Compartments Are for Furniture, Not Marketing: An Interview With IKEA USA’s CMO

Direct Marketing News’ first annual Marketing Hall of Femme event was an inspirational gathering of some of the top marketing minds across a broad range of industries. Among the honorees was Leontyne Green Sykes, CMO of IKEA USA, with whom we published a brief interview.

The actual conversation, however, was much longer and richer. The following is the full interview.

DMN: How would you summarize your approach to marketing?

Leontyne Green Sykes: Marketing is fundamentally about creating demand for your product, your idea, and your concept. I believe the best way to do that is being clear on the objectives and being focused on your target, understand what it is that they’re looking for and that they need, then presenting your offering to them in a way that creates energy and interest.

From IKEA’s perspective, have customer needs changed in recent years?

We saw some shift in the economy and consumer confidence. We saw the need to change in a way where people were interested in refreshing their homes. But instead of major renovations, they looked simply for ideas that could be executed for minimal costs, and other initiatives that added value to the price of the home or that created a space that could help them feel good and confident despite what was going on outside—external factors that affected their lives.

What effect did that have on IKEA’s marketing?

The biggest piece is that all of a sudden, we realized that consumer insights are even more relevant. I really thought this was a time to spend listening to what consumers are saying, understanding what’s life at home like for IKEA customers? So by focusing on getting insights and leveraging those, we could present the IKEA offering in a more relevant way.

What recent accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

One of the things I’ve been really focused on is dismantling the siloed thinking within marketing. Instead of us working where PR does something, advertising does something, and the media team does something else, I wanted to integrate our approach. The biggest accomplishment came in the relationships and partnerships we established with other functions outside of marketing, like sales and even our finance manager. I’m often asked how does a CMO find a seat at the table at the C-suite, which is a funny concept: How do you get your CFO to buy into these ideas? [You need to] establish a strong partnership and be very clear, with shared objectives toward driving the overall business results, delivering what I say I’m going to deliver, and taking a hard look to assess whether you got the return you wanted. Having those partnerships is a huge accomplishment.

That seems like a tremendous endeavor. How did you start?

I started with marketing. I focused on the area where I had direct responsibility to get our team to have a shift in their perspective. I also was part of the marketing organization prior to taking on this role, so I had some established credibility with my peers and coworkers within this organization. We started off slowly, putting together a vision, presenting maximizing dollars as the end-benefit. Within marketing, everyone wants to keep every dollar or get more money for their initiatives. I demonstrated that by doing things in an integrated way, you’d have more media dollars, which would of course contribute to stronger results.

What else helped this transition?

I changed the way were actually sitting. We used to sit in silos as well. Advertising sat in a straight line. I took the approach of creating quads and we randomly picked names to determine who sat where to break that up. What happened is that instead all of advertising sitting together, you’d have an ad specialist, a PR specialist, and a market researcher. And some of this dialog really supported how we could work in a much more integrated way. Everyone understood the value each of us brought to an idea. That became the example in which I started meeting and engaging some of our partners to ask: What do you think we do in marketing? What do you want us to do? And how can we help drive those objectives? It was much slower, as you can manage, outside of marketing than inside marketing. We started with sales, then financial—the CFO’s organization. When we moved the needle there, we just started taking off. We weren’t being challenged around budget as much.

How long did those endeavors take?

I would say it took 18 months with our sales colleagues, and some of that was because we were used to working in silos. There was a lot of back-and-forth where we fundamentally agreed with that approach. It’s hard to let go sometimes, especially if we decide to go in a different direction sales wants us to go. With finance, within a year we’d established ourselves in a very good way where we were spending efficiently and were transparent about that and the results we were getting.

What one challenge or opportunity helped propel your career? How so?

As IKEA’s marketing manager, I worked on an initiative called “Embrace Change” in the DC area to re-introduce our DC stores, which had recently remodeled. I wanted to invite our customers back into the stores to show us what we’ve done. It was localized idea and “Embrace Change” fell into the 2008 [Presidential] election. We could leverage the transition the DC market went through regardless of which candidate won. The incumbent was not running, so there would be a change, whether a Democrat won or a Republican won. And we had fun with this initiative. It got international recognition because it was a huge guerrilla initiative leveraging something specific in the US. We saw sales results and foot traffic from it and at the time it was the biggest PR initiative from the number of impressions we got. And that happened around the time my predecessor resigned and our new president was looking for his next CMO.

What do you see at the most important marketing trend or opportunity right now, and why?

I hear more companies want to be more consumer-focused and understand what’s going on. Market research and insights have been around forever, but I see a new passion for it. You can only grow a business so much doing what you’ve always done and the big changes in society, like becoming a more mobile world, have changed behaviors so significantly that what drove a person to buy a sofa 10 years ago may not be the same thing that moves people to drive a sofa now.

From a technical standpoint, what’s happening in the digital space is the trend of consumers becoming the product experts and trusting each other more than retailers or manufacturers. And that’s going to drive consumer confidence from an economic standpoint and will become the element that makes or breaks a brand.

How has IKEA adapted to these changes?

For instance, in other cultures multi-generational living is prominent, but that’s happening more significantly in the U.S. with the economy. To tap into that and capitalize on these trends, you have to know what’s going on and truly understand it, take a risk that it might create a change and walk away from something you thought was a success.

Has IKEA had to walk away from anything that’s shown traditional success?

We historically have done a lot of FSIs and circulars and we’re faced with the challenge about presenting the home furnishing range to customers in a way that’s efficient and a way they want to receive it. Everyone’s marketing budget is under pressure. We struggled over the last few years over what to do with printed FSIs. We’ve transitioned to more digital. The IKEA organization—not necessarily just marketing—was nervous about this, walking away from something that was such a proven contributor to sales and traffic in our store. We had to take a leap of faith. We did a test to see what happens when we transition. Is there a change in sales? I will tell you it may not seem like a significant shift, but I was concerned if this didn’t turn out well, what would this mean from a marketing budget standpoint and reputation? We’ve [since] significantly reduced FSIs. We keep them now for a promotional standpoint, if there’s a lower price or a price reduction, we’ll use the printed version. We’ve done econometric studies, doing media modeling to see what drives the business, and found that printed circulars are best for deep discount for our business, relative to just showing you different sofas.

What is your personal motto when it comes to business, or what favorite quote guides you in business?

You’re going to laugh at me, but that’s OK. It’s [comic book creator] Stan Lee, from the Spider-Man comics: “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you’re in marketing, when you establish trust with the customer, that’s a very powerful thing and I believe strongly that to do that, you have a significant responsibility to the environment and community and consumers. I use this in my personal life, as well; there’s a responsibility to influence other people and I don’t think you can minimize that.

What is the one book that has helped you most succeed in business (and why), or what are you currently reading (and why)?

The one that I believe has helped me the most is Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence. Travis Bradberry’s Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is another one. When you have passion about something and you’re working in business, you need to understand your audience and yourself, and that can be overlooked in a business environment. Being aware of yourself and responsible in the way I lead and communicate, and the impact that has on people has allowed me to sometimes be the one you love and also be the one you sometimes hate, which happens when you’re trying to change things.

If a young direct marketing professional were to ask for one piece of advice on how to succeed in the field, what would you tell him or her?

Finding your passion and being true to yourself. That’s applicable to all fields. If you’re passionate about connecting with consumers, you need to be true to the core of who you are and success will come if you work hard and are true to that.

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