Should marketing and corporate citizenship go together? Yes and no. Thanks to IKEA for providing an instructive opportunity.

A good example of what not to do…

Last night, during a delicious meal in Venice (cool, eh?) I received an email asking what I thought about IKEA’s Life Improvement Project (LIP). The reason my friend thought to write and ask specifically about IKEA’s program was because our review of the program last year. Let’s just say it was less than favorable.

The goal of IKEA’s program is to “help inspire and empower people to improve their lives, as well as the lives of others in their community.” Good enough, but it misses that goal – by a long shot. While there have been some changes in this year’s version, the fundamental flaws remain the same.

We don’t make a habit of pointing out the flaws in the community investment programs of specific companies, but the IKEA program offers an instructive opportunity to point out what companies need to avoid if they want to design credible corporate citizenship programs.

Besides which, they’ve spent a lot of money and time marketing the program so we figure it’s more than fair to make a few observations on our little blog.

So very briefly, here’s what the program includes:

  • “A Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest which offers an opportunity to win a year-long sabbatical* (worth $100,000) to improve the lives of others”
  • “A series of free, in-store Life Improvement Store Seminars which provide tips and inspiration to improve people’s lives at home”
  • “Random Acts of Life Improvement, unexpected moments when IKEA will surprise the public with tokens of appreciation to improve everyday moments in their lives”
  • “A Life Improvement Challenge, where every IKEA store will commit $10,000 to support local community initiatives”
  • “A Soft Toys for Education Campaign to donate 1 euro to children’s education programs for every IKEA soft toy purchased during the holiday season”

We want to be clear – none of these things are bad. These actions will not contribute to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. No one is going to be hurt by these initiatives. No animals will be harmed.

So what’s the problem?

It’s not real. The Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest is almost a guaranteed waste of money. Worse yet, offering someone $100K to do something good suggests that to really make an impact, you need to quit your job for a year. While that’s an interesting concept, it’s just not true. Good community investment programs utilize the resources, time and interests that people have in the every day of their lives. If someone wants to work full time in the nonprofit sector, that’s fantastic. But we can all contribute from where we are. That’s an important message for a company’s citizenship program to declare.

Again – nothing wrong with quitting your job and devoting yourself to a cause or community. But that’s not sustainable for society. It’s not even a reality for most people. In fact, IKEA can only offer this opportunity to one person out of 7 billion. We need to think through more realistic approaches to creating shared value for as many people as possible.

There’s no transparency. As I read the press release, I realize that I have absolutely no idea where the $100K from last year really went. I know dogs and vets were involved but there isn’t one (not one) metric as to outcomes or impact. Nothing. This obvious omission tells me that it was never really the point in the first place.

It lacks engagement.
Voting for your favorite cause/charity/desperate situation is so 2009. There are so many more interesting and engaging ideas for involving customers in corporate citizenship programs. They can vote by giving small amounts (a quarter for example – organizations like Benevity can help you do this). They could join the employees in the volunteering programs (Starbucks has successfully done this). But the biggest problem is that voting programs don’t actually do much more than engaging people in voting. There is no attitudinal or behavioral change. (Voting happens between November 28 and December 23).

It’s a marketing program.
The Random acts of Life Improvement is solely marketing. Giving out free stuff to customers has nothing to do with CSR or Corporate Citizenship (or at least not the way it’s described here). Neither do the Life Improvement Store Seminars.

It’s blind philanthropy. Donating 1 euro per sale of a soft toy is fine, but that’s straight up philanthropy. Which (I want to be very clear) is fine. Companies that make philanthropic donations a part of their product sales are smart. The problem is that neither I, nor the customers who donate the money, will have any idea how IKEA helped 8 million kids? Apparently, to date, the company has been able to donate $47.5 million to help kids in 40 countries. The euros are used “to support children’s educational programs in developing countries.” But how? Were the children able to go to school? Did they have access to clean water so they could stay in school? Were they supplied with vaccines and affordable medicine so they didn’t miss school?

We don’t know.

(Here’s a better example of how a program connects donors to impacts.)

IKEA has made improvements

There have been some improvements which should be noted. This year “IKEA is providing $10,000 to one team in each of its 38 stores ($380,000 total) to support a local community project.” That’s a significant increase from last year’s contribution of $10,000 to just five community projects.

So that’s cool.

But IKEA’s greatest mistake is confusing marketing and community investment. Again, we (Angela and Chris) need to be clear about something – corporate citizenship and marketing or PR should be working together. But they should never be confused.

Companies that have good corporate citizenship programs should make every effort to ensure their customers, vendors and shareholders know about what’s being achieved. That’s a smart and integrated approach to corporate citizenship. But mixing together obvious sales strategies such as the ‘Life Improvement Store Seminars’ and calling it community investment is not credible.

Here’s the rule – marketing serves corporate citizenship. It is never the other way around.

This whole program was conceived by Ogilvy & Mather, IKEA’s creative agency, so… I’m not sure why I would have expected anything else. (I’m sure they are a fine firm – but it’s tough for most marketing agencies to develop corporate citizenship programs).

You can read more about IKEA’s other ‘Responsibility’ initiatives here. They are a bit buried on the corporate website but they cover an impressively wide range of issues and activities.

If you’d like to learn more about this, we’d love to talk to you. You can reach us here:

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