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The secret of successful toy brands like LEGO


What's the reason some popular toy brands are loved by many generations, while others are just a hype? We discuss it with innovation and insight expert Dr. Andy Burns from Brand Potential and brand strategy expert Guido Schild.

On a rainy Sunday our floor is covered with LEGO and Playmobil. There are a couple of new pieces and a lot of old ones which runs in our families for ages. My four year old son is just as enthousiastic about the new as the old-school pieces. It reminds me of the time my mother gave me her old Barbies with lots of clothes. It felt like I just had won the lottery. These childhood memories are also the first thing Guido Schild mentions when we discuss the ongoing success of toy brands like LEGO. For more than thirty years he's working as a brand strategy expert for different brands, one of them is LEGO. "The first thing we remember when we look at toys like Barbie, Playmobil and LEGO are our own childhood memories. These brands are often related to good experiences parents and grandparents try to pass on to their kids as well."

Parent-child connection
This parent-child dynamic is very important for the long term success of a toy brand, Dr. Andy Burns explains when I ask him about his thoughts on this matter. Burns is a brand transformation expert, consumer psychologist ánd parent, who occasionally works in the field of toys. "As a brand transformation expert for Brand Potential I've got some experience working with toy brands. Mostly for UK retailers like Asda. For their general merchandising including toys we looked at the sorts of brands parents want to get for their children. I've also worked on a Unilever lollipop brand, helping them trying to make a connection between parents and their children by gamifying their brand and getting their brand into other media like tv."

Martin Lindstrom
For Burns, the story of LEGO rediscovering its worldwide success is a great lesson for brands trying to get close to the parent child dynamic. There is a great case study about LEGO written by Martin Lindstrom, with interesting insights the brand transformation expert uses when working for toy brands. "In his book Small Data, Martin Lindstrom describes how they found the little emotional nugget that turned LEGO around. In the early 2000 they started using big data analytics, looking for trends in a quantitative way. Their consultants told them the attention span of the target audience was getting shorter. So the brand had to be super-fast, super easy and super achievable. There was a huge amount of evidence in the data that suggested this. Make LEGO easier or they would become merely an historical interest like the yoyo, the consultants said. Lindstrom thought they were wrong." 

Martin Lindstrom got his first job at LEGO because he was a big fan. Burns: "An inside guy, very passionate about the brand. Later on as a consultant he did a case study for them. Lindstrom was suspicious of the big data, and just went to spend quality time with young people that were in love with LEGO, and some also falling out of love with it. All of his insights came from one tiny observation. No data points, algorithms or analytics. Just a kid showing him his favourite pair of trainers and that moment changed everything."

Badge of achievement
"This kid was into skateboarding as well as LEGO.", Burns goes on. "And Lindstrom asked the boy to show him the things that really made a connection and were important to him. The boy just showed Lindstrom a pair of pretty scruffy-looking trainers, but explained that all the scratches showed how good a skateboarder he is. For him his trainers were like his medal, his badge of achievement." That's when Lindstrom knew: it's not about easy and fast, Burns points out. "It's about doing things brilliantly and showing, to those in the know, how good you are at something. So instead of making easier, faster toys, LEGO made toys you had to be an expert at to achieve in each level. All to make sure it became emotionally much more challenging. And then a whole community grew up around the challenge of doing these more complicated LEGO kits. Lindstrom helped the brand ignore the big data and see the power of the human truth underneath. By framing that for LEGO, it completely changed their strategy." Burns still uses this knowledge when working for toy brands: "When working with toy brands, I always try to get them to that human truth, that emotional pay-off that your brand stands for."

Almost bankrupted
It's safe to say all this was a gamechanger for LEGO. Not only for the quality of their products, but for their whole brand experience, Guido Schild also mentions. He takes us back to the moment LEGO were almost bankrupted in 2004: "One of the other reasons LEGO became one of the world most successful toy brands through the years is because they realised they were doing too much; things like movies, tv series, computer games, theme parks. They did so much, but not all in high quality. When they reduced this complexity, the success came back."

The LEGO Movie
You can spot the difference in the way they made the first LEGO Movie. "For this movie they chose to work together with professionals. But when they saw the first version, they declined it, because it wasn't good enough. The team was asked by LEGO to redo it twice before it actually felt brand appropriate and supported their philosophy.", Schild says. This quality approach is so important for the long term success of a toy brand. Schild: "That's why LEGO only produces in their own factories. From Mexico to the US and of course 'hometown' Denmark: all across the world, so they can always control the quality. Someone from LEGO once told me: 'We are working for the most important days for a child, like their birthday and Christmas. As a brand you can't spoil these moments.' That's why they process every brick in house, all to deliver an outstanding experience."

With a high quality product and a high quality app, you can bring your brand experience to the next level. Something Burns is familiar with, not only as a brand transformation expert, but also as a parent: "My daughter is obsessed with LEGO DOTS and LEGO VIDIYO: little bits of plastic jewellery to create and share. These pieces are not only collectables, they are creative and shareable. LEGO VIDIYO uses an augmented reality app to create and edit films starring the LEGO characters. It gets my daughter using tech to create and share in a safe environment. The LEGOs are connected to artists and bands, and via the app you can listen and watch them play their music. And if you're a parent like me, you pay the monthly subscription so your children can use the app and enjoy the full experience, whilst they are learning and sharing with their friends. It's also fun too!"

Creating a buzz
The brand has not just delivered the creativity and technology, Burns underscores, but it also understands the dynamic between parent, child and toy. "All of this is working in harmony. Very important because there are a number of toy brands that any parent will tell you they just battle with their children about. My kids are always asking me to buy basically meaningless stuff they've seen on YouTube, which has an attention span of a matter of seconds, days or weeks. Mostly collectable brands with a lot of cheap plastic stuff with clever marketing. Successful in terms of short term sales and creating a buzz. But most of the time it's off trend sooner then they hope, not only because children play with it for a short period, but because parents don't like it." Another toy brand which seems to understand this parent-child dynamic very well is the recent favourite of Burns five year old son: "My son first was into LEGO, now he's into Bakugan. Little balls in different colours. When they roll they open up into little robots or animals. It's an online trading game: you can swap and compete with friends. And it's also a physical game of skill: you roll them across the board. It's collectable, not wasteful and rewards both sides of the parent-child relationship."

Future challenge
In addition to this harmonious interaction between parent and child, Burns points out it's important toy brands start moving business models away from selling bits of plastic, to selling emotional benefits and connections. "Toy brands should be aware the challenge coming around to them fast: sustainability. Most of the parents I know feel guilt about the plastic they buy their kids and avoid it as much as possible. Not particularly good for the harmony between parent and child. Particularly when today's youngsters and young adults start to become parents; this is going to be all the more critical for toy brands in the future." Good thing LEGO is not only busy making new bricks from recycled materials: bricks that still fit easily on to the old ones. And the bricks are re-usable: not for a couple years, but for generations. No surprise the second-hand market in LEGO is BIG according to Guido Schild: "There is a lot of trading: not only between kids, also between adults. They offer you whole sets or pieces on sites like Bricklink and Brickscout."

In the beginning, about twenty years ago, LEGO wasn't a big fan. "They even tried to stop the trading.", Schild continues. "Through the years this completely changed: the brand now embraces it, for example by organising events together. It's become a whole new community. These fans even give the brand ideas for new sets and missing pieces they'd like them to produce." On their own platform LEGO takes it even a bit further with Replay, where they ask fans to pass forward their much-loved LEGO bricks and share the power of play with kids in need.

Educational background
For toy brands that don't want to be a one day fly, Schild has one last suggestion: "Parents and grandparents in general really like toys with an educational background. It's one thing we would like our kids to be entertained playing with it, but the best thing is if it teaches them something as well." And if you're searching for this genius idea both children and parents like, make sure you observe them very well, Burns adds. "If you want long term success and this more meaningful connection, don't just make sure you're financially and commercially managed. Try to get under their skin by spending time watching, interacting, observing them. So think long term and get close. And don't forget the parent-child dynamic changes through the years. What also helps: if I'm going to influence a 13 year old now, I'm thinking about him when he's a dad and I want him to talk about my brand when he's got children. When you start thinking in that way about toys, that's where the success of brands like LEGO & Playmobil come from."

Never goes out of style
A couple of days after I've spoken to Andy Burns and Guido Schild I'm walking with my son in the Intertoys store. He did a very good job listening to the dentist and is allowed to choose a small toy. A big challenge of course. The first thing he sees are shelves full of Bakugan. It's love at first sight. When we come home with the little red ball that changes into a dragon, he says: 'So cool, we can also play football with it, mom!' Another thing that never goes out of style… 

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