Taking the Ikea name to new heights

Ikea is turning a blind eye on a Web soap opera, ‘Ikea Heights,’ shot covertly in one of its stores
Chris Sorensen

Taking the Ikea name to new heights

Shopping in an Ikea often feels like another world, with its faux living spaces, difficult-to-pronounce names and plentiful meatballs. But David Seger has taken the fantasy a step further. He’s made the Swedish furniture retailer a backdrop for a low-budget soap opera, complete with steamy love scenes, wooden dialogue and jarring plot twists.

It’s all filmed covertly inside a Burbank, Calif., store as unwitting customers browse the Ektorp sofas and Poang chairs in the background. At six episodes and counting, Ikea Heights has become a modest Internet sensation. The show, which appears on the website, traces the bizarre lives of a detective hunting a murderer (who smothers his victims with pillows from the bedding section) and two brothers, one recovering from amnesia, the other married to a cheating wife (who also spends a lot of time among the bedroom furniture).

Ikea’s official stance on the project, originally created for a Web video competition, is that it doesn’t condone the unauthorized use of its retail space. But it isn’t exactly lashing out at Seger and his cast of guerrilla actors, either. “Absolutely, we think it’s funny,” says Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick, a spokesperson for the company’s Canadian arm, who confirms Ikea had no involvement in the project. “We see the humour in it and we approach our own marketing with a similar tongue-in-cheek humour. But unauthorized filming in our stores isn’t a good thing. There’s proper channels that people who want to film in our stores can go through.”

It’s the same calculated, hands-off approach that another marketing-savvy company, Apple, is taking to Nicholi White, a 13-year-old who became a YouTube sensation last summer when he lip-synched songs in front of an iMac computer in a New York City Apple store, much to the amusement of nearby shoppers and staff. But such “user-generated content” presents a conundrum for companies like Ikea and Apple.

On the one hand, allowing consumers to take ownership over a company’s brand and products is usually viewed as a good thing. In Ikea’s case, it’s not about to play the part of the corporate villain by clamping down on something that has the possibility of spreading its brand name even further into the consciousness of young urbanites, a key market. After all, this is a company that backed a Web TV series about a former actress who went to work in an Ikea store, and was similarly quick to see the potential in comedian Mark Malkoff’s request to live in an Ikea store for a week, with the experience documented in a series of Web videos that drew tens of thousands of viewers.

But what makes Ikea Heights potentially dangerous is also what makes it appealing: a lack of corporate involvement. While the videos don’t portray Ikea in a negative light—the joke is simply that the show takes place in an Ikea store without Ikea knowing—there’s no guarantee that all fly-by-night filmmakers will be so considerate. “There are risks in both strategies,” says David Dunne, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “If you just let it go, you have no idea what people are going to say about your brand. But if you move too aggressively to shut it down, people get pretty upset if big corporations are seen to be trying to influence discussion on the Web.”

It’s the kind of tough spot that United Airlines found itself in last year after Canadian musician Dave Carroll uploaded a music video to YouTube that described how his guitar was smashed en route to Nebraska, and the subsequent runaround he received from the airline’s customer service department. The video, titled “United Breaks Guitars,” has been viewed more than seven million times and spawned numerous news stories.

The lesson for businesses in the digital age? The customer is still usually right, except now he’s also making your commercials.