The Lego Universe
Whenever you think about the LEGO Universe—which seems to be taking over a larger and larger percentage of the Infinite Prototype we all live in—you really have to talk about Aristotle. Well, okay, maybe you don’t; but concepts of prime matter and form, of drama and action are essential to the success of LEGO, a story of incredible prosperity and profit that rivals the greatest brands in the world. It’s also a story that seems always to lead back to the essential ground of humans at work and play in the material realm, solving real world problems and immersed in the joy of creativity, all the essential elements that foster better business models, better marketing, and dare one say it these days, even a better world.
Let’s find out how all that fits together.
It’s 1932 and Ole Kirk Christiansen, a furniture maker of Billund, Denmark, finds himself, along with so many others, in the midst of the Great Depression. He is a maker, a craftsman, and has all the materials he needs to build the tables, chairs and cabinets that customers demand. But crashing markets and the economic dislocation now rampant in Europe shrink that demand to almost nothing; sales are infrequent and falling off fast. What to do? Ole makes a fateful choice that will determine the success of his business and family. He goes small, toy small.
He’s built small before, almost inadvertently, by making design aids for his furniture sales. Now he makes piggy banks, cars and trucks, miniature houses and pull toys. The upside is obvious. Scant materials are needed to make each item; price per unit is tiny, and almost anyone could afford at least one toy for a beloved child. Ole then combines two Danish words legand godt, meaning play well, and coins a name for his new business: LEGO.
It’s only later, in a twist of fated beauty after Ole’s death, does the LEGO company realize its name in Latin means “to put together.”
It all seems too simple, really; with just three words one can sum up the subsequent innovations that will make LEGO the most popular and successful toy in history: Interlocking Plastic Bricks. In 1949, LEGO introduces “Automatic Binding Bricks” made of cellulose acetate. The “bricks” have round studs on top and a hollow bottom, creating a system of interlocking pieces that a child can take apart and put back together endlessly, fitting into an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes. The idea of interlocking building blocks had already arrived on the scene. First designed by Hilary Fisher Page in 1939, the Kiddicraft company had marketed their own version with some success. Ole Kirk copies these designs, but continues to make toys and pieces of varying size. The final innovation comes in 1958 when LEGO introduces its “system,” where every brick is ‘backwards compatible,” fitting with every other piece they manufacture, a universal system—and a system with which a child can build a world.
So, the Prime Matter of the LEGO universe enters history, and the stage is set, not only for success, but for Aristotle.
Just six eight-stud bricks of the same colour can be combined 915,103,765 ways.
A Toy That Makes Toys; A Toy That Makes Worlds
The double phrase above describes the key and cause of the (almost!) inevitable success of the LEGO brand. You see, man is a maker of things, of objects for our use and pleasure, for our work and our joy; and all of it is made from the elements of the material around us. Clay can make a brick, a bowl or a beautiful sculpture. For Aristotle, clay is an example of “prime matter,” a substance with no substantial form of its own, but from which things are made, things of use, of beauty and of meaning. Aristotle would say this appeal and practice is built into the very nature of our being; that it’s both universal and inevitable.
And it drives the auto-maker, the artist, and the acolyte.
So, we are makers, and LEGO is the Prime Matter of the world of toys, simple plastic pieces that can be formed in a variety of coherent objects. But is this a human drive that LEGO exploits? Is it in our very nature and being?
I suspect it’s an insight that’s easily proved. But let’s do a thought experiment, although probably one that’s occured millions of times in private homes and school rooms around the world. You may even have seen it yourself; I have.
Place a child in the midst of a chaotic jumble of vari-colored LEGO bricks, show him how they fit together, and watch. Out of this situation of immersive play might come a duck, a car, or a castle—and along with that the joy of accomplishment: “Look, Uncle Todd!”
And as a child (or often an adult!) succeeds in making multiple toys, something else happens: play becomes narrative, drama and conflict—Attack of the Driving Duck!—and, of course, more Aristotle and the Poetics.
Inevitably, humans tell stories. It helps us make sense of the world; it’s how we entertain, instruct and manage the chaos of life. And they can be so simple! The good princess gets the crown; the wild pirate finds the treasure. What character will stand in her way? Who else seeks such unimaginable wealth? And, simple or complex, the interplay of plot, character, and action take place in a world: the Kingdom or the Sea. Catharsis? Well, let’s not complicate things.
Now, let’s return to the unparalleled success, and sometimes failure, of the LEGO brand, of past marketing strategies and possibilities for the future.
The how and why are simple, remember? A toy that makes toys; a toy that makes worlds. So long as you understand that the core appeal of the product comes from a universal drive to make and create objects from a sufficiently consistent and simple prime matter;and further understand that subsequent and continued play with objects and figures involves the elements of story, your marketing will succeed. Stray from those core principles, these drives and behaviors inherent in all humans (and most especially in children at play!), and you’ll fail.
For the market analyst, understand this and you’ll hold the keys to the kingdom, a kingdom made of tiny plastic bricks.
Of Castles And Constructions
In the 60s, LEGO sales sky-rocket. The bricks are refined for play with a reinforced middle so LEGO constructions will hold together more firmly; when the driving duck attacks, she won’t fall apart, and neither will her car. Manufacturing capabilities are updated and distribution methods refined. The stage is now set to exploit all the possibilities of the LEGO brand.
In 1962, the company introduces the wheel; in 1964 instruction manuals are included for more complex constructions; 1966 brings the first LEGO train system with its own rails; and in 1968 the first Legoland theme park opens in Billund, featuring miniature LEGO towns. That year will see the sale of 18 million LEGO sets, and over time the park will grow almost 10 times its original size and have one million visitors each year.
In 1972, LEGO creates boat and ship sets, with floating hull pieces; and in 1974 the first human figures with posable arms, the “LEGO family” are introduced, and included in a variety of different sets. So, actors now populate the scenery, whether in lunar rovers, walking the parapets of a medieval castle, or on a train ride to LEGO London.
For the next 25 years the success continues: Expert Builder sets; Light and Sound sets; and in 1988, 38 children from 17 countries participate in the first LEGO World Cup. And in 1992, a Guinness World record is set with a castle built from 400,000 LEGO bricks.
Human figures, expert builders, light and sound sets, pirates and knights, castles and spaceships—why, it’s almost as if LEGO is unconsciously building a movie making company in miniature—that most modern of story-telling ventures. The future is bright. Success still seems inevitable; and yet, by 2004 the company is in enormous debt with a posted loss of £174 million in that year alone.
“We are on a burning platform… We’re running out of cash… [and] likely won’t survive.” – Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, LEGO CEO
Chaos And Collapse
Call it “Death by Expert” or “Debt by Education.”
In the late 90s, LEGO “retired” many of their most successful and experienced engineers, hiring a new staff of “design experts” culled from the best colleges in Europe. These folks knew little about toys, and even less about the practical application of plastic brick-work, let alone children at play. Under the new regime, the available LEGO parts quickly grew from 6000 to over 12,000, creating a chaos of storage and logistics, and a huge growth of infrastructure, all of which brought little return on the sales floor. New sets or series called Znap, Scala, Primo, and worst of all Galidor hit the market. Then came overseas expansion and video games.
LEGO’s debt deepened.
By looking for the next industry-changing experts, people who could respond to the new world of video games, who could make LEGO relevant and modern, who could transform the company into a “lifestyle brand,” who could expand into other markets and other products, LEGO had turned their core business into a multi-layered nightmare.
So much for big disruptive blue-ocean innovations—sometimes you just drown.
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
The Lego Renaissance
Enter Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, who said, “What we realised is that the more we’re true to ourselves, the better we are.”
First came Business 101. Knudstorp sold off unprofitable overseas properties and investments, licensed out Legoland Parks, streamlined operations and cut costs. LEGO’s available parts returned to about 6500, down from an incredible highpoint of 13,000. LEGO computer games closed its doors, though it was later revived, licensed out, and is now profitable for all concerned.
Next, Knudstorp recruited hardcore fans of LEGO as designers. Known as AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO), these were people who loved the product, had grown up playing with it, and, having experienced various iterations over the years, knew its history firsthand. LEGO fans throughout the world were also asked to propose and then vote on possible new models and ideas.
Knudstorp then concentrated on the core product, which had to precisely fit the LEGO template, be a challenge to construct, and like the Driving Duck above, not fall apart once in the action of the story, even if it involved a crash or two. Knudstorp also developed a product ethos, ensuring that LEGO remained family friendly and true to its past, ensuring intergenerational knowledge and play.
So LEGO was reborn, and the innovation was no innovation at all. Instead, the company returned to its origins: a toy that makes toys; a toy that makes worlds. And that leads us back to Aristotle and the future of LEGO.
“By learning to build anything out of a simple material, children can combine right-brain creativity, storytelling and design thinking with left-brain scientific structure and logical analysis. For me that’s where the soul of the company begins.” Jorgen Vig Knudstorp
Aristotle, Play And Ethics
At the moment of concentrated play, the disordered becomes ordered, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and a quirky set of plastic building bricks, the prime matter of the LEGO Universe, becomes a sixteen foot red Tyrannosaurus Rex, Homer Simpson, or a jumble of houses scaling the steep ravines of the Amalfi Coast. Prime matter has been transformed, and the creative impulse of the maker, of the child or adult, is to tell the story, to find the conflict that creates drama. Will Homer save the town? Will the red monster salvage his own and the town’s dignity from the likes of Homer the Barbarian?
Well, whatever the story, we all want the good guys to win. Drama always has a moral dimension, an ethics. After all, if there’s conflict, if there are good guys and bad guys, then we must have a notion of the good.
Aristotle calls this eudaimonia, and it defines the highest human good, excellence of character, the virtuous human. Her attributes are Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice, what are called the Cardinal Virtues.. And in an age of international chaos, political polarization and relative value, it would seem a worthwhile goal.
And might I suggest a profitable one, as well—maybe even for LEGO.
After all, they’ve entered the story-telling business with The LEGO Movie (2014), The Batman LEGO Movie (2018), and the new LEGO City of Atlantis, which includes, as the company says, “good guys and bad guys in the box.” So, they’re already in the business of ethics; and those productions and products have brought huge profits. Maybe it’s time to sell that.
So, then, what’s the next marketing strategy for LEGO?
How about this?
LEGO: A Toy that makes Toys; Toys that tell Stories; Stories that seek the Good; a Good that transforms the World.
I’ll leave it to Jorgen Vig Knudstorp and his team at LEGO to work out the details.
Todd Weir is a “brand philosopher” and industry observer. He applies the theories of the late southern existential writer Walker Percy to the world around us.