Democracy by design

For Ikea Canada marketing manager Thomas Kyle, the secret to a beautiful strategy is to get people talking.

At the International Design Show (IDS) in Toronto in January, artists Daniel Young and Christian Giroux used Ikea tables as the raw material for a series of sculptures. While some marketers would be wary of such a ‘brand hack,’ Ikea Canada marketing manager Thomas Kyle wasn’t fussed.
‘Whenever people are willing to experiment and have fun with our brand, it’s fantastic,’ says Kyle, who has been with the company for 13 years this month. ‘You could see that these guys had a connection into the brand. It’s about buzz, it’s about conversations.’
IDS is a great forum for ‘a design manufacturer retailer’ like Ikea, explains Kyle, whose shining moment at this year’s show was when CityLine designer Lynn Spence stopped to admire the demo kitchen at the Ikea booth.
‘We’re trying to bring opinion-makers on board with us,’ he says, adding that kitchens have done a lot to strengthen the position of the Ikea brand in Canada. ‘For me, that’s the culmination of all that work. It’s about brand building and how all of these things synchronize together: great TV ads are about top-of-mind awareness and consideration. Then you have to layer in DPS ads in the magazines, then you have people blogging about us, then you have the editors talking about us. Maybe it all starts out of kitchens, but then they start to look at the brand in a bigger way.’
With 11 stores in Canada (number 12 is coming to Winnipeg in 2013) and a marketing budget that has remained relatively flat over the past few fiscal years, Kyle has worked to find new ways to make an impact. PR plays a big role in promoting Ikea as a design leader, through new tools such as the design trends kit that Kyle launched with his PR team last year to publicize the annual catalogue, released each August. Top trends for 2009 – provided by the product design team at Ikea of Sweden in Älmhult – included walnut, curves and the colour grey, which was incorporated into a cupboard door and a Karlstad armchair. The resulting media attention turned the arrival of the new catalogue into a news event.

‘North American culture, because of this explosion in DIY programs and home décor magazines, is vastly more design savvy than even 10 years ago,’ says Kyle, who describes his core customer as women aged 25 to 45, with families with small kids as a close second. ‘People talk [and] read about design more, and we take our cues from that in how we communicate.’
Although the merch mix varies very little from country to country, the marketing team in Canada has a lot of freedom in terms of positioning. ‘I think what has happened over time is the global organization has realized…that people live differently. In that regard, it’s very hard for global to say, ‘you must communicate the brand this way’,’ says Kyle. ‘There are some things that you must do around logos and gridmarks and tone of voice, but we pretty much run our own ship, and we don’t take a lot of global stuff.’
Born and raised in southern Alberta, Kyle started out working at a commercial interior design firm before a friend, who was a manager at the Ikea in Calgary, encouraged him to come in part time. What started out as a ‘temporary’ retail job developed into a love affair with the brand’s core value of ‘democratic design.’
‘Ingvar Kamprad felt, in the most basic way of putting it, that everyone should be able to have good design in their home,’ he says. ‘He took it upon himself to create a brand – at the time he wasn’t creating a brand, but that’s how we talk about it now – [so] that the average guy or woman could have things of beauty in their home and it wouldn’t break the bank, so to speak.’
After stints as communications and interior design manager and then store manager in three stores in two provinces, Kyle was promoted to marketing manager in November 2008. ‘Thom’s understanding of the brand is remarkable,’ says Ikea Canada president Kerri Molinaro. ‘He is totally dialled into Ikea and truly understands customers and how they live life at home. Thom constantly challenges convention and has brought a lot of innovative thinking to our marketing campaigns.’
Kyle set about taking stock during the annual planning phase the following January, with his 10-person team and his AOR Zig. ‘I’m a very curious person, and I want to question what we’re doing,’ he says. ‘I kept saying to the agency, ‘I don’t want you to go 180, I want you to go 90 degrees.’ I just wanted to turn the dial little bit.’
The result was not a dramatic change, but rather a subtle refresh in messaging, including a new tagline which launched last fall, replacing ‘Love your home’ with ‘Any space can be beautiful.’

‘‘Love your home’ worked pretty hard for us, and the focus groups bore out the fact that it needed to be changed,’ says Kyle. ‘The things that resonates the most with our female customer are design and beauty. We knew from the research that we were seen as a low-price retailer, and we certainly didn’t want to do anything to make people believe that we weren’t, but we wanted to say to people you can get these beautiful things at great prices.’
In September 2009, the new line was put to work in three television spots, including two 15-second teasers in which a burst of Ikea-yellow inspiration explodes out of a cardboard box, plotting out sections of a dingy alley and a nondescript hallway for improvement, asserting that the brand was up to the challenge. A 30-second spot connected those depressing spaces to the potential within areas of the average Canadian home.
‘We never came to the table and said you must use the word ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful,” Kyle recalls. ‘It was born out of the fact that we must talk about good design, and to use the words ‘good design’ can maybe be a bit too rational. When you use the word ‘beautiful’ it sticks with people. Then laying that into ‘Any space can be beautiful’ tied in nicely to our whole idea of democratic design and affordability.’
The spots pushed people online to Anyspacecanbebeautiful.com, where people could upload images of their own spaces which were badly in need of a little beautification. The effort was Ikea Canada’s first foray into the Facebook world, as people shared their entries with friends in hopes of getting enough votes to win a $15,000 makeover by CityLine design expert Karen Sealy.
A total of 5,549 submissions and 255,238 votes later, a second phase launched last month features a video and before-and-after tour of the Calgary-based winner’s living room, complete with an itemized list of Ikea products used in the makeover.
Under Kyle’s watch, Ikea’s marketing materials also got a refresh, such as the new four-day flyers, which, as the name suggests, advertise sale items valid for four days only. The new content was accompanied by a change in format from a standard rectangular, landscape orientation into a glossy square, three-fold mailer that goes out approximately 10 times a year.
While Kyle gives full credit for the new design to Zig, he admits that he has ‘a ton of opinions about the aesthetics of what they do…what I have hopefully been able to bring is maybe a little more focus on detail.’
And the ‘savvy’ part of design savvy isn’t lost on Kyle, who admits that price is still a big factor in reaching his core customer with the flyers. ‘We really wanted to show people, in a magazine way, how beautiful some of our small marketplace articles are and at such a low price,’ he says. ‘The whole idea around saving money has really set in with people now, given this past recession.
‘I think the beautiful thing about the brand is it’s there to meet people in good times and it’s there to meet people in difficult times, and that’s part of the reason why it has such longevity.’

Three questions for Thomas Kyle

Do you have any favorite Ikea products at the moment?
The one I’m really excited about right now is a Karlstad arm chair, which we lovingly refer to as the Mad Men chair, because it has a kind of ’50s vibe to it. For some strange reason I’m totally into that right now. And I love our textiles. I could spend hours in textiles. I try to control myself but sometimes I can’t resist.

You’ve seen a lot of Ikea stores in different countries. Where would you like to travel for work?
I was reading on the internet about Ikea in China. People don’t have big disposable incomes, but they just come into the store and sit on the furniture, and some of them even have naps and eat in the restaurant and just hang out all day – they’re a bit of a beacon for people. And I think it’s interesting that you can sell Swedish meatballs in China.

What’s the biggest design faux pas that Canadians make?
I think beige is a design crime. We have a lot of people working at Ikea who come from Europe, and they’ll go around looking at places to buy or rent, and one of the questions they always ask is, ‘why are everybody’s walls taupe?’ You can quote me on that.