IKEA Mixes Chairs and Charity

IKEA knows that grass-roots volunteerism and community work are the new hot buttons for any brand that wants soul. Working with Ogilvy, the company unveiled a new identity and TV campaign in September, pushing the idea that if you improve your decor you are improving your life. It's the brand's first major ad campaign in three years.

The meat of the effort is the online "Life Improvement Project" that goes beyond furnishings into community activism. First step: an online contest for a $100,000 community service sabbatical. The winner can use up to half the money as income for a year while volunteering for a community cause. The remaining money goes to the cause. The company also awarded five $10,000 community service grants to employees who were selected by their peers.

Between September and early November, the sabbatical contest was promoted via Facebook, print and online ads and a billboard in Times Square. The company is also working with O, The Oprah Magazine on branded content related to the contest, including contest winner advertorials in the April and July 2011 issues and updates on the magazine's site, Facebook page and Twitter account.

Almost 2,000 people applied for the sabbatical. Of those, the company picked five finalists, from a man who offers science field trips to schoolchildren to a woman who trains service dogs for veterans. Videos of the finalists, as well as written overviews and breakdowns on how money would be spent, were posted on a dedicated microsite, Visitors to the site were encouraged to vote for the finalist of their choice as often as once a day. As an incentive, IKEA promised to give one dollar per vote (up to $50,000) to the U.S. programs of Save the Children, a 90-year-old global anti-poverty organization. To vote, users must give their email address and are asked if they want promotional emails from the company.

Voting was held from mid-December to mid-January, with the winner announced by Feb.1. Up-to-date standings were included on the site throughout the period, but actual vote counts were secret. In mid-January, a company rep would only say that the contest had received "thousands of votes." At the time, the program's site tallied 5,400 Facebook "likes" and the finalists' minute-long videos attracted 6,000 to 7,800 views each on YouTube.

The frontrunner by mid-January was a woman featured in an emotional video showing lovable dogs and injured war veterans. Kyria Henry, of Round Hill, Va., runs Paws4Vets, which trains and pairs service dogs with retired and active-duty military personnel. Interestingly, her video was only No. 3 among video views on YouTube, with another finalist, a young widow who wanted to help grieving people, capturing more than a thousand more views.

The progress of the winner's community work will be chronicled on the site through the course of the year.

From there the site takes a leap and extends the "Life Improvement" label to in-store coaching seminars and a collection of tips about lifestyle and decorating. The in-store seminars are sponsored by national magazines and run through July 2011. Topics include how to pick a kitchen style that matches your entertaining style, presented by editors of This Old House. Online tips range from how to build confidence to how to organize your closets.

Making a linear connection between furniture, community work and self-improvement is proving to be a bit of a stretch for some consumers. A post on MSN's "Smart Spending" blog notes: "IKEA wants you to believe you can improve your life by buying some of its furniture. Sure, better home organization can improve most people's lives [but] you can achieve the same level of life improvement with secondhand furniture and by clearing out the clutter." No matter. With its new identity as "IKEA: The Life Improvement Store," the brand says it is committed to creating a better everyday life for people. The online donations, interaction and advice, including what color to paint your kitchen when you want to lose weight (answer: blue), are designed to "inspire people to create a better everyday life at home and in their communities." 

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