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Not for girls? Lego's lucrative but troubled relationship with females

The Lego Friends range has proved controversial - but lucrativeThe Lego Friends range has proved controversial - but lucrative

Continuing our series of brand profiles that began with Heinz, The Brand Union's head of strategy, Veb Anand, looks at Lego's controversial attempts to market a range specifically aimed at girls. The miniature brick brand also recently ended its giveaway partnership with the 
Sun, reportedly over the backlash against Page 3.

Lego claims its mission is to ‘inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.’ Its ultimate purpose is ‘to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – experiencing the endless human possibility.’

Powerful words. But contrast that with the new line-up of Lego Friends, targeted at girls. Against the backdrop of ‘Heartlake City’, it features new, pastel-coloured, blocks that allow Britney-like ‘ladyfig’ characters to craft themselves a beauty salon or café, or decorate their home before going ‘out with the girls’. The curvy characters are more reminiscent of Geordie Shore than they are of the legendary but square Lego ‘minifig’ character.

Now I would hardly expect a mass-market toymaker to manufacture toys that represent positive images of empowered ‘womyn’, but does it really need to depict its characters as vacuous bimbettes? Maybe that’s narrow minded – after all, women can be both empowered and in touch with their femininity. But in a toy for a five-year-old, the nuance appears sadly lost. Unfortunately, Lego isn’t just any brand. With an iconic reputation and strong vision, it is the self-proclaimed standard in inspirational and developmental toys. Accompanying that is an implicit responsibility, which subjectively simply does not apply 
to the likes of Hasbro or Mattel.

Lego has been through some 
hard times in the past few decades, but has bounced back. In the advent of the digital age the company struggled to find its place in the world. But it has fought hard to remain relevant – giving birth to several sub-brands targeted at different age groups, incorporated new technologies and licensed deals with some of the world’s most successful entertainment franchises.

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, chief executive, told the Financial Times: “A child needs physical activity. They can’t sit still – 
their physiology forces them 
to move. We think that physical toys such as Lego will be around for a long time.”

Lego’s key differentiator is precision; the tolerance of its branded studs is 1/50th of a millimetre, 10 times finer than 
a hair. This ‘click-fit’ has its own name at Lego – clutch power. According to Bloomberg Business Week, clutch power engineering is as closely guarded as the Coke recipe.

While Lego has been popular with girls in the past, the company has struggled to match the relevance it has with boys. Lego Friends was the outcome of extensive ethnographic research, where product designers, sales strategists and external consultants were dispatched in teams to shadow girls and interview their families. The findings? Girls like role-play, but they also love to build—just not in the same way as boys do. Whereas boys tend to be more linear and systematic – they build to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box, girls prefer storytelling and rearranging.

The problem with Lego’s market research is, well, market research. For those who work with brands day in and day out, you understand that research can be a double-edged sword in innovation and product development. Done in advance, it might give you a limited understanding of the prevailing context. But it doesn’t necessarily help you change the game. Lego has looked at what is going to sell to girls rather than what Lego could make for girls. By the time girls are the age for Lego Friends, they’ve already learned to appreciate pink, wear princess clothing and don a tiara. What research will find is merely the by-product of what girls have already been marketed their entire lives.

Did Lego not have the confidence to realise that perhaps it could create a step-change in the category by creating new role models and ways of playing for girls? It claimed to be armed with the understanding that the sexes play differently, but in the end compromised its ethos and toed the line in the interest of short-term gains. It’s one thing to understand that girls, unlike boys, like to play together and tell stories. But it’s a whole other thing to create a world of beauty salons and missing puppies, while your male counterparts are being challenged by more complex spatial and mathematical endeavours during playtime.

Having said all that, I’m not sure the Lego situation 
is worthy of the outrage it’s been greeted with in the press. But I do believe the Lego brand has taken a 
small but significant step in diminishing its differentiation and superior position from fellow toy manufacturers. 
While it may claim to be becoming more adaptable 
and innovative, decisions like these are likely to damage its reputation as a revered and respected brand. This is evidenced by the talk surrounding the company’s announcement about the end of its two-year promotional partnership with the Sun, amid speculation whether it was over the backlash against Page 3. It’s probably just an unhappy coincidence. But it’s starting to appear as though Lego might have ignited an uneasy relationship with the female gender.

Next to Lego’s mission on its website is its vision: ‘Inventing the future of play.’ It wants to ‘pioneer 
new ways of playing, play materials and the business models of play… it is not just about products, it is 
about realising the human possibility.’ Does that mean that the possibilities for girls are somewhat different 
than those for boys? It’s unfortunate that Lego doesn’t have faith in the potential of its new target, but even doubly unfortunate that it doesn’t have faith in itself.

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