I was feeling generous that afternoon, to nephews I seldom saw. We were at a mall, which one I forget, but it had a large toy store. The kids were kids, frisky, at the age when they do not walk, they run. I was godfather to one of them, and, since we saw them so infrequently, I told both of them to go into the toy store and pick out a toy — any toy, and that I would pay for it. I told them to take their time, to make sure they gave the choosing serious deliberation and time.
This was more than a decade ago, and I was reminded of this episode by recent news that Toys “R” Us is facing bankruptcy.
The boys would rush out to us, holding a ball or some figurine, and then would hesitate, ask us to wait as they reconsidered their choices, and run back into the aisles. This happened several times, memory tells me. After an hour or so, the two went up to us and asked if, instead of toys, they could just have the money so they could play games in Timezone.
I remember that we practically had the store to ourselves that afternoon, and that they were dashing about, scouring every aisle. That store could have been a warehouse, and we could have stayed there till closing time and I do not think the outcome would have changed.
“Toys R Us has aisles and aisles stacked high with products, but they will never win that fight with the internet,” said retail analyst Kate Hardcastle in a BBC article.
Now this isn’t wisdom of hindsight. I can say “I saw it coming” that day, and I think the world saw it as well: we all predicted that the brick and mortar store will eventually lose to what is more convenient, and physical toys to digital.
Sometimes I really wonder how people use research, how they couldn’t see what was unfolding. We all saw the trends and innovations; we noticed that our values were changing, and that these changes were affecting what we bought and used and preferred. Toys “R” Us, Nokia, bespoke clothes, Blackberry, Sony, to name a few, seemed to just let things happen. Film will die, we knew that, and the best camera in the world is the phone in your backpocket. But Kodak could have been the best digital camera, and Nokia could have been the iPhone.
Ah, but Lego is alive.
It is the one physical toy that is very much alive. The brand is nourished and excited and well sustained by advertising and branded content.
“Lego was forced to reinvent itself after coming under intense pressure from electronic toys and video games in the early 2000s. It slimmed down and refocused. Sales quintupled over a decade to reach $6 billion in 2016.” (Ivana Kottasová, CNN Money).
Lego is not even a complete toy. It is one that depends totally on imagination and effort to be of value, to be a toy. Before human intervention, it a piece of plastic, painful if stepped on.
“Lego’s ultimate purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future. The brand believes that play is a key element in children’s growth and development. High-quality play enriches a child’s life and lays a strong foundation for adult life,” Ogilvy Thailand Vice Chairman Nopadol Srikieatikajohn tells AdFreak.
The old toy car you pull back to rev and release has lost to the digital car that can run races on a cell phone. Lego isn’t even a toy—it is a pile of expensive plastic bricks that cannot fly or drive.
Now why is the unmade toy—interlocking plastic bricks—alive, well and selling?
The battlefield is in the mind. Lego is a perfect example of a brand tended to, cared for and regularly rejuvenated. They built a world inhabited by Star Wars and the Disney Princess, Batman, Ghostbusters, Marvel. The Beatles! They built kits around the Olympics. They immortalized Paralympic winners as Lego figurines. And then there’s LegoLand.
It is easy to build stories with the figurines as central characters. “U.K.-based photographer Andrew Whyte shows us the world through the lens of a Lego figurine, “The Legographer. These expertly composed photos, which Whyte took on his iPhone every day for a year, feature a Lego Man… lugging around a Lego camera and taking pictures that we will never see.” (Joe Berkowitz, Fast Company). In 1989 or thereabouts, I suggested branded content to the exclusive distributor; that we create a series of video shorts with Lego figurines. No expensive animation necessary; just cinematography and good storytelling. Television, though, was the medium then; airtime would have been too costly, and this was 15 years before YouTube.
The lesson, as always: If the battle is in the mind, and if you made the advertising powerful enough, it is a battle you can win. McDonalds isn’t about hamburgers; it is about a warm feeling inside you, a place for making memories. Nike isn’t about shoes; it’s about going beyond your limits, doing your best and leaving nothing. Lego is more than just tiny, interlocking plastic bricks and pudgy versions of heroes and characters selling at absurdly high prices. Lego provides a movie theater inside a child’s head; it is about dreams of outer space, of being superheroes or spacemen. It provides the satisfaction of construction.
This is the power of maintained propaganda. With a well-wrought integrated marketing program that includes branded content, this physical, unbuilt toy is beating the digital game.
The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.