Corporate Ambassador

August 26, 2011

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Whenever I try to find inspiration for my next blog entry, the first thing I do is I google for LGBT TV commercials or other marketing activities relevant to the LGBT community. My experience is that these commercials mirror the thinking of a society quit well most of the time.  You can almost be certain that IKEA is one of the companies that come up on Google each and every time. About a year ago I posted about an IKEA TV commercial which was aired in Austria. Back then there was a controversy if the commercial discriminated against LGBT individuals unintentionally. My latest discovery of LGBT communication by the Swedish home-center is an advertisement which was taken out in Italy when IKEA opened a new store in Catania, located in Italy's conservative south.

The ad, titled “We are open for all families”, caused a bit of an uproar among some conservative publications. Especially “Il Giornale” complained about the advertisement. Surprisingly enough they did not complain directly about two guys holding hands and going shopping together. Instead they took the detour and accused IKEA to be on an ideological mission to promote “social equality” by offering their products at low prices. (No, this is not a typo or a joke) It was widely believed that “social equality” did really refer to equal rights for the LGBT community. “Il Giornale” even went so far to actually complain about a new kind of Swedish imperialism forcing their values on other societies.

Even if “Il Giornale” was really concerned that IKEA's goal is to create social equality or if that was just to cover up for their homophobia does not matter a great deal in this conext. Rather it is a prime example of how the interaction of international companies with consumers runs danger to be at conflict with local values and thinking. Companies have to be aware that local sentiments might be quite different to their local environment, in this case Sweden opposed to Italy. IKEA especially should be aware of this challenge because they have experiences such cases many times before. Already in 1994, the company took out a TV commercial in the US which showed a gay couple going shopping together. Eventually the spot led to a call for boycott and even a bomb threat against the company. In 2008, the IKEA catalogue caused irritation among the conservatives in Poland because two men were sitting together at a table eating their dinner.

In today's globalized world it can be quite challenging to find the right tonality for the many different local audiences. Advertisers know for a long time that they have to tweak campaigns to local needs or create something new altogether because an idea which works in one market does not necessarily work in another equally well. With regard to public relations this can be even more challenging nowadays. More than ever companies have to show their colors and commit themselves to fundamental values and beliefs, e.g. climate protection. The challenge is that fundamental values cannot (easily) be tweaked for certain markets. Human rights are human rights and the same holds true for equal rights of course. Attempts to add shades of grey in the corporate communications usually take no good ending. The only solution is in most cases avoiding any kind of proactive communication of your values in certain markets altogether.

Given their history, IKEA know quite well that its commercials often provoke negative reaction in mostly conservative parts of the world. So the question really is if it is ok for companies to spread their beliefs which are inspired by the values of home markets to other markets? Should companies with a global like IKEA function as ambassador for the LGBT community?