Earlier this month, Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced its newest venture: The Sleep Ship. A 336-hour, real-time view of the journey IKEA products take on cargo ships from Sweden to Australia.
Images on the ‘SlowTV’ flit from the prow, to the engine room, to rows and rows of stock, sitting idly in the halflight. Viewers are treated to the sound of “waves gently crashing against the ship’s stern,” while “Swedish co-workers, Kent and Sara, narrate the nautical journey, reading from the brand-new IKEA Catalogue 2020.”
This is not a joke. In gentle, ASMR-infused tones, Kent and Sara read out the Swedish name of the furniture, followed by the English translation. “Snajda. Laundry bag,” they croon. “Fniss. Waste Bin. Dragan. Four-piece bathroom set.”
“We’re very excited to launch what could be the least exciting TV channel Aussies have ever seen,” IKEA’s country commercial activity leader for Australia, Ryan Burman, told news.com.au. “We hope that the rhythmic, monotonous content of the Slow TV channel helps quieten the day and get the mind and body ready for bed.”
The Sleep Ship follows the release of IKEA’s sleep podcast, built on a similar premise. It comes after the creation of an online ‘Sleep Hub’, in-store sleep workshops, a planned two-week sleep festival, and a high-profile collaboration with sleep guru Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of The Sleep School.
Why is this happening? And what does it have to say about Ikea’s business ambitions?
Ikea bed. Credit: Ikea
Rise of sleep startups
It could have something to do with the booming sleep space. According to Fast Company, the sleep aids market expected to reach just over $100bn within the next five years.
Sleep-tracking ring Oura recently announced more than $20m in funding, from a superstar group including basketball start Shaquille O’Neil and actor Will Smith. Mattress startup Casper is now valued at more than $1bn and joins contemporaries Purple Mattress and Saatva in signing more traditional partnerships with department chains. Domino adds that one of the buzziest products from last year wasn’t techy: it was a $249 blanket, made by rising startup Bearaby, which mimics the sensation “of being hugged or swaddled.”
Even video games are getting in on the act: One of Nintendo’s biggest announcements this year was a follow up to the revolutionary exercise-driven game Pokémon GO with a sleep-focused game, Pokémon SLEEP.
Koala’s billboard. Credit: Marketing Mag
But the Aussie focus may suggest something more conventional: concerns about a keeping up with a rival.
In August 2018, mattress startup Koala put up a billboard next to an IKEA store that said: ‘NOFNIDEA? No tools, no worries’. The advert, styled to look like an IKEA catalogue, made the cheeky point that Koala mattresses were easier to buy and set up.
And it went viral. Koala’s name recognition exploded, to the point that a few months later it took advantage of its publicity with a tongue-in-cheek ‘apology’ — this time saying that as they “felt bad about the billboard”, Koala was offering $100 off their mattresses with the code ‘SORRYIKEA’.
These tactics have been stunningly successful. In the space of just four years, and as many viral campaigns, Koala — set up by childhood friends Mitchell Taylor and Dany Milham — has transformed itself from an online startup to a business valued at around $150m. The company has expanded operations across Asia and has become renowned as a fun and playful authority on sleep — a title IKEA may be interested in reclaiming.
Ikea Podcast’s Kent and Sara. Credit: Mumbrella
More than just a product
All of the successful sleep-focused startups seem to be reaching for an emotional connection with their customers — satisfying a need for ‘wellness’ and ‘self-care’ that is even present within fashion trends like ‘sleepleisure’.
Vicki Fulop, co-founder of upmarket bedsheet company Brooklinen, thinks this is all about identity and authenticity.
“People want to understand what they’re getting, where it’s coming from, and what the brand stands for,” she told Domino.
“They want a brand they can trust and identify with.”
This, at heart, is IKEA’s mission. The company’s appeal has always been greater than its products: it sells a day out to the store and easy access to a minimalist lifestyle. It sells a sense of community, in which customers of all shapes and sizes have similar stories about struggles with building their new shelving unit.
And IKEA’s reach has always spread beyond furniture. The company’s famous meatballs make it the most popular restaurant in Iceland, and just as many people around the world read its catalogue as read the Bible or the Quran.
So a push for influence over another facet of our lives is understandable. The sleep campaign is a way of never losing track of the customer, and squeezing as much IKEA into a receptive customer’s life as possible. It’s a way of demonstrating corporate caring, in which IKEA can stress the importance of a good night’s sleep — “a lack of which can fundamentally impact our daily lives both physically and emotionally.”
And hey — there might be some marketing value in repeating the names of products to people as they doze off. I’m not sure why, but after an IKEA-guided sleep, I always wake up with a hankering to buy a new wardrobe.
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber