Thought you might like to see the cover-story of the new issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, “LEGO Is For Girls” – an inside look at LEGO Friends, which LEGO will publicly unveil next Monday. The full cover-story by Brad Wieners is available online (links below), while magazines hit stands today! I’m pretty sure every LEGO-fan will get a copy just for having LEGO on the front page of a major magazine. But the article itself is excellent, really interesting, and worth reading. Highlights below.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM “LEGO IS FOR GIRLS” BY BRAD WIENERS
- Full article here: LEGO Is For Girls by Brad Wieners
- Mobile version here: LEGO Is For Girls by Brad Wieners (easier read)
Focusing on boys saved the toymaker in 2005. Now the company is launching LEGO Friends for “the other 50 percent of the world’s children”. Will girls buy in?
Walk into one of LEGO’s 74 red-and-yellow retail stores around the world, or even down the toy aisles of your local Target, and two things are immediately clear: LEGO, the Danish maker of plastic toy-bricks, is everywhere, and it’s not for everybody. Rows of classic building kits for police-helicopters, rockets, and trains soon give way to contemporary releases such as LEGO Alien Conquest, a daffy War of the Worlds scenario with spaceships and laser cannons, and LEGO NINJAGO, a “spinjitzu” warrior-themed product line heavy on martial arts and supernatural powers.
Linger for a few more minutes and you’ll notice not just the staggering array of LEGO offerings - 545 in the last year - but an absence. “They might as well have a No Girls Allowed sign”, says Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a fierce, funny investigation of the toy industry’s multibillion-dollar exploitation of the “princess phase”, which consumes girls at age 3 or 4.
There’s now arguably a “LEGO phase” for school-age boys that’s as consuming as the princess phase. But unlike tiaras and pink chiffon, LEGO-play develops spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills, and lets kids build almost anything they can imagine, often leading to hours of quiet, independent play. Which is why LEGO’s focus on boys has left many parents – especially moms like Orenstein – frustrated that their daughters are missing out. “The last time I was in a LEGO store, there was this little pink ghetto over in one corner,” Orenstein says, “and I thought; Really? This is the best you can do?”
Over the years, LEGO has had five strategic initiatives aimed at girls. Some failed because they misapprehended gender differences in how kids play. Others, while modestly profitable, didn’t integrate properly with LEGO’s core products. Now, after four years of research, design, and exhaustive testing, LEGO believes it has a breakthrough… “This is the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade,” says LEGO Group Chief Executive Officer Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. “We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children.”
To develop LEGO Friends, Knudstorp relaunched the same extensive field research – more cultural anthropology than focus groups – that the company conducted in 2005 and 2006 to restore its brand. It recruited top product designers and sales strategists from within the company, had them join forces with outside consultants, and dispatched them in small teams to shadow girls and interview their families over a period of months in Germany, Korea, the U.K., and the U.S.
The research techniques and findings have been controversial at LEGO from the moment it became clear that if the company were serious about appealing to girls, it would have to do something about its boxy minifigure, its 4-centimeter plastic man with swiveling legs, a yellow jug-head, and a painted-on face. “Let’s be honest: girls hate him”, says Mads Nipper, the executive vice-president for products and markets - LEGO’s equivalent of a chief marketing officer.
LEGO confirmed that girls favor role-play, but they also love to build – just not the same way as boys. Whereas boys tend to be “linear” – building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box – girls prefer “stops along the way,” and to begin storytelling and rearranging. LEGO has bagged the pieces in LEGO Friends boxes so that girls can begin playing various scenarios without finishing the whole model. LEGO Friends also introduces six new LEGO colors—including Easter-egg-like shades of azure and lavender. (Bright pink was already in the LEGO palette.)
Then there are the lady figures. Twenty-nine mini-doll figures will be introduced in 2012, all 5 millimeters taller and curvier than the standard dwarf minifig. There are five main characters. Like American Girl Dolls, which are sold with their own book-length biographies, these five come with names and backstories. Their adventures have a backdrop: Heartlake City, which has a salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a café. “We had nine nationalities on the team to make certain the underlying experience would work in many cultures”, says Nanna Ulrich Gudum, senior creative director.
The key difference between girls and the ladyfig and boys and the minifig was that many more girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig – she became an avatar. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person. “The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them”, says Rosario Costa, a LEGO design director. The LEGO team knew they were on to something when girls told them, “I want to shrink down and be there”.
The LEGO Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with LEGO, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Eliot is the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a 2009 survey of hundreds of scientific papers on gender differences in children. “Especially on television, the advertising explicitly shows who should be playing with a toy, and kids pick up on those cues”, Eliot says. “There is no reason to think LEGO is more intrinsically appealing to boys.”
Grown-up LEGO hobbyists, who gather frequently for weekend conferences, have their own acronym, AFOL, for Adult Fans of LEGO. AFOLs will also factor in LEGO Friends’ performance. “Oh, we’re going to buy LEGO Friends,” says Joe Meno, “but we’re going to buy it for all the wrong reasons”. Meno is co-author of the new book The Cult of LEGO and editor of the BrickJournal, a glossy fanzine. “We want the sets for the new colors. One of the colors is ideal for a Perry the Platypus I want to build.” The lady minifig, he predicts, “I’ll probably toss aside.” Stupid boys…
To check out all the LEGO Friends sets and “ladyfigs” go here:
- 2012 LEGO Sets: LEGO Friends
- 2012 LEGO Sets: LEGO Friends Pictures!
- 2012 LEGO Sets: LEGO Friends More Pictures!
- LEGO Friends vs. Regular LEGO Minifigs Comparison