Ikea's Winning Tactics: Low Prices, Exotic Names

The popular furniture and home design store Ikea has built a $30 billion empire selling products with names that few people can pronounce. But it hasn't hurt the company's bottom line.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For most Americans who shop at IKEA for home items, the Swedish names may sound a little like this…

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Muppets")

Mr. JIM HENSON (Director, Producer, Puppeteer): (as Swedish Chef) (Singing) Ibor skeer do, do, door, um, bork, bork, bork(ph)!

INSKEEP: That's the Swedish chef from "The Muppets." But there really is an IKEA cushion called Mork. IKEA's product names have been the butt of jokes by "The Simpsons." There's even an independent online game which invites users to guess what certain IKEA products are with names like Bjorkas, Slojda and Klunsa. In spite of those names, this chain is successful, and Deirdre Kennedy reports on the marketing phenomenon that is IKEA.

DEIRDRE KENNEDY: At the giant IKEA warehouse in Emeryville near San Francisco, customers wheel out baskets piled high with cheap furniture, lamps and bedding. Most people who just dropped a couple of hundred dollars at a store can tell you what they bought, but not at IKEA.

Do you know the names of any of the products you bought?

Unidentified Woman #1: I can't pronounce them. I thought one was called amoeba, but it's not called that. It's A-N-E-B-O-D-A, or something like that.

Unidentified Man #1: The name of the products? I don't know. It is Snille?

KENNEDY: S-N-I-L-L-E?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #3: Rabalder.

KENNEDY: What is that?

Unidentified Woman #3: That is an extension cord, right?

Mr. MATTIAS JONGARD (Advertising manager, IKEA): It means bald guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KENNEDY: That's IKEA's advertising manager, Mattias Jongard. So what does rabalder mean?

Mr. JONGARD: I think in Swedish, the correct - should be, like, big fuss. It can create some attention. And then we call it in Swedish, rabalder. It's hard for me, you know, I come from Sweden, and I know how they are supposed to pronounce it, but nobody here understands what I mean.

KENNEDY: Nobody, he says, includes his own co-workers. And the product names aren't just arbitrary. There's actually a formula for how the design team comes up with them.

Mr. JONGARD: For example, sofas should be having names from Swedish small towns, like Kosta and Komfosh(ph). And can also be a woman's name when it comes to fabrics and curtains. And, you know, we have a lamp, and that's called Knubbig, and that's also slang for chubby.

KENNEDY: That's chubby as in fat and round. IKEA's naming philosophy recently kicked up a bit of rabalder - remember, a big fuss - in the international press. A Danish journalist noticed that the company's floor coverings were named after Danish towns and cities. One headline said, Denmark will not be Sweden's doormat.

University of Copenhagen linguistics Professor Klaus Kjoller says no one in Denmark took it seriously and saw it for what it was: a friendly wink at the historic rivalry between Denmark and Sweden.

Professor KLAUS KJOLLER (Linguistics, University of Copenhagen): If you go hundreds of years back in history, the Swedes have taken away quite a bit of Danish country. They're really teasing us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KJOLLER: Very softly. We're not going to burn down the Swedish embassy or, you know, demolishing IKEA stores here in Denmark.

KENNEDY: That impish way of poking fun at its neighbors and customers and itself is all part of a marketing strategy that's paid off big time for IKEA. It now has more than 270 stores in 36 countries.

Subodh Bhat, professor of marketing at San Francisco State University, says the odd names also appeal to the same consumer mentality that chooses pasta e formaggio over just mac and cheese.

Professor SUBODH BHAT (Marketing, San Francisco State University): Part of IKEA's appeal actually worldwide - I mean, apart from the low prices and decent stuff - is that they are - not just the furniture, but the second and I think the more important part of the appeal is that they are hip because they're from this Scandinavian place with very exotic names.

KENNEDY: Making their product names unpronounceable for most of us hasn't hurt the company's bottom line. IKEA's founder, Ingvar Kamprad, is now the seventh richest person in the world. IKEA opens its newest store, in Brooklyn, in June.

For NPR News, I'm Deirdre Kennedy.

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