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IKEA India - Amitabh Pande - Head of Marketing

BrandZ Analysis - C-Suite Interviews

Amitabh Pande

Head of Marketing

IKEA India

Amitabh Pande joined IKEA in 2016, after 14 years at PepsiCo working on strategy and consumer insights. After making its much-awaited Indian retail debut with its store in Hyderabad in 2018, global furniture and home furnishings retailer IKEA now also offers online ordering in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune.

The journey so far

What have been the biggest wins during IKEA’s first few years in India?

IKEA’s vision around the world is to create a better everyday life for the many people. And India is the perfect country to reach out to the many. We are quite many, as you know!

That’s probably been one of our biggest wins in the initial years, that we have been able to attract the many people of India into our store in Hyderabad and to our online store. A multinational, high-quality design brand always has the danger of being perceived as a premium brand and for the “few.” But our strong commitment to designing and selling affordable products, with an inclusive communication externally, all supported by our deep culture and values, have helped reinforce that we are here for the many - in India, as well, just like in any other country in the world.

As a result, we’ve had a really successful two years in India, with a strong and loyal customer base, who has given us their love and trust. The people love our wide range of home furnishing products and services, where we literally have everything you need for your home, under one roof. They love the experience of shopping at IKEA, which is a unique experience, where you can easily spend a few hours. They love the quality and the design. And they love that all of this is at really good prices.

This has set the base for building a strong foundation of a modern retail brand in India.

And the best is yet to come, because we’re just getting started.

IKEA products appeal to a wide range of demographics. What has Ikea learned about the home needs of Indian youths– and, on the other side of the age spectrum, it’s senior citizens?

Absolutely. IKEA has something for everyone, no matter what living situation, what kind of home, what age, or what wallet size. Everyone is welcome. And everyone can find something for their life at home at IKEA.

India is a young country, demographically. And a youthful country, psychographically. So, in a sense everyone is young in their minds. And IKEA is a youthful brand. And that’s why it’s a perfect match.

What we’ve learnt is that the fundamental needs at home are quite universal, not just for different demographics, but in fact, around the world. And that’s why the IKEA range and the entire offer works so well across all countries. Everyone wants a home that’s beautiful, affordable, functional, high quality, healthy, and sustainable. And this is how our products are designed to cater to all these aspects (what we call the Democratic Design principles).

And similarly, everyone has similar needs from the different rooms and spaces in the home. For example, everyone wants a comfortable seating solution in the living room, either to be by themselves reading or watching TV, or when socializing or entertaining guests. The only thing that changes is that comfort may mean different things to different people. So, if you’re younger, maybe you’re looking for a certain design and maybe say, “Low seating is okay,” because you can get up and down easily. But if you’re a senior citizen, maybe you’re looking for a little height and back support.

Similarly, everyone has the need for a convenient kitchen that allows them to cook good, tasty, healthy meals. Everyone needs a good night’s sleep from their beds. Everyone needs easy to use, store, and clean cooking and eating vessels. Everyone needs little decoration items around the house. And of course, everyone now needs working from home solutions!

What have been the most important channels to reach out to the Indian consumers? And what have been the most resonant marketing themes?

Of course, the most important channel has been our store. Our first store in Hyderabad city had one of the most talked-about launches in India in a very long time. Once you’ve been to an IKEA store, you’re hooked. Our inspiring store experience, combined with our unique range of products and solutions, are our most important channels.

Apart from this, the regular marketing media mix channels continue to play a significant role in reaching to consumers and building the brand. Apart from the usual mass media of TV, print, outdoors and, radio, we have significantly and successfully leveraged digital in a big way - led by social media (we have beautiful and popular Facebook and Insta pages), our own website, and of course other regular digital marketing channels like search, etc.

Then our direct engagement with our customers has been the other significant channel for us - through our loyalty program (which we call IKEA Family). As well as through user-generated content programs on our social media handles.

Finally, and just as importantly, our co-workers at IKEA are our biggest ambassadors of the brand.

One of the most important themes for us that has really worked, has been captured in our positioning line “Make Everyday Brighter,” which is all about inspiring and enabling many people to create a better everyday life at home, through our wide range of well-designed, functional and affordable home furnishing solutions.

How has IKEA balanced global and local codes in the Indian market– in everything from product ranges to marketing strategy?

This has been where we have spent the most time in the last few years, in establishing the brand from scratch in India. Contrary to popular belief, the many people in India are not aware of IKEA. It’s only the privileged “few” who have travelled outside India and have been to an IKEA store. And therefore, for us, in India it was starting from beginning. Let’s start with the “I” of IKEA.

Of course, IKEA is a very strong brand around the world with a very strong identity and values. We started with that, and then looked for how we “interpret meaningfully” in the local culture. Note the words interpret and meaningfully. Interpretation is not translation. Good interpretation is not just about the language, but about understanding. It’s about deeply understanding the brand values and then communicating it in a way that the Indian audience understands so that it’s relevant and meaningful to them. That has been our entire endeavor right from the start.

So, if IKEA is about equality, inclusiveness, and progressive values, what do these values mean in India? One manifestation could be the equal roles that men and women play at home in building the home, doing everyday activities around the home like cooking and cleaning, and perhaps most significantly, parenting and raising children. These may be taken for granted in Europe, but in India, they become highly relevant for us to build the brand. Similarly, we followed this thinking across all elements of the brand, that helped us translate the global vision of “better everyday life” to our India positioning of “Make Everyday Brighter.”

On our range and products, again following the similar principles of how we not necessarily only make new products for India, but also get the best of the products from around the world and make them relevant for use in India. Like I said above, a comfortable bed and mattress is the same, no matter where you are.

Is there an aspect of IKEA’s India rollout that you think has been overlooked; but is key to the brand’s success?

I wouldn’t say overlooked - but there’s something I would say we haven’t talked about enough yet, but is a critical part of the brand. And that is our sustainability agenda, what we call “people and planet positive.” The sustainability thinking runs like blood in our veins. It’s in the design of our products - how we source and use the material through high quality, long-term sustainable partnerships around the world. It’s in how we enable people to live a healthy and sustainable life at home through specific products like energy-saving LED lamps, water-saving taps, recycling units, and many, many more. It’s in our championing of the cause with our customers, co-workers and vendors through communication, apps (check out our IKEA Better Living App), workshops, and other forums. And it is in our community engagement that is part of the way we do business.

Adapting to the present

Ikea is known for its extensive consumer research into “Life at Home.” What has the brand learned about what makes Indian living unique – and how do you see “Life at Home” changing in the years to come?

Yes. That’s correct. We have spent and continue to spend a lot of time in researching about people’s life at home. At last count, 2 years ago, we had done over 1,000 home visits. But since then we’ve lost count! We are curious about people’s life at home, and that’s our main driving force, as an organization and as a brand.

We’ve learned many things. But to repeat one point from what I’ve said above. One thing we’ve learned is that most of the needs from life at home are universal around the world. Everyone around the world at home has the needs of cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, comfort, health, leisure time, privacy, grooming, entertainment, and so on. The basics remain the same.

What’s unique to India is how these things manifest themselves. For example, many people in India like to eat while sitting on the floor, so may be a dining table is not really the solution they are looking for. Maybe we could propose a low seating platter or a smaller side table, which is a better dining idea than a dining table. And there are many, many little things like that, where the everyday magic happens.

The last few months have only made life at home more relevant and central to our lives than ever. These needs above from home will only increase. And we will discover new needs from home that were earlier not expected - working from home, exercising at home, picnics at home, gardening at home, so on and so forth.

How has IKEA most successfully pivoted during the events of 2020? What product ranges have proven particularly resonant in these times?

As a great man has said, “These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.” The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us in multiple ways. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. As a brand and as marketers, we need to do what we do best – listen empathetically to the people and respond in a humanly conscious and relevant way. And that’s what our mission is, and we hope we have done through the crisis of the last many months.

When people got stuck at home, we learned through the research we did with our research partners, including KANTAR, that they were looking for ideas on doing various things at home. They wanted brands to tell them how to navigate this amplified time and space at home, and they wanted to hear it in a positive, constructive way. We embarked on the idea of “Your Home is Full of Possibilities,” which was not just a marketing campaign to connect emotionally, but also a series of ideas and inspiration on our website and social media handles on what and how to do the different things people wanted to do at home. Including a user-generated-content program #IKEALifeathome on Insta, that allowed people to share their ideas with us. Ideas that we then featured on our page.

Working from home, cooking and eating, healthy living, home decoration, and textiles – as well as comfortable living room, seating, bedroom, and sleep solutions: these have all been popular and relevant during these times.

Future outlook

This year’s BrandZ™ is all about “Repurposing brands for the future” - how does this theme fit in the context of IKEA’s brand story in India?

This theme is like the defining trait of IKEA for the last 75 years that it has existed. Like I said above, IKEA is a purpose-driven brand, driven by its vision of “creating a better everyday life for the many people.” And this is our mission in India as well. Everything I have said above is driven by this purpose.

One of the fault lines that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed is our obsession with “consumption.” Consumption-driven growth has been at center of most brand building. But everyone starts questioning, “How much more can we consume?” and equally, ‘How much more do we really need to consume?” brands need to find meaning beyond consumption. And that meaning lies in purpose. Why do I exist as a brand, what is my purpose in the world? And that’s the only way forward.

And in that sense, I would say it’s not about “re-purposing” but about “discovering your true purpose” as a brand, for today and the future.

These are uncertain times, but the importance of home seems more certain than ever. Where do you see the brand heading in the short and medium term?

The answer lies in the question, doesn’t it.

The importance of home has never been higher, and is clearly going to be the defining space for the future. IKEA as a brand exists because of people’s life at home. Need I say more?