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.


To Serve and Protect

It’s on those windy autumn days, when just looking at the ice cold rain outside sends a chill to the depth of my bones, that I’m grateful we’ve managed by some miracle to keep our garage clear enough to pull the car inside.

Our garage door had opened and closed almost 20,000 times over thirteen years, far outlasting many of the other builder-installed add ons in our home, when even the most generous squirts of WD-40 would no longer silence the ear-splitting squeals of failing mechanics.  One day it refused to open at all.

Our new model came with an exterior keypad so we could open it without the ‘clicker’ by punching in a series of numbers (which I can never seem to remember).  I didn’t think we needed this feature and in keeping with my reputation for frugality, I tried to negotiate a better price to exclude the keypad.  What if rain causes a short circuit and the thing goes berserk, opening our garage door while we’re out one day?  The salesman reassured me that a protective cover on the keypad would keep this from happening.  The price was a package deal with no option to omit the external unit.

So you can imagine my dismay when I returned home last week, in the middle of a driving October rainstorm, to find the protective cover lifted and the keypad exposed.  A plastic bag containing a “Water Analysis Data Form” and a small plastic bottle had been hung from the unit.

I was alarmed by the prospect that there might be something wrong with our water.  But reading more closely I realized that this wasn’t a public health initiative.  It was a marketing ploy.

The form read like an official notice and carried a number of logos, including the Canadian Water Quality Association and the Better Business Bureau, along with instructions for collecting the sample.  A series of questions asked, ‘When was the last time you had your water tested?’ and ‘Is drinking water quality important to you?’

Looking beyond my own driveway, I could see that my neighbourhood was littered with these bags.  They were hung on garage door keypads, garage door handles and even the odd light fixture.

This kind of marketing really bugs me.

Years ago, while chatting to our neighbours we learned that they had signed up for a long term fixed price gas contract.  Debating the merits of fixed versus market pricing for gas, we quickly came to appreciate that this seemingly bright and well-educated young couple had entered into the contract with little thought.  The salesman had seemed official, and gave the impression that everyone in the neighbourhood was making the ‘obvious choice’ and signing on.  I had often wondered how these door to door companies stay in business; doesn’t everyone know to shut the door in their face?  Apparently not.  It’s not just elderly grannies who get duped.

At the very bottom of the “Water Analysis Data Form” there was a telephone number.

“Yes, I’m calling to complain about the marketing materials that your company has littered throughout my neighbourhood.”

“One moment please.  I’ll put you through to the marketing manager in charge of that program.”

Several minutes of on hold beeps gave my blood ample time to reach a rolling boil.  While I waited, I dropped the bag of marketing materials into the kitchen trash can.

When the marketing manager finally took my call, I gave her a heady blast.  I criticized the company’s marketing practices and called them unethical.  And I fumed about distribution people having the nerve to fiddle with my private property and expose my garage door keypad to the elements.

“I am so sorry!” she said.

She really sounded sorry.

“The delivery team should never have touched that.  It is most definitely not the way we want our materials to be delivered and I completely understand why you’re upset.  On behalf of the company, I want to sincerely apologize.”

Well, that really took the wind out of my indignant sails.

“I want you to know how much I appreciate you calling to let us know.  I’m sure there are many people in your neighbourhood upset about this, but it was you who took the time to pick up the phone and call us.  You see, we hire distribution companies to deliver the materials and although we give them instructions as to how this should be done, we would never know they weren’t following our instructions if it wasn’t for you.  Thank you so much for calling.”

I didn’t quite know what to say in response – you’re welcome?

“We’ve been in business for many years and have a reputation to protect.  I want you to know that we will make this right.  Can I ask your address so that I can contact the team responsible right away?”

This woman was AWESOME at her job.  In just a few minutes she managed to completely diffuse my anger and endear herself to me.  She was just the kind of authentic, empathetic and articulate person I enjoy working with and she was incredibly passionate about the company she works for.  In fact, I was so taken with her, that after I hung up the phone I reached into the trash and retrieved the flyer to look up the company name.  And I started to wonder, “Maybe we should get our water tested.”

Now, I’ve come to my senses since then.  I still think the best water out there is the stuff continually monitored by municipal water professionals that pours straight out of my kitchen faucet for practically nothing.  But I share this story because it’s an illustration of the power of fantastic customer service.  There is no more difficult job than that of the complaints department.  The people who do it really well have a special gift, and the potential to save a company from damaging word of mouth that can render marketing efforts useless for years to come.

I worry about the future of customer service in a world where it’s farmed out to faceless call centres.  It’s easy to tell when someone is reading from a script; there’s no heart baked into the words they say.  When customer issues become ‘transactions’ billed by the minute, with the objective to mark the issue closed as quickly as possible, the true nature of customer service is lost.

And marketing for these companies, gets a whole lot harder.

Mourning the Loss of a Canadian Holiday Tradition

I was never much of a coffee drinker.  Sure, I’d order a coffee with dessert in a restaurant from time to time, but for many years my morning, afternoon and evening ritual was diet Coke.  During university I’d buy it at Valdi’s discount grocery store, in huge, flat trays of 24 cans that slipped easily under my bed for safekeeping.  But in my thirties when I became pregnant for the first time, I kicked my diet Coke habit.  I’d heard that artificial sweetener was a no-no for expectant Moms and so, along with alcohol, soft cheeses and shellfish, I gave it up cold turkey.  The dull headache of withdrawal lasted a good couple of weeks but after that I felt better than ever, and so once Taylor was born, diet Coke found its proper place in my life as a ‘sometimes’ beverage.

The car became my best friend during those initial months as a first time Mom.  It was my ticket out of the dusty, new home wasteland where we lived, to greener pastures where I could be distracted from the all consuming worry of new parenthood.  Plus, the car provided a delightful side benefit in its ability to lull Taylor into a deep sleep.

It was during this time that I began to glide through the Tim Hortons drive thru on a regular basis.  I’d order a sugary sweet, double double and then drive to a park by the lake to take in the view, while Taylor snoozed away in her car seat and I enjoyed my coffee.  It was December, and the Tim Hortons holiday cup design was in circulation.  Maybe it was my still-unsettled hormones but I can remember looking fondly at the holiday images on the cup, and then in the rear view mirror at the fuzzy hat of my sleeping baby, and feeling choked up with the realization that Craig and I were now on our way to becoming one of those happy families on the cup, frolicking in the snow.

The following year when the holiday cups hit the market, all those warm feelings came flooding back.  By then Taylor was one, and was captivated by the many decorations that appeared with the season.  A sparkly tree in our hum-drum basement, elves with bells on their shoes at our local mall, and coffee cups with a pictures on them.

As the years went on, the Tim Hortons holiday cups became a clear sign that Christmas was coming.  Never mind the holiday items at Costco that appeared in October… the Tim’s cups signalled that Christmas was close!  They coincided with Santa appearing at the mall, our annual family photo session at Sears Portrait Studio and strings of colourful lights beginning to adorn the houses in our neighbourhood.  We called them ‘happy cups.’

We were disappointed the year Tim Hortons went for a low budget brown on brown design for the holidays; we called them ‘not so happy cups.’  But the year following we were delighted to see a return to full colour.

So for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been waiting with anticipation for the appearance of the holiday cups but day after day, I’ve been disappointed.  Santa has been at the mall for weeks, the holiday photo session is done and our outdoor lights have been long lit, but still no happy cup.

Online, the absence of the holiday cups is generating lively conversation everywhere from, to Barrie’s hit music station B101, and even the chat room on   Theories abound, including one that takes the disappearance of the cups as a signal that corporations are coming to realize that the holidays are politically incorrect.

Falling into the camp of ‘Diane has too much time on her hands,’ I resorted to calling the Tim Hortons head office last week to inquire about the cups.  After a lengthy process of making choices using my touchpad, I finally reached a friendly customer service representative named Chantal.

“Thank you for calling Tim Hortons, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m calling because I haven’t seen the holiday cups yet this year and I’m starting to get worried that they’re not coming.”

“Do you mean the china mugs?”

“No I mean the paper coffee cups.”

“Unfortunately this year our Latte promotion ran too close to the holiday season and so we were unable to run the holiday cups, but our china mugs are available for purchase.”

Gasp!  They’re not coming????  I could practically hear the Grinch cackling with delight in his icy, mountain cave.

Chantal couldn’t have been more sympathetic to the irrational trauma that this news caused me.  Her down to earth, warm and understanding approach was everything that I would have expected from my favourite Canadian corporate icon.  But there was no hiding from the fact that Tim Hortons chose commerce over tradition this year.  Someone in that sensible brick office building on Sinclair Road in Oakville, decided that it was more important to try to sell lattes this year than to reinforce the warm, family-first, community focused character of their brand.

It worries me that Tim Hortons may think their best defense against customers leaking over to Starbucks and the like, is to offer fancy drinks like lattes.  I love Tim Hortons because it isn’t fancy.  Like me… who is also, not fancy.  The Tim’s brand mirrors my values, with a focus on family, friends and community.    It’s a deep emotional connection that is nirvana for marketers.

I asked Chantal if she knew how long the holiday cups had been running at Tim Hortons.  She said she didn’t but that she would get back to me.  A few days ago she called to tell me that she didn’t have an answer but was working on it, and wanted me to know that she hadn’t forgotten about me.  Chantal gets it.

I Dreamed I Won the Lottery

Yesterday, as I opened the card attached to a gift from Craig and the kids, out tumbled a “Classic Black” lottery ticket promising a top prize of $500,000. Imagine if I won!?  I couldn’t get to the cutlery drawer fast enough, to fetch a spoon and start scratching!

My brother Stephen says lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid, and I used to agree.  After all, the odds of winning anything substantial are so remote that regardless of
whether you have one ticket or twenty, they’re pretty much the same.  Close to zilch.

Back in the olden days, when I had a real job and a big salary, I almost never bought lottery tickets.  However, now that I don’t have a steady source of income I’ve found
myself buying tickets on a semi-regular basis.  How else are we going to get our hands on a cool quarter million???  We’re certainly not going to be able to save that figure in the near future.  A lottery win has become our only chance.

Plus, I now have time to buy a ticket.  In my prior life, shopping was all business.  I didn’t have time to dilly dally around, trying to choose a scratch ticket from the display case.  Even if someone gave me a scratch ticket as a gift, I could barely find time to enjoy the experience of uncovering the bingo/keno/scrabble spaces to see if I had won.

But now, not only do I need the money, but I have the time.

Although I have a fair amount of hope pinned on a lottery win in the near future, I know from my days in consumer packaged goods marketing that the odds are much better on the contests and sweepstakes offered by commercial companies.  So I’ve become quite active in these as well.  Every month, when my issue of Chatelaine arrives I flip to the ‘Have Your Say’ section in search of the question of the month and the associated prize pack.   I do my best to pen a witty response and monitor my inbox for a message containing the good news that I have won (any day now, I’m sure.)

Two years ago, the chance to win a Game Day Experience with Sidney Crosby would have been tossed in the trash with our Dempster’s bread wrapper but today the PINs pile up on my kitchen counter along with contests and offers from other products that I regularly buy, until I can find time to go online and enter them all.

A couple of weekends ago I sat down at the computer to attack this pile.

The first website I typed in was for Elle Magazine and their monthly ‘Win It’ promotion; the colour of the nail polish in the prize pack had caught my eye.  Unfortunately, the contest website address didn’t work.  Never one to give up easy, I tried going through the magazine’s main site.  Typing ‘Win It’ into the search box yielded nothing of value, nor did typing in the issue date of ‘October 2011.’  It was fifteen minutes before I was finally able to locate the contest entry screen, by which time I was convinced I would be the only entrant, given how difficult it was to find.  Diligently, I filled in the required data and pushed the ‘submit’ button, only to be met with a warning from my computer that I should think twice before going any further; the site was trying to attach cookies to my machine.  I do love cookies, but I vaguely recalled that techno ‘cookies’ were designed to function as little spies  monitoring your online activities and sending information back to the Mother Ship.  Crap!  I knew that Craig would have my head if I did anything to compromise the security of his beloved iMac, so I reluctantly aborted my quest for the nail polish.

Next, I pulled out the Rice Krispies box we had emptied at breakfast that morning.  A free $5 gas card promotion had motivated me to purchase this humungous package.  Eagerly, I tore open the carton to retrieve the unique PIN code printed inside.   This time, the web address I entered worked fine but the page gloomily declared that the promotion was over.  What?!  How old was the cereal that I’d fed my children that day?  Holding the carton at an angle where the embossed expiry date caught just enough light to become legible, I was shocked to discover that the product had been expired when I purchased it.   Now, I’m wise enough to check expiry dates on hamburger buns, yogurt and even pre-packaged deli meat, but Rice Krispies!?  Do I really have to start checking
expiry dates on shelf stable products?  I shuddered at the thought of how long it would take to do our weekly grocery shop.

Thankfully I thought, I had saved the best for last.  My latest box of Sunlight laundry detergent had contained a little instant win card that promised every PIN code was a winner, and so I held high hope for a positive experience.  In a few clicks I learned that I wasn’t a winner of one of the big prizes but I could still get a valuable coupon by continuing to enter information.  One of the pieces of information requested was the size and fragrance of the Sunlight I had bought.  Sadly, this was not on the tip of my tongue.  And so I humped my way up the stairs from the computer in the basement to our laundry room on the second floor to collect this information.  Lemon scent 64 loads, I chanted in my head on my way back down.  I proceeded to enter my name and address but hesitated when the site asked for my complete birth date.  Isn’t this a no-no?  I tried to enter just the year of birth but the site refused to process my submission without complete information.   I weighed the odds of the good folks at Unilever stealing my identity with my personal desire to have at least a measly coupon to show for the time I had spent online, and eventually entered the full date.  (Craig later tsk tsk’ed me for revealing this information and asked why I hadn’t entered a fake date of birth.  Good idea for next time.)

Finally, the site asked me to complete a skill testing question.  I’d had my morning coffee, but to be on the safe side I pulled out a calculator to do the math and then carefully typed in my answer.

“Your answer to the skill testing question was incorrect”

What?????   I used a calculator!  How could it be wrong?  I pushed the back button in an attempt to see the original question and identify the error I had made but the site wouldn’t let me get back.

With steam pouring from my ears I located the ‘contact us’ page and banged out a letter of complaint.  The icing on this bitter cake was the fact that I couldn’t find the ‘submit’ button to send my rant to the powers that be.   Arrrggghhhh!

I look back on my marketing days and regret that I didn’t spend more time pretending to be a consumer interacting with our products and the promotions we offered.  I spent so much time making sure that our communications OUT to consumers were strategically on target and legally sound, that I ran out of time to check to see what it was like for a consumer trying to engage IN.


Maybe the lottery is your better bet after all.