It Takes a Global Village

by Translation Guy on October 15, 2012

Global is local when it comes to localization.

No country is an oasis in the vast sands of localization. The blazing, all-seeing digital eye of the web leaves no shadow  for local tastes.  Local mores are left in the dust when cross-border memes go viral. What happens in Saudi Arabia stays in Saudi Arabia no more.

This was a problem that IKEA ran into when they adapted a catalog destined for Saudi Arabia by completely airbrushing every female form out of the catalog. This was done in anticipation of the conservative kingdom’s repressive notions of modesty. That was easy.

The svelte swedish models in IKEA are not styled by Victoria’s Secret, but any graven images of women, no matter how tastefully pajama-ed,  are taboo in Saudi Arabia. Or so IKEA thought.

But that’s a localization myth. “We’re beyond that now in Saudi Arabia,” said Eman Al Nafjan, a writer who tweets as @Saudiwoman and does a nice blog, too. “With Internet and satellite TV, there’s really no such thing anymore as blacking out women or airbrushing out women. I would be upset if something like Google was doing it, but for IKEA to do it, that’s just marketing — it’s not such a big deal.”

True, except that marketing is a big deal, so the price of displeasing customers at home now has to be weighed against local concerns — imaginary or otherwise — farther afield.

Sweden’s free newspaper Metro reported on IKEA’s decision to erase the women of Saudi Arabia. They published before and after photos of the Swedish and Saudi versions of the catalog. The report raised questions in Sweden about IKEA’s commitment to gender equality, and that’s no place that a  home furnishings marketer wants to be. Sweden’s Minister for Trade Ewe Boring said the retouched images are a sad example of the oppression of women. As she put it, “You cannot retouch women from reality.” With a tagline like that, and global concern over the rights of women in the Mideast, you have a story that’s bound to attract as much attention as a tall ice tea on the Erg.

IKEA regrets the incident.

It is interesting to note the decision to airbrush didn’t even get to Saudi Arabia, where the locals could have set Stockholm straight on local mores. The decision  was made in Sweden. Never hurts to check, but.This un-researched kind of over-correction is not uncommon in localization circles. After all, you can’t be too careful, can you? Well, as this case clearly demonstrates, you can, if your publication is being read around the world, and is instantly available to anyone with a casual interest in the subject of women’s rights.

IKEA was quick to apologize for such an egregious feminist faux pas. “As a producer of the catalog, we regret the current situation,” they said. “We should have reacted to the exclusion of women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalog since it does not align with the IKEA Group values. We are now reviewing our routines to safeguard a correct content presentation from a values point of view in the different versions of the IKEA catalog worldwide.” IKEA wrote in their annual report for 2011 that they have been “very fortunate to share experiences and learn from people of many countries, cultures and backgrounds.  We continue to grow and develop with coworkers, customers, suppliers and partners in 41 countries. And everyone can see our Swedish roots — but they can hear the accent of each of these countries, too.”  Great chance for IKEA to affirm values and promote its brand.


  1. I somehow doubt that there is a large corporate Ikea office in Saudi Arabia, and largely these types of decisions are made centrally, as farming it all out would cost.

  2. You would think in a more globalized world, that a simple video conference or email could have solved this problem before it became a news story.

  3. If people want to buy crummy Swedish furniture, than they will have to deal with crummy Swedish furniture catalogues.

  4. Andy Tse says:

    See, now they have learned and other companies will learn, its a teaching moment.

  5. MARY OWENS says:

    I would have thought a corporation wouldn’t bother with something like this, as the cost of tailoring a catlog to each individual market must outway the benefit in sales. Although I think that this incident happening does allow for this issue to be raised and dealth with quickly, and for people to realize that we are more alike than different.

    • Ken says:

      Localization pays in spades, especially when done right. And great teaching moment as you and others suggest.

  6. Barbara says:

    So, the Saudi’s are saying they don’t oppress women? Not sure I belive that.

  7. See research costs time and money though, and hardly surprising that a corporation found it cheaper to photoshop their catalogue based on someone in the marketing department’s ill concieved notions about a foreign country.

    • Ken says:

      Happens all the time. I wonder how IKEA has been doing this.

  8. Laura says:

    I’m not sure that this is really that big a deal.

    • Ken says:

      I think its interesting that it did become a big deal, Laura. A good demonstration of the power of one meme over another. Feminism is a line in the sand for lots of surfers, and a meme so powerful that it breaks through cultural relativist view taken of many non-Western culturals by Western elites. A good demonstration of the power of strong convictions.

  9. Agree, not that big a deal. What’s more important to me is that IKEA’s intentions were good. Many companies simply don’t realize this kind of issues exist and never bother to localize stuff rather than just translate. IKEA is a great example of understanding that localization matters. Yes, they made a blunder, but they’ll learn from it and do better next time.

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