Ikea has been able to gain a better understanding of consumers and what they want from the brand by layering up digital insight with more traditional customer research.

Since its inception 77 years ago, the Swedish retailer has been putting itself “in the shoes of people” and spending time in their homes around the world to help it decide what furniture to develop.

But the rise of digital has allowed the brand to gain a much deeper understanding of customers at a more granular level, according to Ikea’s chief digital officer, Barbara Martin Coppola.

“If we ladder up the digital capabilities [with traditional research] we can have even richer insight,” she explained, speaking at an event hosted by brand consultancy Wolff Olins.

“Every day, 24-hours a day, we get feedback on what people want through clicks and expressions, and through this dialogue that is possible in real time through digital. When you combine both it gives you very rich insight and a deep understanding about life at home, which helps then to connect and better serve many people around the world.”

One of the key insights Ikea has gained as a result of this layered approach to research is the fact people want sustainable consumption, which led Ikea to launch its ‘buy back’ service last year.

The initiative allows anyone wanting to get rid of old Ikea furniture the opportunity to sell it back to the retailer, which will then resell it via its ‘bargain corner’ department.

I have the overall global responsibility of our digital agenda and I think a human-centric, conscious agenda will be a must-have for any brand moving forward.

Barbara Martin Coppola, Ikea

The initiative, which launched on Black Friday, has been “widely successful” Martin Coppola said, but it has been temporarily paused due to safety restrictions around Covid.

“By using [furniture] and giving it back we’re starting a circular Ikea, a new business model that allows you to use the furniture and then give it to other people for a second life. Furniture as a service is something we’re putting in place and by 2030 we will have circular business models in place at Ikea for many to enjoy,” she said.

Given Ikea’s reputation as a value-led retailer, Martin Coppola said it’s important that sustainable living doesn’t cost consumers more, which is why the brand is encouraging people to “take simple, affordable steps to make a difference”, such as reselling used furniture or switching to LED light bulbs.

“When it comes to sustainability at large, in general today it often comes at a price premium. We want to show our customers and co-workers that living more sustainably shouldn’t come at a premium,” she added.

The benefits of female leadership

Another side of being a conscious brand, as Martin Coppola describes it, is to ensure people working within the business are treated fairly and with “human rights at the core”. That’s why 50% of the managers at Ikea are women.

“Coming from the tech sector this has been a clear surprise to me to see how much benefit this brings to the company, in terms of innovation, open-mindedness, inclusiveness and the bottom line,” she said.

“We urge all companies to not give up before 50% [female leaders] is achieved, before the company reflects the society we play in.”

This focus on sustainability and doing right by its people is why Martin Coppola joined the business.

“I went to Ikea because it is a value-based, very strong, human-centric brand,” she explained. “It’s a tremendously conscious brand, which gives meaning to my work in digitalising the company, transforming the company for the next era, to suit many more people.”

Martin Coppola believes the businesses that will thrive in future will be the ones that make a difference and don’t put the wellbeing of the company before that of its people or the planet.

“Instead of focusing on short-term profits only, they [companies] need to balance their decisions carefully to take a broader perspective and [make] a positive impact on society and the world at large,” she said.

“I have the overall global responsibility of our digital agenda and I think a human-centric, conscious agenda will be a must-have for any brand moving forward. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it also makes business sense.”

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