His career in sales began quite early – selling matches to neighbors when he was five years old. Later, he used his bicycle to expand his geography and diversified his line of products by becoming aware of his customer’s needs and wants. Soon he also sold greeting cards, flower seeds, pens and pencils – even Christmas tree decorations. In addition to his entrepreneurial spirit, he was a good student – two traits that would combine to play a significant role in his future.
In 1943, when he was seventeen, his father rewarded his successful studies with a cash stipend which he used to formalize his business. The name he created for his company was an acronym using the initials of his name, the farm on which he was raised and the Swedish town he lived in. His product line expanded further – as did his business. Within two years it became nearly impossible to continue exclusively making in-person sales calls so he began advertising in the local paper.
Three years later came the most significant expansion to his product line – furniture. He began selling furniture – made by local artisans using wood from nearby forests – with great success. After another three years – in 1951 – he published a mail order catalog. Two years after that, he opened the company’s first showroom, allowing customers to see the furniture’s quality prior to ordering. A company employee removed the legs from a table in order to better transport it in his car. That seemingly insignificant action led to some powerful business strategies – the company would begin to design its own furniture with a focus on flat pack shipping and assembly by the customer.
In 1958, fifteen years after the seventeen year old began his business with money earned from his studies, he opened his first retail store in Almhult, Sweden. Measuring 6,700 square meters – over 70,000 square feet – the store was huge for that era. The sixties saw further innovation and expansion. A restaurant opened in the store which worked to keep customers on the premises while generating another source for profit. Innovative designs for chairs, bookcases and other furniture grew the company’s popularity. They expanded throughout Europe and became truly international when stores opened in Australia and Canada. 1985 saw their expansion into the U.S. with a store in Philadelphia.
At that point they had sixty stores, over 10,000 employees and distribution for the catalog totaled over 45,000,000. The company’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, retired from active management of the company in 1986, becoming an advisor to its parent company, INGKA Holding.
Seventy years after its founding, year-end 2013, the company is the largest furniture company in the world, and ranks forty-first on Forbes most valuable brand list. With over 9,500 products, they have 298 company owned stores operating in 26 countries generating nearly 700 million store visits last year alone. IKEA franchise locations add another fifty stores in another dozen countries. – and expansion continues. These are incredible achievements for any company – but they aren’t what make a fearless brand. IKEA is a fearless brand because it was built to be exactly that when it began at the kitchen table of a 17 year old boy in Sweden.
Fearless Brands evolve, adapt, ‘retool’ and innovate to increase their relevance and deliver optimum value.
From the very beginning, Ingvar Kamprad adapted and innovated his products and his approach based on learning what his customers wanted. Evolving from selling matches and pens from his bicycle to selling furniture at retail within fifteen years, provides key insight into the success of IKEA. A fearless brand knows what they are – their capabilities, their why and their relevance to their customers.
IKEA is constantly seeking to understand what their customers want – often before their customers know. Designing and developing from the customer’s perspective has driven IKEA’s success. While quality and design are key components, IKEA also strives to deliver the best price possible. “Is there a better way?” is a common question – one that leads to better product and better pricing.
Having an IKEA open a store in a city generates excitement and anticipation like very few other businesses. As early as 1965, an estimated 31,000 people were in line for the opening of the first store in Stockholm, Sweden. These days, the announcement of a new store rates as a top story in the local news – people have been known to have their picture taken at the IKEA location before construction even begins.
Make no mistake, any brand – even a fearless brand – has its detractors. Complaints about IKEA range from missing parts, broken pieces, late shipments and poor customer service all the way to issues with the fact that IKEA’s parent company is a not for profit organization, thus avoiding paying taxes. There is actually a great deal of dissonance when it comes to the financial and business structure of the company and its charitable fund. IKEA – any brand – is not perfect and will never be all things to all people.
As a corporation, they are committed to aggressively seeking meaningful methods of sustainability (see Forbes article), they have worked to eliminate illegal logging – especially in Russia, created initiatives to develop children’s education and worked to reduce their carbon footprint.
IKEA has a complete understanding of who they are at the most fundamental level. A terrific example of this is the introduction of their new catalog with a video parody of a typical Apple product introduction titled ‘bookbook’ (click to watch).
There is much which can be learned from IKEA when building your own fearless brand. A great beginning is to ask yourself some tough questions – and responding with the hard truth – even if it’s unpleasant.
- What is our why?
- What do our customers want – and need?
- Do we deliver the value they are seeking?
- Have we created an emotional connection with our customers and prospects?
- Is there a better way?
As with IKEA furniture, some assembly is required to build your fearless brand. Your brand needs to evolve and adapt to changing customer wants and business landscapes. There may be a need to retool certain elements of your brand offerings and how those are communicated. After all, the key to building a fearless brand is to be authentic, remain relevant and deliver your greatest value. As is the case with IKEA, if you can do that, you will realize stratospheric success.