Simplifiers Interview: Barbara Martin Coppola, Chief Digital Officer at IKEA Group

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview leaders, often CMOs or CEOs, that we deem simplifiers. In this Simplifiers interview I speak with Barbara Martin Coppola, Chief Digital Officer at IKEA Group.

MM: What does your brand stand for, and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

BMC: IKEA is about improving people’s lives at home for the many. “For the many” is a very important part of this statement—IKEA is for the many people, no matter the size of the wallet. We strive to think big in order to deliver solutions at an affordable price point for people globally.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

BMC: Simplicity for IKEA is a part of its values. We strive to do things as simple as possible, which is not always easy in a global organization. When it comes to the product range and services, simplicity is about the combination of quality, design, price, sustainability and functionality of items that are to be used and loved every day. These are all principles of “democratic design,” which governs how IKEA creates any product.

 MM: How does your organization strive to create simple experiences?

BMC: It starts at people’s homes. We spend a lot of time interacting with people in their home environment at different locations in order to understand the need, frustrations and dreams they have in life at home. IKEA is really knowledgeable in home furnishing—not only in the practical aspects, but the feelings and motivations behind what people want to achieve at home. These insights are present in the design process and translated into the wide-range of products as well as in the inspirational home furnishing solutions you can see in each IKEA store.

MM: And how does that speak to simplicity?

BMC: It’s simple because it’s actually offering solutions before the customer can even express what he or she needs.

The in-store experience itself is also very powerful. It offers a whole day of entertainment for the family, enabling them to view products; get inspiration; eat; pick up items and assemble them; or get any necessary assistance. That shared responsibility with the customer is one of the marvelous aspects of IKEA.

MM: What benefits has your company experienced from simplifying?

BMC: IKEA has been perfecting a successful business model and customer experience for over 75 years. The focus has increased as we stay true to this experience and the guiding principles and values within IKEA.

MM: What are the values?

BMC: They are based on traditional Scandinavian values around entrepreneurship, authenticity, simplicity, humility and togetherness. Humility is just absolutely everywhere, from the top ranks of the company down to the bottom and enables employees to be open to learning and self-improvement. Authenticity is also crucial—there is a big sense of trust that people will do what they say they will.

For example, IKEA’s CEO is interested in experiencing how people live around the world. When he travels, he will spend time at people’s homes, travel economy and take public transport if available in order to fully put himself in the customer’s shoes.

MM: How do you strive to keep things “simple” for your team as a leader?

BMC: Particularly for digital, it is important to have a north star and a clearly defined vision. Oftentimes we are creating something that’s never been done before, so there will be a necessary degree of experimentation. Empowering the team to work in a dynamic and flexible way allows them to try new things, new technologies and remain updated with what’s happening in the world. Throughout this testing, it is important to be clear about the north star and set parameters to ensure we’re measuring what works and what doesn’t.

MM: Amidst all the experimentation, how do team members prioritize?

BMC: The prioritization happens in a very regular way. Every quarter or month we discuss current experiments, lessons from previous tests, and new things we’d like to try. We also maintain a ratio: 70% of efforts are devoted to scaling initiatives that are successful, and 30% of efforts are focused on developing new ideas and technologies. The majority of work is focused on the things that are working for the business and for the consumer. That ratio works very well, because it keeps people motivated to grow and try new things without 100% risk.

 MM: How do you lead as a simplifier?

BMC: My favorite part of my job is being the simplifier in the middle. A big part of working with technology is the need to educate those outside of my team on the why and the how of what tech is doing as well as its importance. Within the organization, it’s about being very clear with the CEO, management and other teams on what we’re doing, what measurements we’re using to determine success, and the bigger vision that we are serving.

MM: What’s the most recent, simple customer experience that inspired you?

BMC: I’m a big fan and longtime user of Airbnb. I really admire the whole experience, especially how the emotional feedback is managed so that one feels secure throughout the whole process. When you think about it, you’re agreeing to stay at a stranger’s home and you don’t know if it will work out, but this concern is overcome with communication cues that are made to feel human. I’m really in love with how technology is bringing solutions to real problems at scale and in a very affordable way.

MM: What is the biggest mistake brands make with regards to simplifying?

BMC: Many brands overlook all the complexities within an organization. Organizational change initiatives do not guarantee the same change within people’s heads. Often the complex, informal networks continue to function despite efforts to simplify across the organization.

The other mistake I’ve observed is when a brand’s ambition to simplify grows bigger than what it can actually achieve. Too many ambitions­–“we want this…and this…and this…”– confuse the vision and create a monstrous amount of work that is counterproductive to the simplification exercise.

MM: What does “simplicity” mean to you?

BMC: Simplicity is a way of life and a way of thinking that embraces fewer things to get the most juice out of each one. It also means concentrating on what is really important in order to have focus and set priorities.

MM: What is the top piece of advice you’d give to other brands trying to simplify?

BMC: Stay focused on the big picture, don’t get lost on details. The big picture needs to be mission-driven and inspirational so that people really put their hearts and mental energy into the execution. Having a concentrated vision—almost like a perfume—pays dividends in the long-run. It may be difficult to distill the idea, but once you get that essence it will serve you for a long time, reducing the unnecessary stress and spinning wheels that happen without it.

MM: Anything else?

BMC: I’ve been reflecting on what society praises as success. With recent events (the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain), we are discovering that frequently what’s glowing up there is not the reality. It’s made me think of simplicity—what is really important to me, to the company and to my life. In a very materialistic society that moves forward at a fast pace, having a happy life is really the true measure of success at the end of the day.

This is an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with CMO at Deloitte, Diana O’Brien; CMO at Georgia-Pacific, Douwe Bergsma; CMO at Lenovo, David Roman; EVP – Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Henry Gomez; CMO at Twitter, Leslie Berland; CMO at Blue Apron, Jared Cluff; SVP, Global Brand Management at American Express, Clayton Ruebensaal; EVP and Group President at Verizon Wireless, Ronan Dunne, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd, former CEO of C&A China, Lawrence Brenninkmeyer; CMO at The Recording Academy, Evan Greene; CMO at Mary Kay, Sheryl Adkins-Green; Head of Marketing at Home Centre, Rohit Singh Bhatia; SVP, CMO of Aflac, Gail Galuppo; SVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol Kruse, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; Jet.com President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: mmolloy@siegelgale.com

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy 

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