May 1, 2023
The 80-year story of Danish toy brand LEGO is one of ups and downs. From two fires that obliterated founder Ole Kirk Christiansen’s early workshops, through to product missteps and large sell-offs in recent years, it’s been a bumpy ride.
But the brand has survived to become the largest toy company in the world through a series of pivots and a focus on its product - plastic bricks with infinite possibilities.
Ever the innovator, LEGO has embraced content marketing to use video, user-generated content, influencer marketing and experiential experiences that turn its fans into superfans. Despite its challenges, LEGO has evolved with the times while sticking to its core value—the importance of play.
Here we’re going to look at the legacy of LEGO while looking at how its marketing strategy has played a role in its continued success.
In his carpentry workshop in rural Denmark, Christiansen started out making wooden homewares in the 1920s, before moving on to wooden toys in the 1930s as the world struggled through the wake of the Great Depression.
Christiansen’s idea was that people would always find money for toys. In 1934, the company name LEGO was coined, coming from the Danish 'leg godt', meaning ‘play well’. Sales grew steadily, and in 1947, Ole Kirk bought the first plastic injection-molding machine in Denmark, which allowed him to experiment with this relatively new material.
One line of toys he made was ‘Automatic Binding Bricks’, which sat neatly together and were easy to separate (a bit too easily at this point). But they came in a range of sizes and formats.
It wasn’t until 1955 that the standardized LEGO System was developed and launched. The patented mechanics - studs and tubes - through which the bricks attached to one another had been perfected.
It’s this ‘clutch power’ that provides just the right amount of grip between pieces, and believe it or not these first bricks, and the system that connects them, are still compatible with today’s sets.
Initial reactions to LEGO were lukewarm and it took time to grow, but grow they did, and international expansion ramped up in the 1960s with particular success in northern Europe and the UK. At this time Ole Kirk’s successor – his son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen - set out the core values of the product that guide the brand to this day:
The 1960s was also the decade that saw LEGO start to become a multi-vertical brand. Legoland Billund opened in the company’s hometown in 1968 and attracted an astonishing 625,000 visitors in its first season.
A second theme park, in Sierksdorf, Germany opened in 1972 yet closed down after just three years. Eventually, in 2005, following a series of loss-making years, the company sold the Legoland parks to Merlin Entertainment, a global group of attractions and theme parks.
This move is emblematic of the way that LEGO now conducts its business across the various verticals. Whilst retaining close control of its toy product, much of which is still produced in Denmark, LEGO opts to partner with industry-leading franchises and groups to deliver these complementary experiences without the risk involved in owning theme parks, video game publishers or film studios.
In our post-pandemic world, LEGO has further pushed its customer experience (CX) and sustainability initiatives with an omnichannel approach that has cemented brand loyalty while continuing to boost profits. Without a doubt, one of the biggest drivers of Lego’s renaissance is down to a change in leadership.
The mid-2000s was a tough time for the Lego Group. Hard as it is to imagine today, the product and brand were seen as unfashionable and they struggled to avoid huge losses year after year - in 2004 losses peaked at 1.9bn Danish kroner ($328m; £175m).
The narrative in the press at that time is characterized by this BBC News story asking if Lego was becoming irrelevant as children were increasingly turning to digital entertainment.
In 2004 the company appointed its first CEO from outside the Christiansen family - Jorgen Vig Knudstorp. He came to the business initially as a management consultant from McKinsey. When asked how he turned the company around he describes his five phases of leadership (which lasted 12 years until he stepped down to become chairman in 2016) as the following: survive, purpose, let growth loose, step up, leap.
Tackling the sheer survival of this iconic brand meant closing offices, laying off staff, selling the theme parks, and getting back to what gave Lego its purpose in the world. Knudstorp talks about spending his first two years trying to answer two questions - ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘why are we here?’.
He realized that the company had lost sight of its greatest asset, and the thing it was best at - precision-engineered, interlocking plastic bricks from which you could build anything. All the other enterprises were not things that Lego were the best in the world at, and so they left it to others to run their theme parks, and game and film studios, even their office canteen.
He also reduced the product range - slashing the number of available bricks from 13,000 to 6,500, and he introduced senior people in the company to the idea of fan collaboration, something the brand had never considered appropriate.
It was around this time that LEGO finally started to engage with the AFOL (Adult Fans Of Lego) community, a thriving global network of builders who create and share their work online, regularly congregating at unofficial conventions such as Brickworld and BrickCon.
These superfans take LEGO building to a whole new level of inventiveness and complexity but the company took little interest in them, until the mid-2000s when they partnered with a Japanese crowdsourcing site Cuusoo (from 空想 (kuusou) meaning wish or imagine in Japanese) to invite new product ideas from enthusiasts in Japan. Lego would consider any idea that gained more than 1,000 votes from the community, and if they went on to manufacture it they would give 1% of the product’s net revenue to the designer.
The concept took off, and soon took hold outside of Japan. Early sets that made it to shelves included the DeLorean time machine from the movie Back to the Future, a Yellow Submarine styled after The Beatles’ animated 1968 feature film, and NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover module.
In 2014 Lego brought the initiative into its own site, ‘Lego Ideas’, and today the company fully engages with its fan community. Prominent amateur builders have even been hired by the company as product designers, including community luminary Jamie Berard who now designs many of Lego’s most anticipated new sets.
To celebrate the brand’s migration back to its core values and 90 years of rebuilding through play, the brand launched its largest global marketing campaign in 2022.
Four years following its “Rebuild the World” brand platform, LEGO invited its droves of ‘Super Fans’ to indulge in a global brand takeover across channels including social media, LEGOLand parks, retail stores, and the LEGO Foundation.
This ambitious campaign earned mass global engagement while thrusting the brand’s community values into the limelight. As a collaborative project, the brand launched the campaign around World Play Day, with a series of engaging initiatives including influencer partnerships with Peggy Gou, Alicia Keys, and Yotam Ottolenghi.
The pace of growth was accelerated with the 2014 release of the LEGO Movie. It scored 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, something only matched that year by Oscar-winning films Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.
The film was followed by The LEGO Batman Movie in 2017, which again performed well both critically and commercially. Most recently, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part also earned a more than respectable 84% Rotten Tomatoes rating as well as a healthy dose of critical acclaim—a testament to the brand’s persistence and consistency.
The movie was stylistically inspired by the wealth of fan-produced Lego movies already published on YouTube, another nod to their avid fan base. The Lego Movie was almost completely computer-generated yet the stop-motion style and quality storytelling of production kept the film grounded in the physical product.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the level of effort and passion put into the film is clearly evident, even to the casual viewer. Living up to the Lego motto, ‘Only the best is good enough’, they produced a lovingly-crafted movie that far surpassed the low quality of a typical toy-movie tie-in, and was a hit with critics as well as the public.
It scored 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, something only matched that year by Oscar-winning films Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The film was followed by The Lego Batman Movie in 2017, which again performed well both critically and commercially.
LEGO retail stores continued to open around the world, along with a smaller number of Legoland Discovery Centers.
Innovative retail store developments that continue to immerse customers in the LEGO brand and all it has to offer include:
Having gained such a strong position in the toy market, the boom in mobile apps and gaming presented a perfect opportunity for LEGO to engage their audiences in places where they were spending more of their free time.
The brand’s mobile apps cater to builders of all ages. From the popular Duplo Trains app and LEGO Juniors for young children, to in-depth adventure games around the main product lines and partnerships such as Batman, Star Wars, Ninjago, and the hugely successful LEGO Friends which has, in a very modern way, brought the toy full circle back to the original concept of girls enjoying it just as much as boys.
As a part of its pivotal plans to create fair and inclusive products and experiences, LEGO has also pledged to partner with the Geena Davis Institute and UNICEF to tackle gender bias. As part of its big shift, LEGO is on a mission to remove gender bias from its toys, media, and products—a journey outlined in the brand’s visually engaging 10-step guide.
A more cautious business might worry that allowing people to play with their product for free in a virtual space could cannibalize their revenue. But Lego’s philosophy is that their product is much like books - you can have very similar experiences in other formats, but nothing will ever replace the real thing, and in fact engaging with the characters, themes and mechanics of Lego’s world only deepens the love and desire for their physical product.
LEGO is very much back in the center of contemporary culture. The product is cool again, the films and video games are blockbusters, and the theme parks have been revived under new management. Even artists are creating credible, cutting edge work and street-level guerrilla art from the iconic plastic bricks. But as consumers today increasingly look to their favorite brands’ environmental impact and corporate ethics, how are LEGO preparing for this more conscientious future?
LEGO has demonstrated an admirable openness to hearing environmental concerns around their operations. In 2005 the environmental charity Greenpeace accused a number of toy companies, including Lego, of using packaging material sourced from trees cleared out of the Indonesian rainforest. This campaign resulted in Lego switching to materials sourced from sustainable forests.
In 2014 pressure again came from Greenpeace, this time to drop its partnership with Shell. This multichannel campaign which centered around a high-production-value video ad and forecourt activism gained wide support, and again LEGO acquiesced, announcing that they would not renew their contract with the petroleum brand.
Most recently, LEGO has committed to increasing the use of green energy through solar panels and other alternative energy sources for corporate offices and production factories. The brand also sources its store and corporate furniture from nearby sustainable providers to drive down shipping emissions.
In its revamped and incredibly accessible sustainability plan - presented as a highly-visual microsite - LEGO has also pledged its commitment to creating an improved workplace culture as well as its step towards creating a circular with its groundbreaking Replay Scheme.
In addition to the LEGO Movie franchise, which many believe to be one of the most colossal content marketing initiatives of all time, the brand is incredible at celebrating its products and values across key digital marketing channels.
LEGO earns most of its traffic either directly, organic search, and social media. This suggests that the brand’s content marketing efforts are balanced, engaging, and meet the needs of its various audience segments head on.
The brand’s main Instagram page, for example, boasts an excess 9 million followers as well as droves of consistent fan engagement. Through a mix of inspirational influencer-led as well as user-generated content, LEGO showcases the boundless capabilities of its product in a way that’s fun and practical in equal measure.
In addition to demonstrating just what its products can do, LEGO uses a conversational approach as well as a healthy dose of humor where necessary to ensure its brand voice really resonates with fans, old and new.
LEGO has its very own in-house marketing agency to create consistently impactful and playful content marketing campaigns that propel the brand forward. This standout approach shines in LEGO’s 2022 seasonal campaign, starring Katy Perry:
Not only did this influencer-based content marketing effort make a significant impact, it also serves to showcase the brand’s core values of the power of play, creativity, and spending time with others.
“Timing is a very important part of being a father. You should never show your kids things before they're ready. Especially with movies. Toys like Lego are okay because the fact that your 3-year-old can't understand the instructions ultimately leads you to constructing it yourself... the secret plan all along.” Actor Rhys Darby
Today there are more LEGO mini-figures in the world than people, and they’ve even traveled further than us, with three of them actually orbiting Jupiter as you read this (aboard NASA’s Juno mission, analyzing the gas giant at close quarters).
LEGO is at the top of the tree, being named Toy of the Century and enjoying record sales. It’s an inspiring story of perseverance but also one where the commitment to design and quality was reconciled with an openness to let the fans become part of their journey, creating a uniquely customer-centric superbrand.
With big digital transformation changes currently in motion, LEGO continues its path towards global playtime domination. The brand is looking to triple the size of its digital team in the coming years to move with likes of the metaverse and diversify its product range while keeping the iconic LEGO brick at the heart of its offering.
Created 2019, updated 2023