There’s something so satisfying about the fact that, even during this digital age of big tech domination where the likes of Apple and Google carry more clout than many governments, old-school Lego still manages to more than hold its own in terms of popularity and brand power.
Last March it was announced that the legendary plastic building block maker topped the Reputation Institute’s annual ‘most reputable company’ list for the fourth straight year, fending off the likes of Rolex, Ferrari, Adidas, Microsoft, Disney, and Netflix (Google and Apple, incidentally, didn’t make the top 10). And in June, Lego also topped social analytics firm Talkwalker’s list of the world’s most loved brands.
Then there are Lego’s vital statistics, which are simply mind-blowing. Placed end to end, the number of Lego bricks sold each year would wrap around the world more than five times. There are nearly 100 Lego bricks for every person on Earth, and during Christmas, nearly 30 Lego sets are sold each second. There are more than four billion Lego Minifigures, making them, by some way, the world’s largest population, and Lego is even the world’s biggest manufacturer of tyres!
“Lego is a lot more than a toy – it’s a creative expression,” former Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp tells the Telegraph. “People just love to make things. It’s deep in every human being.”
And to think Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a master craftsman of wooden toys known as Lego (from the Danish leg godt, meaning “play well”), was ridiculed when he ordered a state-of-the-art plastic-injection moulding machine in 1949. With Denmark suffering during the Great Depression, Kristiansen was finding it ever more difficult to source wood for furniture so had turned his attention to making toys from smaller scraps of timber. After the second world war, resources were scarcer still, and—similar to today’s Covid-crisis—businesses were looking for ways to adapt and even reinvent themselves. It was around this time that Kristiansen learnt of the plastic-injecting moulding machine. The contraption cost nearly a tenth of his company’s annual revenue, but the toymaker had the foresight to see the near-endless potential of the building blocks (and near-endless it is— there are 915 million ways to combine six eight-stud Lego bricks).
“There were a lot of department stores who tell him that kids will never made out of this cheap plastic stuff,” David Robertson,author of Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, tells Wharton Business School. “that wooden toys are what kids will always want.”
Onwards and Upwards
It was one of the toymaker’s sons, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, who was responsible for overseeing the development of the iconic, interlocking “System of Play” design that everyone so loves today. The period 1978-1993 is considered Lego’s “golden period”. Expanding massively globally, the company doubled in size every five years. The Minifigures were introduced, and sizes across the range were standardised to their scale, meaning different Lego sets could fit together, and special theme packages were introduced—like space Lego, pirate Lego and Lego castles.
But, by the turn of 21st century, struggling to compete with the internet, the company was on the verge of collapse. Just as Kristiansen found an innovative new way for his toy company to remain relevant more than 80 years ago, so Lego launched its own apps, video games, TV shows, and partnerships with film franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter. But not content with simply making Minifigures that replicate characters and weaponry and whatnot from other people’s movies, over the past few years the “toy of the 20th century” has produced a series of critically acclaimed flicks starring its own creations, such as The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie (the former was the UK’s highest grossing movie of 2014 and led to toy shortages that Christmas). Director Chris McKay describes them as essentially “a 90-minute toy commercial” that’s given a pass because “Lego’s one of those brands that people don’t have a negative feeling about”.
The films are also pretty hilarious.
“Lego’s an educational toy—it’s artistic, funny-looking and kind of naïve,” McKay explains to the NME, “so you can make a movie that has multiple layers. You’re not just making a cynical advertising product—you’re making the only movie ever where Batman can actually confront his core problem: the hole in his heart.”
“You don’t think yourself into a new way of acting, you act yourself into a new way of thinking”
David Robertson, Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation
Learning With Lego
Education-made-fun has arguably always been at the heart of Lego’s success, encouraging kids to get creative while almost tricking them into learning without even realising it.
“When kids are building with blocks and Legos they’re using spatial reasoning skills,” says Amy Shelton, a cognitive psychologist and director of research at the Johns Hopkins Center for talented Youth. “These skills not only have a relationship to academics, but to the fields you might gravitate to, and where you’re going to excel.”
Robertson agrues that Lego’s lingering success is also down to it learning “to tell stories around bricks”, while teaching “creative building skills and 3D visualisation and construction skills”. The toy, he believes, simply “clicks a switch in kids” that “stays clicked”.
“The play is in the building,” says Vig Knudstorp. “After creating something wonderful, what you should do is tear it apart and make something else.”