Lego is unique in uniting entertainment franchises having pulled Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Minecraft, Powerpuff Girls, Bugatti and Ghostbusters on to the same toy shelf - and in some instances - the same movies.
With The Lego Movie 2 set to premiere later this week, Jill Wilfert, Lego’s vice-president of licensing, is the person tasked by the Danish toy brand to get (sometimes) competing partners to play nice together, immortalised as Lego toys or as part of its media empire.
She leads a team that scouts the entertainment world for partnership opportunities, properties, licenses and platforms that can enhance Lego’s global reach, be it on TV, movies, in the music world or on emerging tech platforms.
If you haven’t played with Lego in the last decade you may be surprised to find aisles upon aisles of specialised franchise fodder. Toy boxes around the world are filled with Doctor Who, Darth Vader, Spider-Man, Batman and Disney princess mini figures.
Wilfert tells The Drum: “We're able to convince partners about the way kids play with Lego. Kids don't follow whether characters are from DC or Lucasfilm, they play with them all as Lego characters and mix them together."
It was this mindset that inspired the script of the Lego Movie and its upcoming sequel.
"We pitched [this mix] and [the brands involved] knew it was authentic and took a leap of faith.” She adds: “We really pioneered it. We do this better than anyone else, and we did it first, it is why we have been so successful in breaking barriers that other people haven't had permission to play.”
As a children’s toy brand first and foremost, Lego has to be careful about who it partners with. The team is “picky”, Wilfert admits.
“We say no to way more things than we say yes to… some brands have spent years trying to convince us.”
It is about aligning with brands that share the same values like “quality, imagination, creativity, and having a high degree of parental acceptance”.
She adds: “There are certain things that could have great commercial success that we don't do based on our values.” These include mature video games and R-rated films; even HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones is currently off the table and that could fly off shelves faster than heads fly off the shoulders of the series' lead characters.
Toy and content partnerships with beloved properties help “lift” the Lego brand and drive engagement. Any content must "deliver the Lego experience in a unique way”, but these tie-ups aren't advertising in the traditional sense, she claims.
Of course, if people are talking about Lego and engaging with Lego, they will likely want to buy Lego - and it's for this reason the company is looking to reduce friction in its sales lines with innovations like helpful Facebook chatbots.
According to Wilfert, brands are queuing to work with Lego, because they like the humour and charm her own brand possess.
She says: “If you take Star Wars as an example, the folks at Lucasfilm realised we add a lot of value for them as an IP owner, we gave them the freedom to laugh a bit more. Darth Vader as a mini-figure is just funny, we really lean into the ‘Lego humour’.”
At the negotiating table, potential partners are informed of the value Wilfert believes Lego can deliver. She adds that Lego Star Wars, toy and video game series, are alone, bigger than most standalone franchises in those spaces.
Brands come aboard looking to access Lego’s global footprint and an often lucrative revenue line from toy sales.
“They really appreciate the marketing value of what we do. We have had partners come to create them Lego content… in some cases, they fully fund it because they know it helps to build their audience, and helps attract kids, helpful for properties that skew slightly older."
In the UK, Lego bought a full ad break to promote the movie, and Warner Bros UK's partners which included DFS, McDonald’s. The Legofication of these brands on national TV aimed to incentivise future partners and provide greater value. There are few franchises that carry the desirability, ability and aesthetic appeal to rip up the rule book in this way.
Building a movie franchise
The Lego Movie was in the works for numerous years. After its 2014 release, it grossed $469m worldwide as one of the most profitable and critically acclaimed movies of the year. Partial sequel Lego Batman (2017) took $311m, tapping into Lego and Warner Brothers Pictures' IPs.
According to Wilfert, there was an intrinsic difficulty in bringing the bricks and the brand’s play ethos to life. What was delivered was a madcap comedy adventure that threw memorable figures from numerous franchises into a blender – while also telling a meta-tale about how the bricks bring families together.
“It was daunting to take that leap of faith and bring the brand to the big screen. We’ve had people coming to us and knocking on the door for years to do it. We didn't just want to have something out there, it had to contribute to the brand.”
It took time for the company to find its feet in the space. The first version of the movie was reportedly binned, then started again from scratch. “It was new for us, we did some content but nothing to that scale, so we learned a lot. It was scary at some points in time but has been incredibly rewarding," explains Wilfert.
Directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were granted the “freedom to play” with the Lego Movie and its sequel. It was during a Lego meeting with Lucasfilm that the duo’s ill-fated stewardship of Solo: A Star Wars Story was cultivated.
They’ve since returned to the fore having produced acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and directing The Lego Movie 2.
“That's a whole other story,” she jokes. “If we had been more prescriptive or controlling then we wouldn't have come up with something that was so beloved by people.”
The difficulty in delivering the sequel was in subverting audience expectations. Wilfert says critics didn’t want to like the first movie, which when cynically viewed is at worst a masterclass in branded content.
“They had to like it because it was so funny and now the expectations are sky high."
The sequel touches down again with lead characters Emmet and Lucy. She kicks off the trailer: ‘Once, everything was awesome. Now, everything… is bleak’. This frames a narrative that explores boys and girls learning to share Lego and the notion that you can be ‘too old’ to play with Lego. Wilfert quotes further: “You don't stop imagining because you get old, you get old because you stop imagining.”
In it well see established favourites clashing with the blockier Duplo range – which is represented as a horde of alien invaders.
Not all fun and games
Lego has to be on the cutting edge to drive its relevance in culture and sustain market-leading sales. In 2017, it took a 5% sales hit, after 13 years of consecutive growth. 1,400 jobs were cut from the 18,200-strong workforce as it looked reset its complex structure around brick sales.
In the first half of 2018, the turnaround was on. It grew its global consumer sales by 1%. Group chief executive Niels B Christiansen said this shows the stabilisation plan was “on track” despite it being a tough time to be a toy company, best indicated by Toys R Us’ wipeout in 2018.
Although she holds her cards close to her chest on how it will innovate its product and media output, Wilfert hints that there is always an aim to “bring brand relevantly into new spaces”.
She concludes “the way we consume media is evolving”. She made a point of saying Lego has a great relationship with video streaming company Netflix…
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is released in cinemas 8 February 2019.