FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, March 10, 2005

IKEA Caught in Cultural Tug-of-War

IKEA, the Swedish-based furniture retailer famous for its "assemble it yourself" products, has run afoul of one cultural standard while trying to appease another. The Norweigan government has accused the company of being sexist by not featuring women in the illustrations of its instruction manuals. Yet IKEA, which has stores in 32 countries, says it uses only men or gender-neutral characters because depicting women might offend customers in Muslim nations.

Says Norweigan prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, "It's important to promote attitudes for sexual equality, not least in Muslim nations. [IKEA] should change [their manuals]. There's no justification for it." Norway has historically taken an aggressive stance on issues of gender equality.

IKEA defends its practices, saying it is trying to be sensitive to its Muslim customers. This conundrum, though, illustrates the perils of doing business in a global market, and trying to appeal to customers on the extreme ends of the cultural spectrum. Up until about 20 years ago, most "global" businesses served (or only cared about) mainly Western markets that shared similar social values. But as businesses increasingly move into Africa, Asia and the Middle East, they will find that practices demanded by one marketplace will deeply offend another. And when that happens, businesses will have to make some tough choices. For as the saying goes, when you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody.

Source: CNN/Money