Quick memorandum: This post is intended as a direct address to the marketing and design departments of the LEGO company. As such, I will be dropping my usual narrative voice and speaking solely in terms of marketing, sales, et cetera. There are plenty of other angles that could be taken on the issues and ideas I will put forward in this article, but I will abstain from taking them for the sake of effective communication. LEGO is a business, and as this is intended as a fully serious set of comments and proposals concerning its marketing and design efforts, I will be addressing LEGO in business terms. I personally care about a great deal more things than sales when discussing company practices, but LEGO’s sales departments revolve around sales, and so will this article. I will be taking the obviously wonderful effects of imagination and creativity for granted, and focusing on why incentivizing them and catering more to them would be profitable to LEGO. Obviously MOCers need no encouragement to create MOCs, but if LEGO incentivized it more I think it would be better for everyone.
It is without question that the products of the LEGO company are inherently creative. LEGO sets can be reconstructed and recombined into an endless amount of things, the only limit being the builder’s imagination. This being evident, the benefits of marketing LEGO products creatively are conceivable. I do not use the term “creatively” to indicate using creative approaches and strategies—that is intrinsic to marketing any products—but rather to propose the idea of marketing LEGO products as a creative medium. To market creativity itself, so to speak. This is no easy task, and not one yet undertaken by any other company I can think of, but considering the obvious creative nature of LEGO products it is rather surprising it has not yet been attempted at any considerable scale. If LEGO products were properly marketed in this fashion, the results could be incredibly lucrative for the company and beneficial for all concerned.
Currently, LEGO’s primary marketing strategy could be summed up in the maxim, “Collect Them All”. These words have been the go-to slogan for virtually every toy line ever sold, from Beanie Babies to the cheap miniatures provided in happy meals. Presenting your products as collectibles is a classic and effective strategy to motivate consumers to purchase a great many of them. And, in many cases, it has served the LEGO company well. The epitome of this can be found in the LEGO Minifigures theme, which revolves entirely around collection.
The trouble is,”Collecting Them All” is not a particularly creative exercise, and only engages consumers until they have “Collected Them All” (or at least as many of them as they happen to like—since LEGO products do not tie into a game or larger scheme of engagement like Magic: The Gathering cards or Webkinz, there is no real reason for consumers to purchase products whose looks don’t particularly excite them). In order to making collection a valid sales incentive, there has to be a continuous stream of things to collect, and that stream has to remain endlessly interesting. This is no easy feat, even for a theme as simple as LEGO Minifigures.
Not only is collection a difficult incentive to maintain when there is no larger metagame or purpose to said collection, it hardly works at all outside of LEGO themes like Minifigures. LEGO Minifigures sets are relatively cheap, and can be easily purchased en masse. The majority of sets from other LEGO themes are quite expensive (especially in the world of children’s toys which the LEGO company claims to belong to) and do not lend themselves to easy collection. Buying a LEGO Ninjago or Creator set is an investment, and sometimes a considerable one. While I have been encouraged as a consumer to collect all the Modular Buildings and “build an entire town”, I have never felt it remotely realistic to do so. Even the LEGO fans I have known (and I have known many) who owned several Modular Buildings sets never gave the impression they purchased them to “Collect Them All”, but rather because they thought they were interesting, well-made sets.
This is the real problem: LEGO is marketing creative products as collectibles, and doing so when few of their consumers are interested in collecting. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, LEGO products are inherently creative, and, because of that, people purchase them for creative purposes. Most consumers of LEGO products are not interested in collecting them and lining them up on shelves, despite LEGO’s encouragement to do so (and subsequent criticism of doing so in The Lego Movie, which is oddly conflicting with the company’s current business model). People buy LEGO products to build with them. Even if they follow the instructions to sets that LEGO provides (and not everyone does, some serious fans and dedicated purchasers being more interested in the bricks), the sets thus built are usually taken apart and repurposed fairly quickly.
To reiterate: Nobody collects LEGO sets—they build with them.
So what do I suggest LEGO do differently? The “Collect Them All” strategy is arguably somewhat successful, though not necessarily apt or particularly effective. What would be the benefits of switching marketing strategies, and more importantly, what marketing strategy would be the most effective and preferable?
Well, obviously, a creative one. LEGO sells creative products, and marketing them as such is the obvious choice. Marketing creativity, so to speak, instead of collectibles. Encouraging consumers to build new things with what they buy rather than simply put them together and display them. The advantage of such a strategy is that it encourages consumers to engage quite heavily with the product, and even promotes a lifelong commitment to it. While playing with the flick-fire missiles on a LEGO set is not something you’re likely to see an older teenager or adult doing, building enormous, grandiose LEGO creations of their own design is. Older fans in general actually build more seriously and more extensively than younger ones, on average. Building with LEGO bricks is nowadays considered a perfectly grown-up activity, while playing with them is not. And this means that, with creativity-oriented marketing, LEGO can not only approach their consumers in a more fitting and effective way, but also engage older individuals and more age groups in general; the obvious business advantage of this being these individuals will continue buying more sets over their lifetimes.
And LEGO has tried this to a limited degree, but not necessarily in the right ways or to any great success. A prime example of this is the LEGO Classics theme; a lineup of sets composed solely of building bricks. You could easily argue this is selling creativity rather than a collectible, and rightfully so, but you could also easily argue these sets are poorly composed and marketed. Once again, dedicated and serious LEGO builders are primarily teenagers and adults—these are the LEGO fans who have years of building experience and are even part of large, building-oriented communities. One only has to look at sites like MOCpages or Eurobricks, or at the LEGO communities on sites like Flickr, or even at books like Beautiful Lego, to see that the serious LEGO building community is far older than LEGO’s target demographic. And, more importantly, it is far older than the demographic sets like those in the Classics theme are marketed towards.
If you look at LEGO fan-made creations (or “MOCs” as they are called, MOC standing for My Own Creation), you can see they universally use a wide range of complex LEGO elements and techniques. However, all of the building-oriented sets LEGO has sold in recent years, LEGO Classics included, do not contain most of the complex LEGO bricks and elements serious builders use. I could not buy a stack of LEGO Classics sets and build a dragon or spaceship to the level of detail and complexity I would expect out of a MOC, or even a LEGO set from themes like Ninjago.
In short, the LEGO company almost never markets their sets as creative opportunities for builders, and when they rarely do they market them to young children who are more interested in playing than building. This, to me, seems like a critical error, and I would like to propose an alternate strategy.
Suppose there was a line of LEGO “building kit” sets that were marketed directly to builders, and designed especially for builders. These sets would not cater to the chunky, childish building that is found in the Classics theme, but rather to the creation of complex, detailed MOCs. I can imagine a “Spaceship Builder’s Kit”, or even a more expensive line containing such sets as the “Ultimate Castle Creator’s Kit”. Even licensed kits like a “Star Wars Builder’s Kit”. This would allow the LEGO company to tap into the serious builder (or “MOCer”) market, which would be incredibly lucrative. These MOCers buy in bulk, and they buy regularly. If, after the proper research and with the proper marketing, LEGO could begin selling to this market, the profits would be considerable. MOCers make it their business to build extremely regularly and acquire as many LEGO bricks and elements as they can afford, and selling to such individuals would be highly desirable and profitable to the LEGO company.
The problem with selling such “building kit” sets targeted directly at MOCers is obviously that LEGO has never done it before, and MOCers have no reason to think LEGO would start doing it now. LEGO has a set a precedent of making all their creativity-oriented sets incredibly childish and and generally unhelpful to serious building (with the possible exception of some of the Creator sets, but there is actually very little creativity encouraged even in their marketing, and even the admirable 3-in-1 sets simply provide three possible sets of instructions to follow, and don’t actively market creative building to the consumer except in the theme’s name). However, with the proper marketing push and presentation, I think it would be entirely doable and highly profitable. MOCers already often buy sets for the sake of their bricks; releasing sets tailored to these purchasing habits could be a remarkable sales opportunity.
But there is certainly more that could be done to tap into this massive, remunerative, LEGO-exclusive market. MOCers love their bricks and pieces, and will go to great lengths to procure just the right ones (which is yet another reason why sets containing generic, chunky, ordinary bricks not tailored to any particular or serious kind of building are not very popular, at least among MOCers). A prime example of this brick-hunting can be found in the fan site of Bricklink. As it has shockingly never been especially catered to by the company whose products it is so obsessed with, the MOCing community has solved its own LEGO brick-hunting problems by creating their own online marketplace called Bricklink for the resale and purchase of LEGO bricks. While it is rather daunting to use and was only recently upgraded to look like anything more than a site from the 90s, it is nonetheless the largest of such online LEGO markets in existence, and is used by nearly every serious LEGO builder. I would not be surprised if millions of dollars were moved through the site every year. And yet LEGO has made little effort to get in on those millions, despite being in the perfect position to do so, and to do it better than anyone else.
There is Pick-a-Brick, and Pick-a-Brick is surely a good start. But, just like those Classics sets, it is incredibly limited and not really well marketed. As a MOCer myself, I’ve never considered Pick-a-Brick as a valid option for purchasing large amounts of LEGO bricks, mostly because of its limited selection. The entire purpose of shopping and searching for particular LEGO bricks is to get certain, special, potentially rare LEGO bricks. Pick-A-Brick offers very few such bricks, and I’ve never been under the impression it offered a great deal of opportunities for bulk purchases. Of course, I may be wrong, but unfortunately the online version of Pick-a-Brick is so under-marketed I wouldn’t know if I was. I would wager at least 70% of LEGO fans know nothing about the online version of Pick-a-Brick, and I’d wager 90% of that lucrative, bulk-purchasing MOCer community doesn’t use it. And why would they? Even aside from the limited selection, Pick-a-Brick doesn’t use simple things like search keywords, and there are entire search categories that are completely empty. With a little polish, a lot more selection, and the right amount of marketing, the online Pick-a-Brick service could be a potential gold mine, but at this point neither consumers nor the LEGO company seem to remember it exists. Even if it simply had a few more bricks added and a better search engine implemented, I could see it taking off. Consumers of LEGO products are willing to pay out of pocket for international shipping insurance to buy certain LEGO elements off Bricklink—surely the LEGO company backed Pick-a-Brick can contend in that market.
This is all well and good, and should such ideas be instituted it is likely LEGO would profit heavily, but I do believe more than this can be done. Marketing creativity need not only mean catering directly to building MOCs, and probably cannot be limited to it. Because LEGO fans have been so bombarded with the “Collect Them All” mantra and are used to flashy, licensed, action-oriented sets, the full potential profits of a creativity-oriented business strategy may not be easily accessible in the current market. Because of LEGO’s current marketing, plenty of children and younger consumers may not be particularly drawn to mere boxes full of bricks. Since LEGO has not been marketing their sets in terms of creativity and imagination, and because it has been leaning so heavily on licensed product lineups, some consumers (especially younger ones) may not be thinking along the right lines to be interested in building whatever they want out of a simple box of bricks (strange as it may sound, since that is really what LEGO products are all about). In short, children who are used to flashy box-art and awesome-looking sets may not immediately see the appeal of a building kit. Nonetheless, it would be highly advantageous for LEGO to encourage them to build creatively, if only in the hopes they buy the MOCer-oriented kits and even eventually join the MOCer market that could potentially be so lucrative to the company. Everyone who plays with LEGO products does build to some degree, but not everyone ends up building complex MOCs or making LEGO-building a hobby for the majority of their life.
So how can the preexistent set-oriented market of LEGO consumers be sold creativity? Well, one obvious route would be to just market building kit sets more like sets, showing things that could potentially be built with them. This would probably require instructions on how to build said things to be included, though, and unless special care was taken to encourage consumers to deviate from said instructions, these building kits might end up being little more than Creator 3-in-1 sets. Not bad things in of themselves, but not particularly creativity-oriented in their marketing or different from current sets.
My proposed answer? Modular sets.
If there was a lineup of sets that focused on modular construction, this could encourage recombination and construction even in the youngest LEGO product consumers. Not modular construction like the Modular Buildings, of course, which simply can be stuck together if you “Collect Them All”, but modular construction more along the lines of the original Blacktron sets. Modular sets would be composed of vehicles (and potentially even buildings) made of sections that could be recombined into whole new vehicles (or buildings), or even combined with other sets to make even bigger creations. Such modular design is not necessarily difficult to do, would appeal directly to creativity-loving LEGO fans, and mesh perfectly with a creativity-oriented business model and the fact LEGO sells inherently creative products. And, if through this emphasis on creativity LEGO consumers end up joining that dedicated MOCing community through a love of creative building, it would mean a great deal of profit for the LEGO company.