IKEA’S Virtual Weddings

As of the 10th of April, Ikea makes it possible to tie the knot online – both in a legally binding marriage, which calls for a presence of an authorized officiant and two witnesses in the same room, and in a pretend wedding conducted by your best mate from all the karate summer camps you’ve been together to. In a videoconference that summons the couple and their guests, all attendees’ heads are superimposed over virtual bodies in the scene so that reactions can be broadcast live. (Note that the guests’ heads are twisted on backwards.) For the online wedding’s reception you can choose between a beach, a boat, or a forest. All conveniently set up with Ikea furniture and accessories.

All that’s needed to get hitched online (apart from fulfilling some legal obligations, should you want to make it count) is laptops with webcams, Internet connection, and a FB account. Aye, Ikea’s wedding service is integrated with Facebook, and an account is necessary to set a date, choose locations, and send out invitations (to your Facebook contacts). The party is publicly held on the Ikea website, but the URL to the wedding will only be shared with your invitees. Each wedding session lasts six hours and will be monitored by an Ikea representative for inappropriate behavior and lawless activities.

YAY OR NAY?

Now that the human life is increasingly moving into the online realm, a virtual wedding might be a valid solution of the future. There seem to be certain advantages to holding online nuptials; you can conveniently bring together people from anywhere in the world as the destination is affordable and reachable for all those with computers and Internet connection, and you escape the hassle of having to deal with the logistics of a proper wedding. Ikea weddings might also become trendy as a cultural fad. But predicting whether the idea will actually catch on or fail (for any reasons that have to do with the innate value of physical proximity to your dear ones at an event of certain importance), is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I’ll attempt to review the virtual wedding service in the context of the company that originated it.

THE (IN)CONSISTENCY OF MEANING

IKEA is known for its affordable furniture and home-wear; flat-packed and to be assembled at home. The logo is well distinguishable, and a 2009 public outcry against the change of font in Ikea’s catalogues and corporate typeface, showed the brand’s strong standing amongst its customers. Over the years the company has successfully expanded to other consumer categories (think indoors restaurants and snack buffets to feed the shoppers).

But what does Ikea’s new Wedding Online service have to do with the already established connotations that the brand triggers in the consumers’ minds? You see the potential clash of meanings? Turns out Ikea is not oblivious to the problem either, and the following statement was posted on the Wedding Online page:

The best sort of love is easy and effortless. And promising one another eternal devotion at a wedding should be just as simple. That’s why we’ve created a new type of wedding that’s neither expensive nor complicated. Invite your friends — as many as you like and wherever they may be — and celebrate together via a video link.

In other words, Ikea decided to draw a substantial and relevant connection between their already established brand meaning and the newly launched service along the lines of simplicity (as opposed to the real-life wedding hassle) and affordability (as opposed to sickeningly expensive real-life wedding bills). And fair enough, the Ikea furniture is simple and affordable too!

But are these two aspects of wedding organization really strong enough to bridge two otherwise very disparate subjects? Is the brand association for Ikea in the mind of their consumers flexible enough for a move into a seemingly unrelated product category?

CONSISTENCY IS THE KEY

It is by no means unusual for companies to try to capitalize on their brand equity by expanding to different consumer categories. But aligning the already established meaning and associations that a given brand triggers in the consumers’ minds with new launches and services is trickier than it seems.

Some companies have learned it the hard way upon introducing brand extensions which struck their customers as inconsistent and incoherent with the brands’ already established signification. For example, in 1982, Colgate decided to launch a range of food products called Colgate’s Kitchen Entrees. The marketing idea behind it was that customers would eat their Colgate meal and then brush their teeth with Colgate toothpaste. However, the product was a failure, for the public found the meanings associated with toothpaste and those associated with food largely incompatible. Likewise, the Bic brand, known for making disposable consumer products such as ballpoint pens, lighters and shaving razors, faced a similar problem upon launching in 1998 a line of Bic u n d e r w e a r. The convenience of disposable items would have been an obvious, unifying link but it was not strong enough to secure sales and the line’s continuation. Same story with the Harley Davidson brand when it set out to sell a Harley Davidson aftershave and perfume.

Although undeniably creative, these marketing strategies lacked insights into the customers’ sensibilities; eventually proving that the expression of varying and diverging meanings must be handled with care for it bears significant for businesses consequences. In other words, businesses must design and communicate meaning in a methodical, consistent and sensible manner. The strength and character of a brand’s meaning in the consumers’ minds has a striking influence on their buying behaviour, in turn affecting the brand’s market position and financial results. Thus merely from a business point of view, unsystematic and untoward decisions regarding the brand’s communication and actions are an expensive mistake to make.

But while it is impossible to predict with absolute certainty the effectiveness of a particular branding or advertising campaign, the study of consumers’ neural, cognitive, affective and sensorimotor responses to commercial sign systems can bring marketers closer to gaining a solid understanding of how to maximize the effectiveness of branding strategies, how to acknowledge and respond favourably to consumers’ expectations and how to inspire the desired reactions in a person’s attitude towards brands and products.

Neuromarketing — You’re doing it wrong. Look for human insights, not magic tactics.

Van Praet makes a valid point. The recent development of neuroscience is being repackaged for the marketing use on a somewhat confused premise. Neuromarketing – the mixture of marketing and neuroscience – is a very promising method of measuring people’s subconscious responses to advertisements, products and projects. Major media companies and research firms are now jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon in search of the elusive ‘buy button’, or otherwise, the weapon of influence. Yet, it is not enough to reduce neuromarketing to a one-direction effort and unwise to simplify the process of successful communication. The brain, much like the humans it commands, is inherently complex and paradoxical.

“The real gold”, Van Preat argues, “lies not in these tools but in the teachings of cognitive authorities”. In uncovering bigger insights into the human nature. “Instead of just searching for tips, tricks and cognitive biases to exploit in ads, we should first focus our attention up front on our customers and business models — to use neuroscience as insight into strategy not just tactics of persuasion”.

I wholeheartedly agree with this reserved optimism. Firstly, neuromarketing is only in its early stage. There is still a long way to go before neuroscientists conclusively figure out the brain’s workings (if ever). Before engineers develop refined, more portable and accurate brain scanners. And before neuromarketers implement the findings, methods and technology of studying the brain in commercial settings in a way that both satisfies businesses and their customers. Secondly, successful communication calls for integration of many aspects of meaning-making. In other words, to discover how a person’s brain responds to a brand’s storyboard, jingles or taglines on a subconscious level is only one side of the coin. The other side is to know how the subconscious processes convert into conscious thoughts. How certain reactions become transformed into actions and why. Human evolutionary heritage that drives those actions matters. The context and the environment (specific ambience and culture) matter. The brand’s core sign systems with symbolic heritage count too. A wider context and a bigger picture is thus how crude gold ores become converted into real value.