Web series has generated over 9 million views

Illeana Douglas is putting together a third season of “Easy to Assemble” after the Web series has grown into a hit for Swedish furniture retailer Ikea.

Show, created by Douglas, has generated more than 9 million views since it bowed in 2008, becoming one of the few branded entertainment projects to take off and strike a chord with audiences.

Success of the series signals how producing branded entertainment can pay off for marketers. Brands have spent the past decade devoting more of their ad dollars to developing nontraditional forms of programming — especially Web series — as a way to attract consumers that’s cheaper than spending tens of millions to tie-in with a major tentpole film.

Others have attempted to make the jump to television programming with mixed results. But Ikea appears happy for now with keeping its series on the Web, where it says it has experienced good results in building its brand image.

The first season was produced like an independent film, with the project shot in full over 15 days and then broken into 10-minute segments. Plot revolved around Douglas’ character and her colorful co-workers — who’ve included Jeff Goldblum, Craig Bierko, Tom Arnold, Kevin Pollak, Cheri Oteri, Tim Meadows, Ricki Lake, Jane Lynch, Sung Kang and Ed Begley Jr. — at an Ikea store.

“I just tried to make a good movie with good actors,” Douglas told Daily Variety. “The YouTube model of the cat chasing the laser is going to run out of steam. I knew there was a huge fanbase out there that wasn’t watching television. Once I started doing this, I had confirmation that there’s a huge segment of the population that listens to NPR, reads, is a little cultish and has a tendency to watch things online.”

Second installment focused on Douglas competing against a character played by Justine Bateman for co-worker of the year; upcoming season will feature her traveling to Ikea’s corporate HQ in Sweden to accept the prize.

“I have not been to Sweden yet, but fictionally I will finally be going to meet the head of the company,” Douglas said.

New season starts lensing in July and unspool online from October through December.

While Ikea has been supporting the show’s production, it hasn’t been aggressive in promoting the series. The retailer allowed it to find an audience on sites like IkeaFans.com, or its primary home, My Damn Channel, or virally via word of mouth rather than prominently featured on Ikea.com.

Getting the show onto as many platforms as possible proved key in generating an aud for the series. Social media agency CJP Digital Media handles the syndication of the series, and the show has found its way onto more outlets like YouTube, Hulu, Rocku and Hotel Networks’ DoNotDisturb network since its launch.

But Ikea, which spends around $300 million a year on traditional ads worldwide, may give the series a bigger push this fall. It was encouraged to proceed with more episodes after “Assemble” won a Streamy Award for best brand/production integration and best ensemble, as well as a Webby Award for branded content.

Show also has enabled Ikea to become a little more hip and relevant, something it had hoped its recent ad campaigns could help it accomplish.

“I am very happy for the success and recognition ‘Easy to Assemble’ has received,” said Magnus Gustafsson, Ikea’s marketing chief, who also exec produces the show. “Of course, we’re very grateful to all of the loyal Ikea fans and audiences who tune in to the show, and it’s for them that we will have some special surprises in mind.”

That could include spinning off more characters into their own shows; a Swedish rock band named Sparhusen was given its own series, which featured Keanu Reeves. It could also involve more stunt casting.

An appearance by the Disney Channel’s David Henrie upped viewership from 300,000 per episode to 600,000.

But “Easy to Assemble’s” quirky plot has appealed not only to fans of Ikea but to a demo looking for original online programming. “The fact that it’s sponsored by a brand isn’t a turnoff because Ikea’s a character in the show,” Douglas said. “It’s not about making sure you push the new orange rug,” she added of Ikea’s mostly hands-off involvement with the creative elements of the series. “What’s important to them is the positive message of the brand.”

Still it’s been tough to figure out just what will attract auds online — especially if they’re projects backed by brands.

While the BMW films were a major hit for the German automaker a decade ago, other forms of branded entertainment have recently struggled, especially for shows looking to make the leap to TV.

“In the Motherhood,” backed by Suave and Sprint, is now the most cited example of a Web series that found it hard to turn its online following on MSN into a bigger aud on ABC. The network canceled its run after only half a season aired.

Moving forward, Douglas and Ikea are hoping to generate an even larger following this fall when episodes are subtitled for European and Asian audiences. They have no plans to adapt the show for the TV or bigscreen just yet.

“I see this as a different way to make entertainment,” Douglas said. “The first season was an experiment. It worked and took off. Now I’m at the stage where I don’t want to screw it up. We worked really hard, we know it works and really want to continue doing this.”

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