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September 01, 2009
IKEA's font fury
After 50 years of using the iconic Futura font for its catalog design, it has switched to Verdana. Hard-core IKEA fans, who love the brand for its design sensibility are upset. Their rallying cry: Verdana was invented by Microsoft for the computer screen, not paper. Verdana is just plain ugly. See the difference here:
IKEA made the switch because it's cheaper to use one font that works in digital and print media. They didn't anticipate a backlash; a spokeswoman for the company said:
"We're surprised. But I think it's mainly experts who have expressed their views, people who are interested in fonts. I don't think the broad public is that interested."
The uprising may have begun with people who know fonts but thanks to Facebook and Twitter, a broader audience knows, especially if you include the 300+ articles in the mainstream media.
Ultimately, is this important to IKEA? It depends on scale, of course, but also something that's not quantifiable: the depth of emotional attachment.
When a company has evangelists, it's often because it has core values. For IKEA, core values are style, chic design, and affordability. In that context, a typeface isn't just a typeface: it's an emotional catalyst. When Walmart changed its logo recently, no one complained. Walmart had nowhere to go but up since its core value is low prices, not reflect contemporary style or design. When Coke changed its formula in 1985, the outrage wasn't about its sugared water tasting worse, it was about the betrayal of an established core value. A psychologist who listened to complaints in the call center described the calls as the equivalent of the death of a family member.
For IKEA, the Futura font is (or was) the emotional subtext to IKEA's contemporary yet familiar vibe. For the purists and evangelists, switching to Verdana is a sign of something worse than a new font.
IKEA's next move is a big one. What do you think it should do?
(Image courtesy of the isdgn blog)
Other blogs that reference IKEA's font fury:
Great article Jackie! Been reading about it on Twitter and the Web. Funny to me...ppl have moved further than just brand loyalty with this one...font loyalty??? Should make you think twice before changing what is working for the sake of change.
Very interesting. It makes perfect sense from both perspectives to me.
I like that Ikea is thinking big and moving forward. Too many brands hold on for too long when they should be exploring and testing and thinking forward.
Not to mention the good publicity you "usually" get when you change things up.
IKEA's problem isn't what they did (switching fonts), it's how they perceived the reaction. Calling it the response from "experts...people who are interested in fonts" is insulting -- and smacks of trying to marginalize the very people who care enough to care.
The first thing IKEA needs to do is apologize, not for their decision but for their response. I actually think they can make an economic argument for the decision (especially in this economy), and how every cost savings helps to save jobs, hold the line on prices, or whatever makes sense in this case. But that cost is small compared to the cost of disappointing their evangelists.
I'm not an expert in fonts, but I definitely know that Verdana is for screen, not for print. Change is good, but not ignorant decisions. IKEA's mission is good design at affordable prices. To me, the change to verdana signifies thoughtless design, at least for the catalog. I think they should respond to their customers.
Sorry Jackie, but I honestly feel this is a case of much ado about nothing. When I heard about the designer backlash, my first thought was: does the core Ikea buyer give two hoots about the font used in the catalog? Are they going to boycott the brand because a minority of designers think the font in a catalog is ugly? I'll wager a steak dinner that they don't. They want to purchase decent furniture for a good price. My office is furnished by Ikea and I ask, seriously, who cares about Verdana...I want to know the shelving units are sturdy and will hold my books and personal items.
I wonder if this isn't just another example of social media bear baiting that I wrote about a few weeks ago (http://bit.ly/fv9uD)? I guarantee that Ikea will move along with their Verdana-fonted catalog just fine. But if the quality and design of their *actual product* falters, that's when I expect their most passionate evangelists to shred the brand.
Great article, thanks. Good point that the change of just the font means more, is it IKEA's first move in a broader shift to becoming generic? I also agree with Daria that IKEA's problem is how they have responded to people's reactions. A brand is in the people's mind and what they say it is, if as a company you change something about that at least understand and respect people's reaction. See also our article on this matter on Unbound Edition:
Thanks for your comment. Is the story being overblown? Maybe. But I think this is a big learning lesson for IKEA marketers and for that matter, any marketer. When you are lucky enough to have passionate fans that care so deeply about the brand, you shouldn't be surprised that they will voice their opinions if you do something they don't like. We live now in the era of instant feedback on Twitter and Facebook. I like the article that Jacco referenced above. When you see the Verdana font on big signs in the store, you can really see the difference. They don't look like IKEA signs, They look like they could be in Walmart. All of a sudden, IKEA starts seeming a little less european, a little more ordinary. Certainly people care about the products and their reliability. But I think people are afraid that if this design centered company doesn't care about their collateral design anymore, it may be one step to not being focused on good product design in the future.
But who is the primary buyer of the IKEA product? Is it the designers that are up in arms? Or is it the folks like me who could care less about font and don't have a "the sky is falling" attitude? I'm not exactly convinced that the designers who put together the petitions and are making the noise are the primary buyers. No doubt they are fans, but fans who are core buyers are the ones that any savvy marketer should listen to.
My point is: if marketers have to constantly strive to make a small (yet vocal) minority of individuals who are not the core customer happy, then the dog will constantly being chasing its tail.
To the sceptics who think this is much ado about nothing:
What if Ikea decided overnight to sack all its graphic designers as a cost-saving measure? From now the CEO's mother will take all the product photos on a cheap point&shoot, and his 14 year old niece will knock up Ikea's brochures in MS Word and website in Frontpage. These brochures will be printed A4 on an inkjet and corner stapled together. Now what visual impression would you gather from this company? To say a font change 'doesn't make a difference' is to say that graphic design doesn't make a difference. Yet graphic design is everywhere you look: newspapers, books, magazines, food labelling, the internet, the very user interface you're using right now on your computer, and road signs. Things like colour, contrast and typography all have an impact how how you read, interpret, understand and make decisions. Font, colour and size can all have an impact on how you perceive a brand or product. The only difference is that with non-graphic designers, this perception happens completely sub-consciously.
I don't think that the issue is just about emotional attachment. Typeface designers put a lot of thought and work into their creations and design them to conjure particular associations, or fit specific purposes. Fonts are a substantial part of a company's brand, so to change the house 'font' is actually a form of rebranding. In this case, it's not that Verdana is a 'bad' typeface per se, it's just that it was purpose-designed to be read more easily on computer screens that are lower resolution than printed material, and as such is not well suited to print and large format applications - simply because it wasn't designed to be. Verdana used in this context, and to replace a beautiful historic font like Futura, actually cheapens the brand, and although non-graphic designers might say "Who cares?", the font change will sub-consciously alter the perceptions of Ikea's customer base. It's just that graphic designers are able to consciously pick up on these changes and realise the importance, hence the furore within the graphic design community. And Ikea's response just serves to highlight their corporate naivety…
Chris Bailey is wrong. Ikea has an incredibly strong and distinctive brand specifically because of all the branding-related decisions it has executed. The bad decision to switch to Verdana, by itself, may not compromise Ikea's brand promise. But maybe it will. And if it's combined with other poor decisions, it definitely will.
PWB, it wouldn't be the first time I was wrong. And the points that you - as well as others here - make could very well be right in terms of brand perception. But my question is the perception of whom? If it's designers who love Ikea for the idea of Ikea that's one thing. But if its the Ikea consumer who shops their stores and purchases their products, then that's a very different set of individuals.
Yes, Verdana is ugly as sin on the printed page and I can't honestly fathom why they would choose to go in this route. But my point continues to be unless there is a noted drop in their buying customer satisfaction, this is a question of marginal marketing aesthetics (and I know that will enrage designers). There's no need to create doomsday scenarios where Ikea sacks every one of their graphic designers.
I'll go on to argue that it's really too early to tell if this impacts Ikea's bottom line. And if the company starts botching the design quality of their furniture, then I would fully expect an outcry not only from designers but the folks who purchase Ikea furniture.
Quote Chris Bailey: "does the core Ikea buyer give two hoots about the font used in the catalog? Are they going to boycott the brand because a minority of designers think the font in a catalog is ugly? I'll wager a steak dinner that they don't."
"But who is the primary buyer of the IKEA product? Is it the designers that are up in arms? Or is it the folks like me who could care less about font and don't have a "the sky is falling" attitude? I'm not exactly convinced that the designers who put together the petitions and are making the noise are the primary buyers. No doubt they are fans, but fans who are core buyers are the ones that any savvy marketer should listen to."
Totally agree. I run IKEAFANS.com, which has been the place for IKEA customers online since 2005. Over 112,000 forum members worldwide, and not a single one has yet to express a concern over the change in typeface. I'd wager that most of them haven't noticed, and if they have it's not going to change their feelings about IKEA, their buying habits or plans for the future.
Only time will tell, but I think that eventually this will have a positive impact as people start to associate the commonplace Verdana font with IKEA. Subliminal suggestion is very powerful. We shall see what we shall see.
This is extremely interesting. IKEA is definitely not Apple, and maybe should not be held to the same type design scrutiny. Good furniture design at sensible prices is not the same as cutting edge, "hip" technology. I hate to see anyone squander the good will of a primarily youthful, culture-aware community, AND I don't like the "that's just the type experts' response. It could have been handled better, certainly, but the core appeal of IKEA doesn't change quite as much as the cache' of Apple would if it did something similar. A mistake to change to a more functional type face? Probably depending on the real savings involved. But brand damage isn't likely to be dramatic. Those experts STILL aren't going to find a better place to buy good things at those prices. Forgiveness is at hand, IKEA.
You can't be serious Jackie comparing a font change with New Coke.... Forget what digital font Nazi's are saying.... Ikea wont skip a beat. Simply because their font has nothing to do with their success. It nothing to do with their business model either.
New Coke was a fundamental change to the product.... and ikea will sell the same stylish furniture, flat packed at cheap prices.... hardly a formula change.
I expect more from you Jackie.
Thanks for your feedback. The New Coke thing was a little bit of a joke. I was referring to a change that was made to something about the brand that caused a backlash from loyalists. Then this in turn MIGHT cause the company to reverse the change. That's all.
I'm right there with you Chris. I'm a long time fan and shopper of IKEA and couldn't really care less what font they use. Let's go for wingding's next time!
To me this is just another case that social media festulators have gotten a hold of and exploited because they could. Do people really care or are they reTweeting for the sake of reTweeting? I have family members that forward along every single joke or chain letter that they get. I've asked them why they do this and they don't really know. It's like people will jump on whatever bandwagon seems particularly interesting at that given minute.
If IKEA needed to cut costs and decided it was easier to change it's font than to raise prices or cut quality, then I'm all for it. Let's also remember that they are a global company and it's website caters to multiple languages and conformity of a label is always good. If Verdana works better with all browsers then yes, they should switch to it, so their online font matches the printed one.
Tracy, I just posted a more detailed critique called Are All Passionate Fans Worth Listening To? http://bit.ly/1b2J60 My answer? Yes. But do you always have to do something about what you hear? No, particularly if the fury is *not* coming from those who have the passion and money to spend.
I'm with Chris et al calling this much ado about nothing. Apologize for a font change? Please. Lighten up & get over yourself. It's not even a publicly held company, no stockholders to object either. If you don't like it, you can buy your flimsy bookshelves elsewhere. Imagine what we could accomplish if people came to the defense of the TRULY defenseless in this world, rather than spewing nonsense over a font. It's furniture, it's a font. Brands are not holy.
I agree with the first comment. "Font loyalty" is a bit much. There are so many other things to give your energy to. Lighten up folks!
I'd be surprised if this causes any real problems for Ikea. The real story is how much Verdana is disliked. Now I feel foolish that I thought it was funny that they made a movie about Helvetica.
Indeed - harden up you design divas. As a past *marketing nasty* that hired you types I dont frankly care - and yes if we can get away with sacking the lot of you and using my net savvy nephew so be it. i actually reckon if IKEA [in whatever dang font you want btw} could sell it to Joe Public that having new brochures in A4 low-tech-version-corner-stapled would mean savings at the check out you and your Apple laptops would be being shown the door. So - be AFRAID. [again in whatever font works]
There is a middle ground. IKEA could commiserate with the purists and create a historic line of Futura-using items for them to purchase, while saying firmly--we'll see if the new font face hurts sales with our best customers.
My hypothesis is that the core IKEA customer wants economical well-designed solutions--not idealism. But IKEA could offer a catalog with slightly higher prices using Futura?! (Just having fun with it.)
I think IKEA should have a dialogue with ALL its audiences, not relegate some to a unimportant category of 'experts who are interested in fonts.' Throw 'em a bone!
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This great article, thanks. I think its an interesting point as branding dictates consistency, which is probably why the client has said - I want to used the same font across all material. However branding is also about standing out right?
I have wrote a reaction to this here - let me know what you think...
Speaking as one of the non-professional customers ... I'm not going to stop shopping at IKEA, but truthfully? I don't like it. It's ugly. It's a little thing, but I agree that it does have an effect, however minimal, on my sense of loyalty with the brand. And let's face it, I may plan my bigger purchases carefully, but I also spend impulsively on a heck of a lot of smaller items. Will I continue to find a trip to IKEA turning into a fun shopping spree the way I used to? This is one more step towards me saying "maybe not". It may turn out to be nothing, but who knows? It's like anything else: if I don't like it or feel no pleasure in buying it, I'm sure as anything not going to spend my hard-earned money on it.