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For marketers, COVID-19 creates a unique challenge, in that they cannot appear to be exploiting the situation, and they also want to communicate positive and enjoyable messages to consumers without ignoring the difficult conditions they face. Those companies continuing to struggle with achieving this balance might want to take a page—literally and figuratively—from IKEA.

The Russian branch of the furniture company devised a series of six instruction manuals for how to build forts at home. For parents stuck for ideas for how to keep their children entertained without leaving the house, the plans offer inspiration. The easy-to-follow blueprints are cute and clever; they promise several days of entertainment, in that children could try each of the designs, testing out their skills at building forts, caves, wigwams, or castles. The opportunities for imaginative play within these structures then seemingly create themselves.

Although the drawings provided by the instruction manuals include depictions of IKEA furniture, they are not exclusive. That is, they show blankets draped over couch cushions, which could refer to any brand or maker. It is not as if parents are required to purchase IKEA items—or even anything new, beyond what they likely already have at home—to be able to leverage the creative and fun idea.

But once they have been playing around with the designs, they might find the idea of using an IKEA table more appealing, because it makes for a great base for a blanket house. Furthermore, consumers likely develop a positive perception of IKEA for issuing the helpful, reassuring ideas for free.

Parents might especially appreciate IKEA’s effort because of its potential to keep their kids entertained. But it is not the only brand to find appealing ways to advertise during the crisis. Budweiser brought back its famous “Wassup?” advertising campaign to encourage people to call and check in on their friends; Nike posts weekly fitness challenges that allow amateurs to compete against pros like Rory McIlroy by trying to sink putts in their living rooms; and Shake Shack added a series of how-to videos to help people learn how to cook at home. The campaigns acknowledge and reflect the “new normal,” even as they remind consumers of how the brands can help them keep some important things—including playing in forts made of pillows—nearly the same.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can this advertising campaign, which does not explicitly promote any of IKEA’s products, be successful for IKEA? What metrics should the company use to measure the impact of the campaign?
  2. How are other companies using nostalgia and positive emotional feelings to promote their brands?

Source: Tom Ryan, “IKEA’s Play Fort Ads Illustrate What’s Good About Times Like These,” Retail Wire, May 20, 2020; Leah Asmelash, “IKEA’s Instructions for Building the Best Pillow Forts Are What Every Parent Needs Right Now,” CNN, May 15, 2020