Lego: If you build it, they will come
It's just lumps of snap-together plastic, yet in a virtual age, children are still clamouring for Lego. And it's a favourite that we don't outgrow, says Nick Duerden
Monday 06 December 2010
It is a Saturday afternoon, as we stand on the brink of pre-Christmas panic, and London's tireless shopping mecca, the West End, is chokka with small people dragging larger ones in and out of toy emporia, driven on by a heady mixture of hunger, lust and greed.
The toy market always was a cut-throat one, manufacturers managing to target their audience with dastardly élan, and each year the emphasis appears to strive towards bigger, better, faster, more. But in one corner of the biggest toy emporium of them all, Hamleys, tradition is still rather quaintly observed.
The basement here is where Lego lives, has done for years now, and the little building blocks occupy an awful lot of floor space. The displays are lavish, the complicated train stations and cityscapes and traffic junctions all cluttered with those miniature versions of what always did appear to be Village People – pirates, cowboys, firemen ... and is that a miner? Gathered around each display are families straining for a better view. The vast majority are boys and men, Lego is ostensibly a construction toy, and construction ostensibly, though not exclusively, a male pursuit. But the brand that has tried to engage girls before is in the process of doing so again. Marko Ilincic, its managing director for Britain and Ireland, promises that it will target girls successfully this time.
"It's all about getting the mixture of construction and fantasy just right," he says. "Fantasy, for girls, is the key."
But for now at least, it remains a boys' own world down here, the fascination for those colourful little building blocks covered in plastic warts exerting on the male imagination much the same influence it has for the past 75 years now. Lego, after all, is the world's favourite toy. And despite the ongoing financial crisis, it is booming. Last year, the company's turnover in Britain alone was up by 51 per cent. Every second, boast its makers, seven boxes of Lego are sold. This makes 62 bricks for every person in the world. That's a lot of bricks.
Little could Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of Lego, have known quite what he was creating back in the 1930s, when his only aim was to bring a smile to poor Danish children living in a time of Great Depression.
Lego's story is one of endurance, and occasional necessary fortitude. Just seven years ago, for example, in 2003, the company was facing bankruptcy. The reasons, Marko Ilincic says, were myriad.
"We had been a toy company for 70 years, but we seemed to forget that for a while," he says, specifying that they had begun to expand into other areas, theme parks for one, but also into the production of shoes and watches. "We lost our focus, what forms the heart of our core appeal. We had to find it again."
They did just that. Ridding themselves of many of their assets, including the theme parks, and carefully extending into the world of licensing (Lego now makes Star Wars and Harry Potter figurines, but nothing army-related; they prefer to perpetuate childhood innocence, not destroy it), the company got back, Ilincic says, to what they did best: "Making brightly colour building blocks." Its foundations were so humble as to be whimsical, the stuff of fairy tales. Ole Kirk Christiansen, the son of a labourer, was a carpenter in 1930s Denmark, producing furniture, tools and ironing boards, before trying his hand at toys. By 1934, he had christened his company Billund Maskinsnedkeri, but Christiansen soon realised the marketing difficulties a name with quite so many syllables would throw up, and wisely renamed it Lego, which means "to play well".
For the next couple of decades, it prospered modestly, but it wasn't until 1958, under the direction of an incoming vice president, that it happened upon the stubs-and-tubes mechanism that enabled one block to attach itself to another, and to another and another, ad infinitum.
Now it really took off, and by 1962 had expanded right across Europe, and into America. Six years later, it opened its first Legoland in Denmark, and in its first year welcomed over 600,000 visitors to Billund, a city otherwise so provincial and unremarkable that not even easyJet flies there today.
By the Eighties and Nineties, much to its makers' glee, Lego's appeal had become genuinely pan generational, the one toy that most adults chose never to get rid of, and promptly rescuing it from their parents' lofts the moment they became parents themselves. After reporting crippling losses of £144m in January 2004, its company rethink turned around and promptly doubled their fortunes, which is why today, in a world otherwise dominated by the likes of Xbox and Wii, the little brick that could still reigns so impressively supreme. Of the Top 20 Amazon toys right now, Lego occupies seven places. You can, this Christmas, buy a Lego-licensed digital camera, while Selfridges has developed a line in Lego jewellery. The company has also launched its very own board game, but being Lego, you have to build it yourself. You even have to build the dice.
So what is its secret, and why do we keep returning to this most basic of toys?
According to Charlotte Simonsen, company spokesperson at their Billund HQ, the building block continues to thrive because it offers so much more scope than many of its competitors. There is little that is instantaneous about it. Instead, it requires time and patience, a little vision, and, afterwards, a lot of satisfaction. It is also, she claims, psychologically speaking, brain food.
"It is one of the few toys that stimulates both the left and right sides of the brain," Simonsen asserts. "It makes us call upon our logic and engineering skills, while also allowing us to be creative and imaginative. There is quite a strict structure to Lego, but then again there isn't, you can do whatever you wish with it. It feeds the imagination."
And feeding the imagination, concurs Markos Ilincic, "is the key to the brand. Children have a wonderful imagination, but too many toys today offer only instant gratification. We want to nurture their attention spans, not limit them."
It works wonders as a rehabilitative exercise too. While recuperating from his devastating car crash during the filming of Top Gear back in 2006, presenter Richard Hammond reportedly played with Lego during his convalescence period, the building bricks helping him to redevelop spatial awareness and also concentration. He was, by all accounts, a big fan of Lego as a child. And now, in some way born again, he was once more.
But what has really secured its cultural supremacy above and beyond the world of kiddie entertainment is the grip it exerts on grown-ups, albeit a certain kind of grown up. You could lose an otherwise valuable afternoon browsing the Internet for adult fans of Lego, who helpfully call themselves Adult Fans of Lego (Afols). There are millions across the globe, many of whom are obsessed with proving their building prowess by recording their efforts – recreations of biblical scenes, endless Star Wars mock-ups – for posterity, and posting it up on YouTube.
Warren Elsmore, a 33-year-old IT consultant from Edinburgh, is chairman of one particular Lego fan club, the Brickish Association (founded 2002). A Lego Master himself, he recently completed a replica of St Pancras train station in London that spans two metres in width and four in depth. It took him 500 hours to complete.
"You do get some mocking when people learn how you spend your weekends," he concedes wryly, "but when they see what you've created, they do tend to become rather admiring instead." He proudly exhibited his St Pancras at a Brickish fan event in Swindon recently. Some 7,500 people turned up to see it, a BBC TV crew among them.
"Many models adult enthusiasts make are feats of engineering," he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elsmore has little trouble assembling anything Ikea could throw at him. This is typical of his kind. Afols could build cities, if they so chose. Plastic cities perhaps, but still.
Afols also have a rather unique relationship with their favourite toy manufacturer, largely because their toy manufacturer encourages intercommunication (via email). Elsmore explains that aficionados always have ideas for new Lego product, and that designers are only too pleased to hear from them. As well they might, for each year their globally-based designers are required to produce at least 60 per cent brand-new product, the better to fully reflect the changing tastes of the world around them.
"Our designers," says Marko Ilincic, "even stay with families during the research process, often for days at a time."
Each year, he continues, designers are dispatched to an average family's house – presumably with the average family's prior permission – where they observe, up close, how the modern nuclear family operates. What do they eat, how much television do they watch, and which games do their children instinctively reach for, and when, and for how long? How do board games compare with virtual ones, and where precisely can 21st century Lego fit into all this?
"Children have far less free time these days," Ilincic notes. "There is more pressure for them to perform at school, more emphasis on extracurricular activities. This is all very useful to know."
As is current fad and fashion. Increasingly, children these days seem to prefer a virtual world to the real one, which is why last year the brand launched something called Lego Universe. This is an MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), in which individuals around the world can build bricks together on their computers. It is already fearsomely popular.
"But we would never want this to take the place of the original building blocks," Ilincic points out. "No, we want it to complement it."
Back at Hamleys, there is a bottleneck at the bottom of the stairs, people lining up to have their photograph taken alongside a life-size model of Buzz Lightyear (built by Brickish members). Nearby are piled a great many boxes of Lego's City Airport, which was recently voted as one of the top Christmas toys this year, despite a look-twice price tag of £100. Right now, a little boy of about seven is eyeing it with palpable enthusiasm. But look just beyond him, and up into the eyes of his father. Behind a pair of glasses, they are sparkling.
This, for Lego, is pertinent. The father's the one with the wallet.
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