Creative director at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo Max Pilwat spoke to LBB's Zoe Antonov about the world's first 'Real Estate Shark' and how IKEA can turn any home into a happy place, no matter how small
There are some universal facts that everybody knows about Tokyo – Harajuku fashion, cherry blossoms, an abundance of amazing food, Shibuya Crossing as the busiest intersection in the world…and of course, the fact that it houses over 36 million people, making it the largest metropolitan in the world. It's no secret that space is a scarcity in the city and people do whatever they can to experience the hustle and bustle, even at the cost of an extra bedroom.
Bearing that in mind, we can say that IKEA Japan hit the nail right on the head – with their new campaign in collaboration with Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo and featuring BLÅHAJ, the first ‘Real Estate Shark’, they venture out to prove to audiences that any home can be a happy place, no matter the size. In the three episode campaign, accompanied by a website and 360 view of the final project, BLÅHAJ the shark teams up with an IKEA interior design team to transform a tiny flat costing 99 yen per month into an amazing living and working space.
The campaign combines Japan’s love for mascots with the real necessity for space in the big city, using Swedish home furnishing solutions. Comical, energetic and truly gripping for any viewer, the adventure of BLÅHAJ almost seems like a reality TV show – we can’t stop watching until we find out, 'can he really turn that tiny of a space into a liveable flat?' Not only does he succeed with flying colours, but does it in a classic IKEA style, debunking the myth that Swedish furniture has no place in Tokyo.
Max Pilwat, creative director at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo took LBB’s Zoe Antonov behind the scenes of the campaign, to show her the full refurbishing process and reveal more about the adorable mascot.
LBB> What was the brief for this campaign and how did you initially approach it?
Max> The initial brief for this campaign was to follow up on last year’s successful ‘IKEA Harajuku with imma’ shop launch with yet another opening campaign for a Tokyo city shop. This time in the district of Shinjuku. IKEA city shops are uniquely positioned for city living with small space and multi-functional products aiming at a younger target demographic living in these urban areas, so that was our starting point. The approach early on was really to think of ideas that would drive visitation to the physical shop and the online shop respectively. What started with a narrow focus on Shinjuku, quickly evolved to a Tokyo-wide IKEA city shop campaign spanning Harajuku, Shinjuku and Shibuya with small space living at the core of it all. It then grew bigger and better quite organically as we set out to solve a real problem and local insight with IKEA’s home furnishing expertise and small space solutions: showing that any space can be a happy home - no matter how small. Finally we put storytelling in the mix - longform episodic content delivered by our shareable, never-seen-before character - but beloved IKEA product - BLÅHAJ the shark. The surprising casting of BLÅHAJ helped us to elevate the campaign tremendously and make people care about yet another (tiny) home makeover. By truly solving a tiny living space with IKEA, we directly debunked the myth that IKEA furniture isn't made for Japan's small spaces. Furthermore, by adding in Real Estate Agent BLÅHAJ into the mix and a 99 yen price point, it gave reason for people to take notice.
LBB> The mascot of the campaign is so memorable! What is the significance of the shark?
Max> BLÅHAJ launched in IKEA stores globally as a plush toy in 2014 and in Japan in 2017. The plush toy’s been growing to somewhat of an uncredited superstar with a huge fan following online. Fans would situate their BLÅHAJ plush toy in real life situations at home and share these images online or create memes with him. Once in a while these posts would go viral from Japan to China or Russia. We were looking to elevate BLÅHAJ and take his character to the next level. Therefore we gave him legs and a new job - making him the first ever IKEA Real Estate shark. Breathing life into IKEA’s plush shark gave us the opportunity to write his story and flex his persona in all sorts of ways. The reception was amazing. From fan-art and memes to jam-packed stores to visit the shark agent at work and secure one of his real estate business cards. It’s been going as far as people asking for IKEA to adopt Agent BLÅHAJ as their official spokesperson - not just in mascot loving Japan but abroad: people from all over the world have been requesting BLÅHAJ to come to their countries and IKEA stores.
LBB> How long did the entire project take from start to finish - did you go through the process of redecorating the tiny flat alongside the campaign?
Max> We have now worked on everything Tiny Homes from start to finish for almost a full year. The initial brief kicked off in January 2019. The core concept around the tiny 10 sqm apartment and makeover process was locked in early on. Ironically we circled for a while around making sure we had the right personality to bring this tiny home concept to life. After having looked into real life personas, co-creators and influencers we found our very own within IKEA: BLÅHAJ. That casting really unlocked the idea and gave it an entirely new spin. Finding the right flat, being able to rent it out and running applications through the family membership program via IKEA.jp and real estate platforms were crucial parts of the process too. We worked hand in hand with IKEA’s Interior Design Team that led the full transformation of the space. The redecoration itself kicked off as soon as we locked in on our apartment. The tiny space with its unique challenges required smart small space solutions and a lot of planning beforehand. The ambition was to not only solve the tiny space, but also transform it into an aspirational home that people would want to live in themselves. With the first three episodes out and the apartment applications in we have now wrapped around 90% of the campaign. The remaining bits are to launch early next year as we meet the lucky tenant in our final episode of Tiny Homes.
LBB> The scope of the project is impressive - it's almost its own show! Why did you decide it was best to turn this campaign into a series?
Max> First and foremost we wanted to make the classic ‘Before & After Makeover’ format entertaining and give it a new spin. The beloved IKEA plush shark BLÅHAJ gave us the perfect opportunity to create something different and disruptive. Long-form episodic content as opposed to the usual 15-second TV format that we’re used to seeing in Japan was our ambition early on. It made us able to really deep-dive into our newly-made up character - a Real Estate Shark with legs - whilst giving enough space to show the makeover process and championing the other heroes of the campaign: the IKEA Interior Design Team. Augmenting the episodes with in-store activity was great too. Having BLÅHAJ appear in his Real Estate offices around the three IKEA city shops gave a completely different dimension to the campaign as you could directly apply for the apartment through him in store. He would hand out his business cards just like he does in the films.
5. How did you manage to strike the balance between staying funny and light-hearted, but still showing the true benefits of using IKEA to enhance your home?
We internally always referred to Tiny Homes being our very own IKEA Netflix show. Giving a more humorous spin to the before-and-after format was the intention early on as we were able to personify BLÅHAJ for the very first time. It was crucial from the get go that he was IKEA’s biggest cheerleader - originally from Sweden but relocated to Japan - a true brand original. To live up to the hype built around BLÅHAJ’s existing personality worldwide (and to make it interesting) we had to inject some irreverence and a specific sense of humour that would resonate uniquely in Japan. A lot of the specific jokes or timings were determined later on in the edit. The visual language and cut also helped give the episodes a bit of an ‘Office’ vibe.
LBB> What has the response of audiences been so far?
Max> The response has been really impressive and overwhelmingly positive. In Japan and beyond. Our audience seems to gravitate towards a lot of different things within the campaign. The fact that our host is the BLÅHAJ plush toy in the flesh would be one thing. The unbelievably affordable 99 yen price point and that the tiny apartment is fully furnished with IKEA’s solutions would be the others. BLÅHAJ lovers specifically have been following his every step from the beginning but also new IKEA fans joined in to follow the shark’s real estate life in store and online. The 99 yen apartment didn’t just get tens of thousands of applications and family membership sign ups but made it into the global news: from the front page of CNN to Hypebeast and Apartment Therapy. The campaign was also a week-long trending topic on Japanese twitter.
LBB> What were the most challenging moments of the production process? And the most fun?
Max> The most challenging moments of the production process are largely tied to the fact that to do this right, we had to find, furnish and rent a real apartment in the heart of Tokyo. So, rather than a typical location cost, the challenge was navigating all the intricacies and processes involved with being a brand who can rent out an apartment, furnish with their own product, and ultimately have it listed through actual real estate platforms that people turn to every day in Japan. Compounding the complexity was the fact that we also had to find a specific space— one small enough and challenging enough for a stark contrast and before & after transformation. Other challenges were as mundane as the production of the shark costume itself. How can we make sure that the shark resembles the beloved plush toy? How do we add some more humanity to it? Animatronics and using the real shark plush did the trick. The most fun was definitely being able to dabble in so many different things all under one roof. We managed to produce a long form series, Instagram AR filters, key visuals, in store showrooms and Real Estate offices, a twitter takeover and editorial all at once. We even produced sustainable BLÅHAJ facemasks as in store giveaways. Plus we launched the campaign in an unexpected way: through Real Estate / Property websites. By showing up in Tokyo’s housing scene directly and subverting Real Estate Websites, we proved by action that Swedish home furnishing solutions are suitable for city centre apartments of all sizes.