The legend of Lego begins with the brand-name itself. Ole Kirk Christiansen, who founded Lego in 1932, snapped together the first two letters of a pair of Danish words — “leg” and “godt” — which translate into “play well.”
Ole apparently didn’t realize at the time that “Lego” can also mean “I put together” in Latin. Nor could he possibly have imagined that he was unleashing a concept that would grow into what is today the third-largest toy company in the world.
After all, he was fashioning toys from wood at the time. It wasn’t until his son, Godtfred, assumed leadership in he 1950s that the now-iconic, snap-together plastic bricks that we know and love as Lego were dreamed up and turned into a global phenomenon.
But while both the company’s name and its bricks are inherently attractive, it is more likely Lego’s organizing principle that accounts for its enduring appeal: To “play well” is to make something out of nothing, and learn from the experience.
Lego’s journey has not been without its ups and downs, though, including a brush with bankruptcy in 2003. More recently, the company retreated from Lego Universe, an online gaming site, and stirred up controversy with Lego Friends, a new product line for girls. Lego marketing chief Mads Nipper doesn’t deny these challenges, but he says he’s quite certain that Ole Kirk Christiansen would have no trouble recognizing the company he founded. “I think he would recognize just how hard we try to make the world’s best play experience for children,” says Mads. “He would recognize very easily the deep, deep respect that everybody at Lego has for children.”
Do you think of Lego as a toy or is it something else?
It’s a toy and then something. We consider ourselves to be in the business of play. Of course, we compete in the toy industry. We talk about our competitors as much as anybody else does and understand the realities of being in the toy industry.
But when we talk about what business we’re in, we talk about the business of play. To me, that is wildly fascinating because next to food, love and shelter, play is an absolutely essential need not only for children, but also for grownups.
What makes Lego authentic as a brand?
I hope it’s many things. There is something about Lego’s consistency over time. When I was a child 40 years ago, the brick I played with, the quality of those bricks and the system, was exactly the same.
That clearly gives it an authenticity both in terms of the quality and the promise of what the brand is all about.
We also try very, very hard to ensure that in every brand experience somebody has with Lego that there is something that is quite distinct, which is greatly caring for children. We try to make it a creative and inspiring experience. The fact that it is not just about the product but also about every other touchpoint you might have with the brand hopefully adds to its authenticity, as well.
One of the things that we try very hard to live up to every day is to be a “substance” brand. The primary purpose of the advertising and the marketing we do is to get the product into the hands of children. We never want to be reliant on our image or our advertising as a prime carrier of what our brand stands for. It’s always been about the substance of the experience that we provide to children.
How do you use advertising to build brand identity in that case?
What we try to do are things like the marketing for our Ninjago product line, where we have a 22-episode TV series running on Cartoon Network. That really is a different way of creating a rich universe for children to get inspired to play in.
Television advertising is still the most important medium to create interest in a product. We also have more than 20 million unique visitors to Lego.com every month. So, digital is extremely important.
We try to enrich the experience of our product through our marketing. When we sell a product it’s not the end of the journey for the consumer; it’s actually the beginning. We are happy only after they’ve had a great experience.
How do your stores affect the Lego brand identity?
Compared to our other touchpoints, I don’t think our Lego stores are one of those pivotal, critical, brand-building experiences because the best experience you ever get with our brands is when you take the product out of the box.
But if we can make that shopping experience more exciting and engaging, and also learn from it so we can get that into our other retail partner stores, then that plays a very important role for us.
What makes your stores special?
One thing is the selection — everything we offer is there. There’s also the personal experience of having people there who will help and talk to children and shoppers, giving advice. We try to make shopping easy, but first and foremost engaging and fun. That is what makes our stores distinct.
How do you stay relevant in today’s digital world?
It really is about continuing to renew the core. I know that is a very easy statement to make. It might be tempting to say that in 10 years all play experiences are going to be digital, so we’ll transform into digital. We simply refuse to do that.
We believe that the idea of what we call a “hands on/minds on” experience continues to be relevant and will be for all eternity. We believe digital will greatly impact the way we do things and I’m sure we’ll see more in the way of hybrid experiences between the physical and digital experience.
But the idea of a creative, physical, hands-on play experience is going to be absolutely critical even five or 10 generations from now. There are many ways to keep it relevant by having the right themes, whether it’s a theme we invent ourselves or in partnership with Disney or Lucas. These themes add a lot of relevance and newness.
Has the advent of social media changed Lego’s brand identity in any way?
It’s probably less dramatic for us than it is with many other brands because we’ve been quite used to working with a community over the years. There’s a very active and appreciated Lego community, both of children but also adult fans, who are passionate about our brand. They have been very good at sharing what they think about our brands before the advent of social media happened.
But there’s no doubt that the opportunity of social media is going to change the way our brand identity comes to life significantly for many families around the world.
What did you learn from the failure of Lego Universe?
What we learned is that the pace in the digital world is totally different. We were working on the Lego Universe for more than two full years before we launched it. It was a fantastic experience the day we launched it. But it would have been smarter to have worked on it for six months, gotten feedback and then improved it, gotten more feedback and then improved it further. We learned that we needed to work faster and in a more iterative way in the digital world.
You’ve also run into some controversy with Lego Friends.
The take away from that, first and foremost, is that our basic attitude of continuing to listen as much as we possibly can to consumers and interest groups is critically important. Social media can and will accelerate those dialogues and make them global, literally within hours.
The way that we chose to execute the Lego Friends product line is something that we stand behind strongly. But rather than saying “we are right and you are wrong,” we engaged in a dialogue about it. We acknowledged that this is a highly relevant debate about whether a toy is stereotyping girls.
We have tried for so many years to make fantastic experiences for girls but very, very few girls bought it. Whether people like it or not, certain color combinations, certain details, features and accessories are just more attractive to girls.
We will stick to that and we are not going to change the product. Luckily, the majority thought what we did was a good thing because it got Lego into the hands of girls as well as boys.
Did that dialogue change Lego Friends in any way?
It didn’t change the product at all, but we understood that some dimensions of how we are marketing the product needed adjustment.
We won’t, for example, proactively say that Lego Friends is now the Lego for girls and the rest is for boys. We adjusted that message as a result of that dialogue.
Why do you think Lego Friends was so controversial?
I think it’s because there are so many people who hold Lego in such high regard and might have expected something different from Lego. We are humbled by the fact that people have exceptionally high expectations not only of our product experience, but also of what we stand for as a brand.
Some people said we should just make some more basic products in primary colors for girls. But those products have been out there for decades and there are just way too few girls who get that experience into their hands.
We don’t see Lego Friends as just a business opportunity for getting into a new target group. We believe so much that Lego play is so great for children and their development that we are duty bound to get that experience into the hands of millions of girls.
How do you stay close to your consumers?
I’m privileged to have two children myself. I greatly believe that knowing both the target group and also the product intimately is extremely important. I build at least 50 Lego sets a year. I try to build as much as I can, both with my 10-year-old son and with his friends.
When I see either my own son or one of his friends get deeply frustrated about something I can ask them about what went wrong. I also spend a lot of time in stores where I listen to shoppers, parents and gift-givers as well as children, and try to answer their questions.
To deeply understand what’s great and what is less-than-great about what we do is very, very important even though I don’t develop products myself.
How does Lego stay close to consumers as a company?
In the past few years we’ve dialed up significantly on what we call “foundational insights,” where we have employees spend time with families with children. They observe, make notes, take photographs and videos, for example.
We have more than 100 designers from 19 nationalities who develop our products. They have play sessions where they are wearing garden gloves when they are building with our products.
This is so an adult can get an approximate idea of how hard it is for seven-year-olds to build with the products.
Is there ever a point where you think you’ve done too much research?
I’ve actually felt that on many occasions. Sometimes we’ve researched something similar many times before and therefore we probably did not have to research it again. It is essentially the same brick that it was 40 years ago or 50 years ago, so I’m sure that we sometimes overdo it.
But, on the other hand, we are also very, very humble about the fact that play patterns change. Even though the Lego brick is the same as it was decades ago, we need to consider what that experience needs to be today versus 10 years ago where there were fewer videogames, and no iPhones or iPads.
Why do so many adults still play with Lego?
It’s interesting. Our fan community talks about what that they call “the dark ages,” which is when they leave the Lego experience as children. Most children, at some point in time in their childhood, decide that the Lego experience is no longer relevant for them.
That quite often continues through the teen years and then, for reasons that I think are highly fascinating, they come back to the Lego experience and say, hmmm, there’s something here. Sometimes, it’s when they start engineering studies, go into design or art, that the joy of building and creating with the Lego brick is rediscovered.
It seems adult fans are even more intense about Lego than kids.
They are. The fascinating thing about children is that even the most diehard Lego fans also love to play videogames and many also play soccer, football or something else.
The difference is that, for many of our most passionate adult fans, Lego is their only hobby. It’s such a deep passion. The attention span and the multitude of interests with children are different than with adults, who have a passion for something specific.
Does Lego’s appeal to adults conflict with its appeal to children?
Not at all. If there is a passion for Lego with, for example, a father in the family, then that very often transfers to his children. The adult passion for the brand and the experience is an invaluable asset. We are highly appreciative of all the work and the brand passion that our adult fans bring to us.
Is there anything that could cause Lego to go out of style?
The only thing that could cause Lego to go out of style is if we fail to continue to renew what the Lego experience is about. If we don’t have the imagination and creativity to continue to renew that in ways that are relevant for children, then I think the brick could potentially go out of style.
How does that kind of innovation happen at Lego?
Innovation happens in many ways. Many of our designers and research-and-development people go out and find inspiration in the real world. Our city designers recently were locked up in a prison for 24 hours to understand what’s actually happening in a police station.
Sometimes we have polls where consumers can vote on a certain model and the one that gets the most votes is the one we develop. We try to engage both consumers and stakeholders as much as possible.
Have Lego’s values changed during your 20 years there?
Yes. What has clearly changed in the past seven to ten years is our ability both to do what we deep down believe is right for children, parents and our retail partners, but at the same time run a very commercial operation.
We are not forced into a corner where we have to choose between what’s right for our stakeholders and what is right for our owners.
What does the future of “play” look like to you?
The funny thing is that even 80 years from now I hope that we’re still going to have fire trucks, spaceships and buckets of basic bricks. I am convinced that they will still be relevant. Will they look different than today? Absolutely, because I’m sure that the police cars of the future are going to look different, as well.
I’m sure that the Lego play experience, which, in all modesty, is the best in the world, will continue to improve. I have no doubt that the digital play experience will also become integrated in way that we probably can’t even imagine today.
But digital is never going to replace the physical experience. It is not just about a template or a smart device or a computer; it is about the digital universe combined with the physical experience, because it is so important for children to actually get their hands on something.
SIDEBAR: Cannot Lego