Fussing over fonts

Can changing a catalogue font hurt the bottom line?

Fussing over fontsWhen news broke last month that Ikea had changed the font in its catalogue—replacing Futura, after more than 50 years, with Verdana—twittering typophiles took their outrage to the Web. Some wondered, with varying degrees of snark, if shifting to such a ubiquitous font might hurt the company’s carefully crafted aesthetic. “Doesn’t Verdana reinforce their brand image as cheap, low-quality and overused?” sneered one online critic. Others, while not as directly on point, were no less devastating: “I’m not going to enjoy the meatballs as much at a Verdana-fonted Ikea.”

That font geeks can be snobs is no surprise. But, says Michael Walsh, a marketing professor at West Virginia University, they can also be dangerous. In a recent study, which focused on how consumers reacted to changes to Adidas and New Balance logos, Walsh found that a brand’s most committed customers react the most negatively to change—research, he says, that translates to the Ikea case, even though the company isn’t altering its logo. Fonts, like logos, are a key part of the brand aesthetic, and so a font change in a catalogue—nearly 200 million Ikea catalogues are printed every year—can threaten a company’s bottom line if the new look alienates the wrong customers. “A catalogue is part of the totality of a brand,” says Walsh. “To the extent Ikea has a large number of highly committed consumers, a change like this has the potential to be a problem.”

Tropicana suffered a costly branding disaster earlier this year after a redesign to its packaging sparked an angry response from consumers. The new packaging was ugly, complained customers, and indistinguishable on store shelves from the competition. So, after launching a US$35-million ad campaign, Tropicana switched back to its previous design, which features a straw in an orange. The main reason for the flip-flop, according to the company’s president, was that the loudest complaints were coming from the brand’s most loyal consumers. “Go to any business school and they’ll pound into your head that you want to get your customers really committed because they’ll buy more,” says Walsh. “There’s a downside, too; they’re going to constrain you a little bit.”

If Ikea’s jam-packed aisles and checkout lines are any indication, the store has no shortage of loyal customers. Whether the shift to Verdana results in fewer Billy bookcases being sold will be tough to estimate. When Wal-Mart fiddled with its logo last year, nobody made a fuss. But unlike Wal-Mart, Ikea is built on style and design. “The font is not just a font,” says Vikas Mittal, a marketing professor at Rice University and one of the co-authors of the study. “It has deeper meaning.”

Ikea’s official line is that the change was made for practical business reasons—it’s “efficient and cost-effective,” said one spokesperson. Verdana, one of the most commonly used typefaces online, allows the company a uniform style across all platforms, worldwide. But ditching Futura—Ikea has been using a custom version of the font called Ikea Sans—puts the retailer at risk of losing a part of what makes it unique, says Niraj Dawar, a marketing communications professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business. “You dilute your positioning in the marketplace,” he says. “That can have financial consequences.”

Dawar says brand managers at big firms constantly forget that they are effectively custodians of public property. “When you sell to large numbers of consumers, you can’t assume that you own your own brand,” he says. “The customers are co-owners in a sense, and they have a stake in what you sell and the way you sell it.” So far, more than 6,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Ikea to reconsider. “If they are vocal, design-minded, Ikea shoppers, opinion leaders,” adds Dawar, “that 6,000 may matter a lot.”

Nobody is advocating against change. The key, says Walsh, is in the “management of change.” If a company has a significant number of highly committed shoppers—at least 35 per cent, he says—change requires more careful planning. Ikea introduced Verdana, he says, by “slapping it on the catalogue and sending it out.” He suggests that involving the customer—an online vote, perhaps—may have diffused some of the rage. “Sometimes people react because they’re caught off guard,” says Walsh. Dawar points to Lawry’s as a company that managed change the right way. Managers there took 12 years to change the spice company’s logo, he says, making minor revisions along the way that were “imperceptible” to the customer. “People define themselves through the brands they buy,” says Walsh. “Start monkeying with the brands, you change the meaning of who they are.”

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