An unusual experiment in relinquishing brand control pays off on various fronts for Ikea.
In international home retailer Ikea's history, only one man has been invited to stay in the store as a house guest - comedian and filmmaker Mark Malkoff.
Whether wandering around the store in his bathrobe, rollerblading with the night security guard, or grabbing a cat nap on a bedroom set, Malkoff literally lived in the Paramus, NJ, Ikea from January 7 to 12, with 24-hour access to all areas, including employee-only zones.
The 24 short videos that resulted from Malkoff's stay were posted on MarkLivesInIkea.com, garnering more than 15 million viewers, 9 million of which occurred in the first week.
"This was [Ikea's] most successful PR campaign in the US, and the largest media coverage had for any campaign," says Marty Marston, commercial PR manager for Ikea.
The idea for the project arose from the fumigation of Malkoff's apartment in Astoria, NY.
"I needed to move out of my apartment for a week, and I needed a place to stay," explains Malkoff, who also works as an audience coordinator on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. "All my friends have really tiny apartments, and hotels tend to be fairly expensive. My apartment in real life is like 80% Ikea products, and I got this idea to do a video about a real-life situation where I would move into an Ikea store for [about] a week. Ikea has pretty much everything you need to survive. They had a bed, a place for me to shower, even eat my meals."
Malkoff came into contact with Ikea's PR department through super-fan and unaffiliated brand blogger, Jen Segrest (a.k.a. Ikea Jen), who successfully lobbied for an Ohio outpost.
In the past, Malkoff had attained a cult following for his children's Guns N' Roses tribute band, as well as his Web-based project Starbucks171.com, in which he documented patronizing each of Manhattan's 171 Starbucks franchises in one day.
Yet Marston was initially reluctant to green light the project.
"This was the first time we would be allowing someone else to speak for us and represent us in a different kind of way. At the time Mark reached out to us, I [was having an] interesting conversation with our marketing manager about doing something out of the box," Marston says, who asked Ketchum, Ikea's AOR of commercial PR, to vet the pitch from Malkoff.
Alyssa Garnick, VP and group manager of Ketchum's lifestyle group, immediately thought it was a good idea, and worked on emphasizing the positive aspects of the project before formally recommending it to Ikea.
"This was one of those things where at the beginning you don't know what it can do. You just know it's good," Garnick says. "It perfectly seemed to align with our brand campaign, 'Home is the most important place in the world,' and [I] thought, 'What an excellent way to communicate it by literally having a guy living in the store for a week.'
"[Ketchum] had experience doing programs where [the brand] essentially cede[s] control and had been successful before, so we counseled our client of the risks and rewards, as well as the recommendations weighing those factors," Garnick adds. "[While] Ikea's progressive, I don't think it was easy for them to say yes."
After a phone call and a short in-person interview at the Paramus store, Marston decided to go ahead with the plan with a handshake and two guidelines: No profanity and nothing that wouldn't be appropriate for a general audience.
"The only thing I really said to him was, 'I'm giving you my 100% trust that you will communicate what we work so hard to promote at Ikea. I'm trusting you will communicate your experience in a good way, and I want you to know my job would be on the line,'" Marston recalls.
Marston says that in some ways, Malkoff's personality jibed well with Ikea's culture.
"I saw in him many key Ikea values," she says. "He's interesting, fun, and doesn't take himself too seriously. Neither do we. Buying furniture shouldn't be a serious moment. We're all about letting the children jump on the beds," which is one of the first things Malkoff did upon entering Ikea.
Creating the message
Ikea insisted that Malkoff retain creative control and remain without a script from commercial PR managers, as "the purpose was to promote core brand messaging in a genuine way, speaking to our customers [on] a peer-to-peer [level]." Marston says. "This was the epitome of word of mouth."
In addition, Malkoff did not receive any payment for his work.
"Not only was I working for free, so were my [crew]," Malkoff says. "[The WGA strike] was going on with the writers, so I was getting some writer friends to come over and help with some of the filming. I just had everyone working in shifts."
While Malkoff's stay created an unprecedented level of in-store engagement - with a school class coming to visit, people bearing care packages, and customers attending his house party - it was the online scope of the initiative that opened up the store to a previously untapped audience.
Marston says, "People who might not have considered Ikea a cool place, maybe their mindset changed."
Select videos from Malkoff's stay in Ikea
"Mark moves into Ikea"
Malkoff introduces himself to employees, has housewarming party in apartment set, and stops customers from buying furniture in his living area.
"Mark gets buff in Ikea"
Malkoff brings in his personal trainer, Robert Brace, to assist him in doing wind sprints up and down the aisles, pull-ups on the industrial shelves, bicep curls with desktop products, and ignore his post-workout cinnamon-bun cravings.
"Mark's date in Ikea"
Malkoff convinces his jealous wife that he loves her as much as the store by attempting to build her a table and woo her with Ikea ham and sparkling cider.
"Mark hitchhikes in Ikea"
Malkoff tries to catch a lift on customers' carts, from the warehouse to his bedroom set.