LEGO, Parenting Mistakes, and a Stroke of Marketing Brilliance

With the Oscars just a one more sleep away I’d like to say I’ve spent the last week filling gaps in my 2013 movie viewing repertoire.  Unfortunately, the polar vortex and its ensuing cabin fever resulted in the Lego Movie as my last visit to the cinema.

In my opinion, most movies for kids are best viewed after the DVD release.  This way, the kids can watch while we parents do something else.  Those few kids’ movies that earn box office success, do so thanks to reviews that endorse them as bearable for the parent audience to endure.  The very best of these include a hearty helping of pop culture references and adult innuendo to elicit frequent laughs from grown-ups, and the Lego Movie was one of these.  Of COURSE the Batman Lego man is cloaked in a looming aura of doom and will only build with black or “very dark grey” blocks.  Ha!

But for me, the brilliance of the Lego Movie is in its marketing genius. 

When I was a kid, my Lego kits promised that I could build two or three things; maybe a couple of simple houses.  Inside the box were various colours of big rectangles, squares and ‘the little ones.’  If the kit was fancy, I might find a few flat shapes and maybe a window or door.  That was it.  The instructions were simple, which was a good thing because in those days children were expected to amuse themselves with their toys without parental assistance.  Once I finished the structure pictured on the front of the box and used it to elicit praise from the nearest adult, I felt no hesitation in tearing it apart and making something else.  Eventually, the instructions would be tossed and the pieces would be added to my jumbled bucket of mixed shapes and colors from kits gone by. 

For years, I found entertainment in that bucket, never constructing the same thing twice, mixing and matching pieces to build something new every time with only a vague idea of the end game.  I loved my Lego, and so it’s been a bit of a disappointment that my kids don’t share this devotion.   

Lego kits today contain what feels like a million different, highly specialized pieces in every box.  No longer can you simply ask a friend to help you find all the ‘flat-white-eight ones.’  Now it’s a search for the ‘little clear button shaped one with a hinge’, and finding it is like seeking a needle in a haystack. 

Neither Craig nor I would ever claim to be engineering wizards, but we’re not dummies either, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the instructions in Jack and Taylor’s Lego kits can baffle us.  The designs are so complex that following them feels a bit like tackling homework.  There are frustrated voices, garbled comments thrown in from people on the sidelines and occasionally angry tears.  More often than not, a parent takes over; eventually the kid gets bored watching and wanders away. 

When the thing is finally finished though, it’s fantastic.  One of Jack’s kits turned out a garbage truck that was completely operational.  The driver, glorious in his five o-clock shadow, was able to grip the steering wheel, the garbage compartment cantilevered perfectly and the wheels swiveled to produce a remarkable turning radius.  It was so fantastic that today, more than five years later, it remains intact and on display in Jack’s bookshelf. 

And therein lays the issue.  The garbage truck was too good, and the idea of tearing it apart felt sacrilegious.  It took us SO long to assemble!  Where would we put the pieces if we tore it apart?  Certainly we couldn’t fathom mixing them in with other pieces from other kits!  If that one, critically important, unique piece was difficult to find in a kit of 500 pieces, imagine trying to find it amidst a mountain of 5,000!  Never mind the risk that the whole search might be futile, should that special piece have been long ago sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.

When we realized that a finished Lego structure was simply too big to store, and we could finally bring ourselves to disassemble it, the pieces were carefully separated and hermetically sealed in a kit-specific Ziploc bag along with the instructions.  The idea was that one day we would assemble it again.  But once you’d assembled it once, and undergone all of the associated stress and crying, who in their right mind would want to do that again? 

Trying to build something else out of those pieces seemed like a waste of time.  It was patently clear that anything else we might try to assemble from that special mix of highly engineered pieces would be inferior to the thing that was pictured on the box.  In the absence of achieving this level of perfection the entire exercise felt useless.

And so my kids’ Lego collections sit, gathering dust either as completed display models or in collections of lonely pieces in the backs of cupboards.

My kids have Lego because my generation loved it.  While my childhood reaction to Lego was ‘yay”, the mention of Lego to my kids is much more likely to elicit an ‘ugh.’  I hazard to guess that my kids will not be rushing to buy Lego for the next generation.

The future of Lego looks bleak.  A marketing conundrum for sure!

Enter the Lego Movie.

The plotline of the Lego Movie involves an evil overlord that insists on the creation of distinct Lego worlds.  The Lego space world shall remain separate from the Lego cowboy world.  The Lego big city world shall remain separate from the whimsical Lego circus world.  No mixing allowed.   The Lego people in the various worlds follow strict instructions as to how to navigate through their day.  They must ALWAYS follow the instructions. 

Every evil overlord these days needs a weapon of mass destruction and in this story, that weapon is the dreaded Kragle (aka Krazy Glue).  Once an army of ‘Micro-managers’ gets every piece in the perfect position, the plan is to Kragle them in place so that eventually the worlds will be permanently sealed in their most perfectly, perfect state.

As you can imagine, a hero emerges to save the Lego worlds from this grim fate.  He sets out on a mission to free the Lego people, encouraging them to unleash their inner ‘Master Builders,’ casting instructions aside, and intermixing pieces from various worlds to create unlimited construction possibilities.

For parents of my generation, the movie connects with our memory of the Lego of our youth and the sadness we feel about how Lego isn’t as fun as it once was.  Interestingly, although it’s us parents that mourn the loss of that historic Lego experience, it’s also us that, like the evil overlord in the Lego movie, are robbing it from our kids. 

It is us that demand instructions must be followed (‘at least once!’).  It is us that feels compelled to save that remarkable item once it’s built.  It is us that shudder when our kids dump the pieces on the living room floor and some of them tumble under the couch.

From a marketing perspective, the Lego Movie is admirable in its potential to drive demand for a decades old product.  However, its true brilliance lies in consumer insight into the barriers that will inhibit sustained demand. 

It was my kids who wanted to see the Lego Movie, but the more I think about it the more I realize that perhaps it wasn’t intended for kids after all.

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One thought on “LEGO, Parenting Mistakes, and a Stroke of Marketing Brilliance

  1. Hi Diane,

    I tried to use the “comment” link below but didn’t have any luck. Just wanted to say your post almost made me want to see the movie! I think I can wait for it to come on TV. We didn’t have LEGO in our youth, so can’t relate on that level – but as adults we have put IKEA bookshelves together and that sounds like a similar experience to what you describe in your 6th paragraph “LEGO today contains what feels like a million different, highly specialized pieces….”

    Hope this finds the Williams’ family well, as we are here in Victoria.

    Love to all,

    Winnie

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