[Vancouver Sun] LEGO Still Appeals to All Ages – Sept 21st, 2013

Just before the Guildford Town Centre LEGO Store Grand Opening, we were contacted by the Vancouver Sun newspaper for an interview about LEGO.   It is reproduced here for your convenience but he article below ran in the Sat Sept 21st, 2013 newspaper.

Lego still appeals to all ages

  • JENNY LEE jennylee Vancouversun.com/smallbusiness
  • VANCOUVER SUN See video with this story at vancouversun.com

Toymaker remains relevant after 55 years.

Lego still fuelling imaginations

Three-year-old James Sjoerdsma is a budding Lego creator. The toy has been appealing to youngsters since 1958.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG , Vancouver Sun

It isn’t a gun. It isn’t a video game. It’s just a plain plastic brick. Yet, Lego continues to appeal to today’s cyber- savvy kids just as much as — or maybe even more than — it did to their parents and grandparents decades ago.

Brickville DesignWorks’ Robin Sather created this double-decker bus exhibit in a weekend.The basic Lego brick hasn’t changed in 55 years. It might be a little heavier in weight, but a brick from 1958 will fit seamlessly with a brand new Lego Legends of Chima temple, a Star Wars Ewok Village, or a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. What’s more, the Lego Group is still owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, grandson of its Danish carpenter, joiner and toymaking founder.

Brickville DesignWorks’ Robin Sather created this double-decker bus exhibit in a weekend.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG, Vancouver Sun

In an otherwise sluggish toy market, Denmark’s Lego Group is opening its second Vancouver area store in as many years, and globally, the company recently passed Hasbro to become the world’s second largest toy maker. ( The world’s largest toy manufacturer is U. S.- based Mattel, which has a wide lead with brands that include Barbie, Fisher- Price, Hot Wheels, American Girl, Barney, Matchbox and others.)

The Lego Group now controls almost nine per cent of the global toy market, compared to Mattel’s 16 per cent.

But it might not have turned out this way.

‘ Safe creativity’

Just 10 years ago, Lego was on the verge of collapse.

Abbotsford’s Robin Sather, 48, attributes the company’s survival and success to what he calls “safe creativity.”

Sather is one of just 13 certified Lego professionals in the world. He’s not an employee, but the company has licensed him to make a living building Lego models.

“( Lego is) a way of being creative that isn’t intimidating. If I put a blank canvas and paint brush in front of most people, they will absolutely freak out. But if I put a pile of bricks in front of them, almost everybody will naturally reach for the brick and build something,” said Sather whose company, Brickville DesignWorks, creates large Lego sculptures for clients such as science centres, libraries, and shopping centres.

“As much as we like to think we’re digital creatures and we’re in a digital age, we’re still made of ( physical matter) and we like to touch and feel things,” Sather said. “There’s nothing that can match the feel of the bricks, the sound of them clicking together, the very quick way you can make something in 3D that tells a story.”

Nine years ago, Sather was an IT professional and a Lego enthusiast. “I wanted to bring Lego experiences to people,” he said. “I did it as a fan and pitched Lego ( about) sponsoring that.” Lego liked the idea and Sather became the company’s first “certified professional,” receiving discounted product and the right to use the Lego name.

Dale Reimer, 38, was at Guildford Town Centre’s new Lego store recently, shopping for his daughters, aged eight and six. “The biggest set I bought was when I was 30,” the electrician admitted with a grin. The giant Star Wars package set him back $ 400, money he couldn’t afford as a kid. “At the time, it was the biggest set you could buy.”

Elsewhere in the store, three year old James Sjoerdsma was playing with Lego ladders. His father, Michael, credited Lego’s Technics line — “where you learned about gears and torque and structural stability” — with setting him on the path to teaching electronic engineering at Simon Fraser University.

But for all that has stayed the same since 1958, much has also changed. Lego marketing is a far cry from that of yesteryear.

Franchise brands

Instead of simple bins of red, blue, yellow and white rectangular bricks, the Lego store is packed with franchised brands such as Batman, Lord of the Rings, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sales clerks, known as “brick specialists,” don’t hide behind the till, but are expected to foster relationships and meaningful interactions with shoppers of all generations. The goal is an immersive brand experience.

Lego’s mass retail partners may initially fear the competition, said Michael McNally, brand relations director for Lego Systems Inc., the North American business unit of Denmark’s Lego Group, but the company has found that showcasing the brand increases sales in all channels.

“It’s not a competitive move. It’s really designed to help all boats rise,” he said.

The company now has seven stores in Canada, 65 in the opportunity- rich U. S., and about a dozen in European markets.

In any given year, Lego has 450 individual building sets on the shelves, and 12 to 14 different play themes or storylines.

Legends of Chima, one of Lego’s newest themes, was conceived with an animated TV series, mobile and computer games, building sets, books and Lego store events. The Ninjago theme is similarly immersive.

This 360- degree branding strategy has been successful for the company since 2001, McNally said, because bricks alone aren’t enough. The name of the game is relevance.

So there are Lego microsites, online games, quizzes, serialstyle movies, cartoons, online community platforms, magazines, chapter books, stickers, activity books, multi- player games, theme parks, clubs, competitions, monthly in- store events such as mini- builds, and even a full- length Lego feature movie expected in theatres next February.

Loss of focus

It’s a good strategy employed by many, but the first time round, Lego did it wrong.

In the late- 1980s and early 1990s, Lego was flying high.

“Everybody just loved Lego, and they couldn’t get enough of it,” McNally said. “We got to a place in that excitement where we started to believe we could be everything to everyone. … We were making T- shirts and shoes and video games and books, and the problem was we were trying to make all of those things ourselves. … We lost our focus.”

Lego’s patent had run out in 1983, bargain- priced copycats had moved in, and Lego couldn’t sustain its diversified model. By 2003, the company was at its lowest point. It finally realized it needed to focus on making construction toys and licence out everything else. From then on, the company has been turning around. Today, there are Lego TV shows, consul games, websites, bedsheets, shoes, lunch boxes and even iPhone covers, but the company itself just makes bricks.

Creating community

“The whole idea is what you want to do is create brand familiarity from Day 1,” Simon Fraser University marketing professor Lindsay Meredith said. The way to compete with lowball copycats it to create a customer community.

“You let your customers interact with your products and brand, that’s how you create your loyalty,” Meredith said. “That’s how you compete with the lowball ( competitors.) What you’re trying to do is insulate your customers by using loyalty.”

Lego continues to work hard to engage the digital generation. Lego Digital Designer is a free program for creating virtual Lego models. “You can build your creation digitally, look at it, turn it around and ‘ walk’ inside it,” said Sather, who took a cut in pay to start building Lego full time.

Lego also has a site ( Lego. Cuusoo. com) where consumers can post their creations. If 10,000 people “like” a model, Lego may turn it into a commercial kit and pay royalties to the creator, said Sather.

Just as Disney movies are designed to appeal to both adults and children, Lego is acutely conscious of its adult consumer. “Where we really benefit is from the heritage and nostalgia people have for the brand,” McNally said. “In a sea of what can feel like digital madness, people tend to feel we’re a safe haven for their kids.”

Lego nostalgia

The Vancouver Lego Club ( www. vlc. ca) has 30 adult members. Member Pierre Chum, 43, fondly remembers the spectacular, large Galaxy Explorer 497 set his grandmother bought him for Christmas years ago.

“( Lego) takes you back to a younger time — whether a simpler time or for some, a better time — and a connection to nostalgia,” said Chum, a life insurance agent who became re- enthused by Lego after his nephew and niece were born.

“A lot of us are craving something. Maybe we have a lot of stress in our lives. Maybe this is a diversion. Maybe this is picking up something that’s more pure. It allows us to build something or be creative.”

The club meets monthly to build and chat about Lego. It also provides models for a community showcase box in the Oakridge Shopping Centre Lego store. Meanwhile, at the new Guildford Lego store, Michael Sjoerdsma, 35, talked about how the construction toy encourages creativity and free play.

Rachel Spracklin is manager of the new Lego store in Guildford Town Centre in Surrey.

Rachel Spracklin is manager of the new Lego store in Guildford Town Centre in Surrey.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG, Vancouver Sun

He remembers building amusement park rides, houses and monster trucks as a child, and still prefers the City, Technics and other sets that aren’t cobranded with movies and other entertainment franchises. He recognizes that his son James’s appreciation for Lego is a little more basic.

“I think the part of it he likes is he can make something and totally destroy it,” he said.

Once in a while, a product will attract Sjoerdsma’s attention — “Some of these things are clearly targeted at adults,” he said — and he’ll buy a set for himself under the guise it’s for his son.

“‘ Oh, yeah, it’s a little advanced,’” he’ll say, pretending to be surprised. “‘ It says for 16 and up.’”

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