The IKEA Effect

Remember when you took your first pottery class in the 7th grade and made the lopsided “bowl”?  It was an engineering and aesthetic nightmare, but you proudly kept it and happily filled it with Sugar Smacks every morning.   At age 13, you didn’t realize your semi-functional ceramic “artwork” was the manifestation of the IKEA Effect.

The what?

The whimsically-coined IKEA Effect is a theory, developed by some “wicked smaht” Harvard Business students, about sweat equity.

We’ve all heard the phrase “a labor of love”.  Most people would agree that this term loosely means that if we love something, we tend to put a lot of effort into it.  But have you ever flipped the meaning of this phrase?  Consider this instead: If we put a lot of labor into something, we actually love it more.

The IKEA Effect can apply to assembling a wooden step stool, taking care of a demanding pet, or making Swedish meatballs from scratch – not that IKEA of all places would encourage that behavior. 

When eating at a restaurant, I’ve had fellow dining companions remark that their meal is “just okay.”  And maybe they’re right, but I cringe a little on the inside.  Unless the meal is inedible, I’m happy to enjoy food that I didn’t have to cook.  You’d think that Chefs are the most critical diners but the opposite is true; we tend to be the most forgiving customers – thanks to the IKEA Effect ripple. 

Chefs know the effort it took to prepare the Drunken Noodles for table #12.  There’s kitchen choreography rivaling Mama Mia happening just behind those swinging doors that made the spicy stir fry magically arrive at the deuce in the corner.  So when I dine with people that say “Meh, it was fine.”  I vicariously experience the IKEA Effect, even though I didn’t cook it myself.

The IKEA Effect sneaks into our lives more every day.  Not long ago, “customization” of menu items wasn’t encouraged.  “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit!” (sounds better with a twang).  Before Jared Fogel hit the scene with his tent-like khakis, Subway was one of the few places where you could customize your order: “Light on the mayo, extra lettuce, hold the onion.”  Right before your eyes, you saw your ingredient requests applied, or avoided, onto a 6” roll. 

Next was Burger King’s “Your Way Right Away!” which incidentally backfired on the company as customers slowed down the “fast” food line with their outlandishly specific requests – “three slices of pickle, and two squirts of mustard, please.”  The campaign had positive intent, and lasted a bit longer than the “Where’s Herb?” debacle of 1985, but is now in the BK advertising graveyard, next to Mr. Potato Head urging us to “Try the Fry” and that creepy, macrocephalic King.

Despite BK’s failure, others followed suit: Chipotle, Qdoba, Quizno’s, Garbanzo, and Mad Greens.  These Colorado-based restaurants “get it”: customers help build their meal = customers love their meal. 

Although the IKEA Effect is a bit newer on the food service scene, grocery store products have been leveraging the love of “DIY” for decades.  Cake mixes, boxed mac & cheese, and taco kits allow home cooks to crack an egg, measure milk, or brown ground beef to produce the final product.  Food Manufacturers don’t sell this as utilitarian “consumer packaged goods”.  Instead marketers create slick verbiage like “speed-scratch”, or pull at your emotional apron strings by calling it “semi-homemade”. 

Once you are wise to secret of the Swedes, you’ll recognize it all around you.  Pumping your own gas (no offense, Gov. Christie) – Ding!  Handing your hair stylist each piece of foil when she gives you the nod during your highlights appointment – You go, girl! Employing the blue flame of Sterno to toast your own marshmallows at a white table cloth restaurant for $16 S’mores – Scouts honor! 

And all the while, marketers happily whisper, “If you build it… you will love it.”