do think so. I mean, for a time in my life, I just had old things from my grandfather, grandmother and stuff. I really liked old, antique things. But I have a lot of things from IKEA. And things I bought, we probably have them for like 10, 15 years probably. And they were already second-hand when we bought them. So they're probably about 20 years or something and still works. They're very classic things, maybe white, that will not change so much. It's really a Scandinavian kind of clean design that I like, that aesthetic, and it doesn't really change so much. So yeah, I do see. I mean, I think IKEA might have a little bit of a bad reputation when it comes to quality. I actually have a bed that I bought for like, I don't know, a lot, $5,000 maybe. And then I had beds from IKEA, and I don't even know if it's that big of a difference. We have a kitchen from IKEA, it's great quality, much better actually than our last kitchen, it was much more expensive.

(18:15): So sometimes I think IKEA have a little bit of a bad reputation when it comes to quality, if you compare to other similar materials from other brands. I mean, of course, there are much more like high fashion out there when it comes to interior design. And of course, there are brands that I really adore when it comes to the design aspect of it. But I'm just trying to think about a brand that has it all, you know what I mean? Like, some of those brands might have aesthetically super beautiful products, but I don't have a clue about who they are as a brand. I have no emotional connection to those brands. IKEA is like a friend, you know, that I feel loyal to and that I'm proud of.

Sam Thorogood (19:06): And is that how you'd describe the brand? If someone had never heard of IKEA, would you almost describe it in those terms of being like a friend, being like part of a family?

Anneli Hansson (19:14): I always liked the vision. So I think what I often say is that IKEA's vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. And I think that says so much that it's actually more about, it's not just about furniture for me, it's to create this home, to help people create a home. And when we feel safe at home and we have somewhere we can be together, that makes most people feel safe and happy, you know? So it is a better everyday life. And I think there's much more than just the furnitures.

Sam Thorogood (19:55): And how would you summarise this journey you've been on into the wonderful everyday with IKEA at the heart?

Anneli Hansson (20:02): Yeah, I'm 49 now, and I guess I started to maybe go to IKEA when I was about 19 maybe, something like that. So it's been a couple of years, love story here. So no, I think I would say it is a little bit like a relationship in a way that you know it's always there. Sometimes you want to buy other things, but you kind of always go back. You know what you get, you know that you will have this great experience. They also have good customer service if something happens. So I feel if I would describe it, it is like a relationship with a friend that you really trust that might not be the most fun and beautiful all the time, but it's like a really good friend that's always kind of there for you. And I think also from my professional point of view, it's been an interesting case study for me to follow IKEA, both when it comes to lately and the environmental sustainability journey they're on, and to see how a big corporate company like that could actually do a lot of good things and also tells a story about it. So it's a good case study for me to follow. I also even go there sometimes just to be part of the customer journey and just observe and take notes and look at it from a perspective of how do we design the brand experience, because I think they're really good at it. So yeah, that's kind of my journey, starting out more functional maybe. I need furniture. Now it's kind of more of a relationship where I also feel like I get inspired, but it's my trusted friend.

Sam Thorogood (22:01): Anneli, tell me more about you and where people can find you online and connect with what you're doing, connect with what you're doing with The Futur as well. Just share with the listeners how people can best connect with what you're up to.

Anneli Hansson (22:14): Yeah, I'm at and Anneli is a Swedish spelling, A-N-N-E-L-I, Hansson, two S, dot com. And what I do now is that I educate people, mostly creatives, but also CEOs, CMOs, founders, and companies who want to build a brand with focus on sustainability, because I believe today that we don't have a choice. And I think that brands can take a much bigger responsibility in actually leading the way. The days are over where brands just do whatever people want and ask for. I think today that brands need to be more of a role model of where we need to lead the society. So that's what I educate people in. How do we build the sustainable brands of tomorrow? I do a lot of content with Chris Do from The Futur, and I have a course there, Brand Strategy Fundamentals, and I'm very also into social media. So I would be happy if you want to follow me. I do teach a lot at social media, and I'm @theannelihansson, LinkedIn and Instagram, mostly.

Sam Thorogood (23:34): Awesome. Well, finally, I would love for you to share this love letter that you've written to IKEA with us.

Anneli Hansson (23:42): Dear IKEA, you've been a bit like a teenage crush for me. I can't recall visiting you as a kid, but my admiration for you began later in life when it was time for me to move from my childhood home. You were there as a steadfast friend, making it possible for me to start fresh in a new home, even when I didn't have much money to spare. You made the idea of having a home achievable, and I always felt included. Visiting you has always felt like an adventure, a captivating experience from start to finish. In other stores, you can easily get lost wandering aimlessly, but at your place, the entire shopping experience is thoughtfully planned out. We happily follow the arrows that guide us on a journey from cozy armchairs to warm lamps, from vibrant plants to everything one could need for a kitchen. And speaking of kitchens, no visit to your store is complete without indulging in your famous meatballs.

(24:54): To me, you represent more than just furniture. You symbolise the idea that home is where we create our lives. You empower countless people to build their homes, and there's a sense of togetherness in that. It's not just for me. I see it in all the people who work for you, too. Your colours and names tell the story of your heritage, rooted in the small town of Älmhult, Sweden. Your founder, Ingvar Kamprad, inspires me. He came from a small place in this vast world, and his entrepreneurial spirits show that anything is possible, even if you don't have much to start with. His legacy reminds me that with a strong motivation and creativity, we can achieve our dreams. I'm proud to see that you care about the environment and about people. Your commitment to making all of your products from renewable and recycled materials by 2030 shows that you're not just focused on the present, but also dedicated to shaping a sustainable future. You make me proud to be Swedish. With affection, Anneli.

Sam Thorogood (26:10): Well, Anneli, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Anneli Hansson (26:14): Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for inviting me here.

Sam Thorogood (26:19): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more at Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design