News & Views

Hacking: the sincerest form of flattery

The news that IKEA was getting so hot under its flatpacked collar about IKEAhackers that it was serving a cease-and-desist notice to the site’s owner seems to flout everything the Swedish store stands for. To recap: Kuala Lumpur-based Jules Yap (who’s really called Mei Mei Yap, but loves IKEA so much that her byline is named after its Jules chair) started the site eight years ago. She accepts ads to keep its weird and wonderful hacks - flower pots for lampshades, magazine racks for table-tops, a bar made from EXPEDIT shelving (pictured, below) - coming thick and fast.

On 14 June, a cease-and-desist letter from IKEA’s lawyers said that Yap could keep the site, but only for non-commercial purposes, meaning she could no longer accept paid-for ads. In their view, she’s profiting from IKEA’s intellectual property. Yap wrote: ‘I am crushed. I don’t have an issue with them protecting their trademark but I think they could have handled it better.’

The resulting PR maelstrom – news sources from investment site The Motley Fool and The Globe And Mail in San Francisco – and a flood of support for Yap from IKEA hackers meant that IKEA quickly had a change of heart. The latest? I emailed Yap to find out. She replied: ‘A rep from Inter IKEA Systems BV contacted me and said that they would like to explore a new way forward. I don't have details of the new agreement yet though. For now, they have consented to letting me using their trademarks and display ads on my site until a new agreement is reached.’

Why did emotions run so high when it looked like Yap’s site was going to be shut down? Cory Doctorow, an advocate of liberalising copyright laws, said in a post on BoingBoing: ‘This is pure bullying, an attempt at censorship.’ Personally, I think there’s no excuse for corporations headed up by President Business (™ The Lego Movie) ticking off the little guy. Smart companies tell their fans they love them rather than reprimanding them for loving their products. The even smarter ones enlist their biggest fans as official advocates: remember when two fans in Los Angeles started out at a Facebook profile for Coca-Cola? That eventually became Coke’s official Facebook page.

IKEA should be celebrating IKEAhackers. Let’s not forget, the site inspires people to buy IKEA products. Give it a section in the next catalogue. Invite people to vote for their favourites hacks online, preferably on Instagram where their ideas can be displayed in all their glory. Dedicate a corner to IKEAhacks in-store and enlist hacking enthusiasts to show people how to do it. Give kids LEGO, paper and felt-tips and invite them to design hacks over a plate of meatballs in IKEA’s in-store cafes.

I admire IKEA for many reasons but two in particular stand out: its clear sustainability goals and the tools that it’s introduced to help people plan how to improve their homes. In my view, IKEAhackers taps into both of those: it potentially helps discarded furniture enjoy a new lease of life. Perhaps you don’t want to throw away that stool, so turn it into a bedside table instead. No room for a dining table now you’ve got twins? Make it their joint high chair. Yes, Ikeahackers can show you how to do that.


Approximately 208 million copies of the IKEA catalogue were printed in 2013, more than double the number of bibles. The catalogue, which consumes 70% of Ikea’s marketing budget, offers us tantalising glimpses of an organised life. I’ve flicked through the catalogue’s pages of folded fluffy towels, shelved books and neatly tidied away toys and have entertained the fantasy, like many, that, perhaps a trip to IKEA might just turn my home into a sanctuary of order and calm. IKEAhackers appeals to a different side of our nature, the creative spirit that longs to meddle and be a bit more playful and provocative.

There’s a long history of brands embracing hacking culture. Remember when Microsoft changed its stance on people hacking Xbox Kinects? In our Most Contagious 2010 report, we wrote that: ‘The first iterations of these ‘hacks’ online initially ruffled Microsoft’s feathers. However, having witnessed the sheer breadth of creativity and innovation evidence in Kinect hack culture, Microsoft has since changed tack.’
More recently, in April 2014, Oreo created an online series showing how its biscuits can be used for more than just twisting and dunking. It roped in chef Roy Choi to show how the Mondelez-owned cookies can be used in Oriental cuisine and invited fans to submit their own hacks to a Tumblr. Oreo understands that hacking drives product usage – and therefore purchase – and that people are responsive to unorthodox uses of everyday products.

Some brands actively invite hackers to help them with particular business challenges, usually connected with how they use particular tech platforms to their best advantage. Honda, Unilever and Tesco have all invested in hackathons, seeing them as inspiration from an external community that might just steer the company in a new and exciting direction.

Whichever route IKEA decides to take with IKEAhackers, it needs to loosen its grip. When your brand is so visible in so many homes across the globe, it belongs to the people who buy it and buy into its culture, not to a bunch of lawyers rumbling on about trademarks.