View from the C-Suite: Johanna Andren moves IKEA away from tactics and toward brand-building

The retailer now has a greater balance between long-term and short-term communications, says the head of marketing.

Johanna living room

By Will Novosedlik

It’s 8:30 a.m. as Johanna Andren, head of marketing at IKEA Canada, arrives at her office for strategy’s interview. She’s just finished an intense workout at Orangetheory Fitness, something she manages to fit into her busy schedule twice a week, shoe-horned between spending time with family and running IKEA’s marketing department.

After two-and-a-half years, Andren has had a chance to really settle in and get to know her new market, along with her new home. A native of Sweden, she was previously deputy marketing manager in IKEA’s home country before taking the leap and moving her family to Canada, a move she calls “an adventure.”

“That’s what it is when you move from Europe to Canada. Especially when you arrive on January 1,” says Andren (Sweden’s quite a bit warmer in the winter in comparison, for those not in the know).

Here, she let us in on comparisons between the European and Canadian markets, her views on creativity versus operations, and how IKEA’s new downtown Toronto location is shaping up.

Now that you’ve been here for two-and-a-half years, how does the Canadian market compare to Sweden and Europe?

From a marketing perspective, the importance of diversity, equality and sustainability is more pronounced here. Take Pride for instance. It’s also big in parts of Europe, of course, but as an expression of diversity and equality in the wider culture, it’s much stronger here.

So is sustainability. I think that when it comes to sustainability, [IKEA] has a role to play from a messaging perspective because there are so many issues to address. For instance, unlike in Europe, public transport is not very developed here. Food waste is also a big problem here. I believe [the brand] has an opportunity to inspire individual acts of sustainability. It can be about anything, even something as simple as changing from incandescent light to LED light in your home. Sustainability messaging is more common here, more expected.

When you looked around the marketing department at IKEA Canada, did you see anything that needed to change?

When I joined, my attitude was very much ‘why change it if it’s not broken?’. “The Beautiful Possibilities” platform was, and is, a strong concept with a dedicated team behind it – no issues there. But I felt it was critical to address the structure of our marketing strategy, so I spent a lot of time building trust internally to be able to lead change. We were more tactical back then and didn’t have the greatest balance between long-term and short-term communications. To build a sustainably profitable company you need to do 60% brand-building and 40% tactical. So we have been trying to move in that direction: more brand-building and less tactical.

So, as an example, when we launched the “Our Little World” campaign one-and-a-half years ago, it was very much around sustainability, but also the role our homes have taken in response to the pandemic. They almost became our personal planets. You could see it in TV spots, but you could also see it in our stores. That’s due to a very strong collaboration between my team, the in-store communications team and the selling team. That collaboration in turn has made it possible for us to get better results out of our campaigns. Trust-building has been a big part of the story since 2020.

Some marketers are more passionate about communications and creativity, while others are more focused on operations and results. Where are you on that spectrum?

Can I be in the middle? I mean, I love the creative process. I love the work we have done. I love the creativity in everything from a big brand commercial like “Our Little World” to what we call “wild cards,” such as the Cristiano Ronaldo water bottle. The day after Ronaldo rejected Coca-Cola at the FIFA press conference in favour of water, we renamed our most iconic water bottle the Cristiano, and that little campaign spread worldwide.

But we also need results. I think that many marketers are very much into the creative work. I think if you ask my team what I push most, they would say the background, the insights and the strategy, and then when it’s over, we come back and review the results – especially if we have challenges. For instance, we have had challenges with brand recall. We are at a good level, but I want us to be higher. If a normal score is maybe 60%, I want us to be 80%. At the end of the day, why are we doing marketing if it’s not to strengthen the brand and drive store visits and sales? We work with econometrics. We have very sophisticated tools to make sure we’re making the most of every dollar invested.

How has the downtown Toronto store been working out and what are your plans for future roll-outs?

IKEA Toronto Downtown – Aura is our first city store in Canada. We have 30 city stores in other markets in other countries. This one is taking its inspiration from life at home in Toronto. It really tries to capture the vibrancy and diversity of this city. The product range is focused on affordability, sustainability and small-space living. We also have a new food experience. So if you just want to come by and grab something to eat, it’s a little bit of a different experience. The Swedish Deli is the first in North America, and the new healthy bowl menu features three new recipes.

Our retail showrooms offer immersive experiences, and at our new small-format store, you’ll see room sets inspired by actual blueprints of 350 sq ft and 600 sq ft condos. The store is approximately 6,100 m2 on the ground. It’s a very airy space, and even though it’s about 25% the size of our typical large-format stores, that’s still large for downtown Toronto. The difference is there is no self-serve warehouse at the downtown Toronto location.

As for future rollouts, we’ll observe how the Toronto location plays out and base our future decisions on how things go here. So far, we’re seeing a wonderful reaction to this new experience in the heart of the city.

What are your plans for the rest of 2022?

We have an ambitious agenda. We want to strengthen brand trust. We’re in a good place, but can always be better. We want to attract all demographics. We’re targeting a younger, more urban cohort and asking how we can be more convenient for them. They tend not to have cars like their more suburban counterparts – that’s part of the background of the downtown store in Toronto. The online business, of course, is super important for this group. And we are asking how we can better connect with them through platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Pinterest.