LEGO’s Success Brick by Brick — Building a Brand to be Loved with James Gregson
Ever since experience pushed through and overshadowed the more traditional shopper values such as the good old price, brands fight not just for the attention of their consumers but their (unconditional) love.
No wonder! Time and time again, we see that if a brand manages to vibrate to that iron string that resonates with people’s hearts, it virtually tramples all other competition.
That sounds tempting.
Maybe creating a brand people love is just what you need… Or is it?
In this week’s episode of Ungated Marketing, Fernando Amaral interviews James Gregson, Creative Director at LEGO, one of the most universally beloved culturally incorporated brands in the world. Since being founded almost a hundred years ago in 1932, LEGO has intertwined with various facets of our lives. It broke out of the “playroom confinement” and made itself heard and seen through social media, movies, video games, reality shows, amusement parks, and user-generated content of impressive quality. It’s hardly surprising that, despite the devastating business impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, LEGO’s sales actually rose 14%, with operating profit rising 11% in the first half of 2020 as opposed to the same period the previous year.
As the person responsible for creating best-in-class product and brand advertising and content for the brand, James takes us on a journey through LEGO’s marketing strategy, sharing key tactics as well as warning against dangers of playing for the affections of your customer base.
Bringing Brand into Culture and Culture into Brand
By far, one of the most impressive aspects of LEGO’s marketing strategy is integrating its brand into the fabric of our daily lives through nostalgia, pop culture, and trending topics.
James offers a peek into the three pillars that laid out the foundation for such integration to take root and grow beyond the usual brand-consumer relationship:
- The audience switch;
- Being sticklers for relevance;
- Embracing the creativity and power of user-generated content.
Rethinking Your Audience & Power of Shared Experience
LEGO is a toy company meaning its primary users are children. So, what inspired LEGO to focus on adults instead of kids… besides the obvious “strings-attached” requirements that come with advertising for children?
James attributes the change in strategy to, on the one hand, the serendipitous opportunity of their aging customer base: “Elder millennials are mostly becoming adults and/or parents. [...] There is a really exciting opportunity for them to share their love of a product that they likely experienced as a kid. Maybe not heavily, but, at least, they knew of the brand and knew of its value proposition and want to bring that experience to their kids or their families or nieces or their nephews.”
On the other hand, he highlights the foresight of LEGO’s CMO, who “really focused the whole organization [on] identifying and prioritizing adults as an audience. So, that was everything from the product development teams, to the partnership teams, to our marketers.”
One of the product representations of the adult-first focus that stretches from product development to marketing is LEGO’s Home Alone set. It pays homage to another culture-defining piece of content the millennial generation grew up with.
“For me, Home Alone is my favorite Christmas movie. I can tell you where I was at, what movie theater when I saw Home Alone for the first time [...] that's the perfect sort of example of the types of products that we're putting on the shelf that really do speak to parents.” More than that, he continues, targeting adults first brings the parents into the play experience: “ideally, there's a co-building experience that a parent can bring to their kid, by bringing in their first LEGO set for a long time into their households.”
Though, the adult audience is not solely limited to parents as there are “also those without kids, [...] many people who are collectors and also many people over the last few years who have been quite eager for things to keep their attention as we've been stuck at home.”
Naturally, not every brand has such a strong base for the brand love strategy that taps into culture, nostalgia, and play. Still, there’s an important takeaway here. It’s rooted in looking at your audience more critically, from different perspectives, at various stages of their lives or careers.
What are the emotional triggers you can tap into?
Selecting Partnerships: Relevance Above Trend
Piggybacking on trends is not the newest or most groundbreaking of marketing strategies.
Still, it’s notable how LEGO uses it to strategically and systematically reach new types of audiences: “If you look at the sort of scale of our product partnerships right across from Sega with Sonic – the Sonic set – all the way through to Queer Eye in the US, we are very specifically focused on product partnerships that bring LEGO into new audiences, or into new levels of relevancy.”
Indeed, LEGO is renowned for making partnerships that make something as simple as children’s building bricks relevant across generations, interests, cultures, and even personality types.
So, does that mean that every trend is a new opportunity to highlight your brand?
No. In fact, following trends on a whim is a precarious undertaking. Take, for example, most recently, Nissan that tried to hijack the Batman hype with a copy that wasn't particularly thought out.
That’s why at LEGO, they don’t leave anything to chance, and, James explains, “[even though partnerships have been] a winning formula [...] We ended up having an entire dedicated team that looks at our product partnerships. And we're pretty smart and pretty data-driven when we look at those partnerships and [we’re] either attempting to reach a new audience, [or] attempting to reach a new sort of passion points.”
So, how do you ensure that trend to which you are attaching your brand is relevant? How do you ensure that the way you do it is relevant?
According to James, for a product or marketing tactic that works in tandem with a trend to work, to make sense, it needs to mirror a simple human truth rather than push an unlikely theoretical scenario.
“I think you've got to start with the products that we put on the shelf. Launching the Home Alone set in the November period [...] it doesn't get more relevant than that, Home Alone Christmas movie commercials are all over the place. You see it everywhere, not just on TV. So do you have a product experience that mirrors a human truth, which is, you know, watching Christmas movies around the holiday season [...] It builds that relevancy.”
He continues to explain: “We certainly spend a lot of time discussing things like social trends and whether or not it makes sense for us to participate in various social trends. [...] I usually think the juice is not worth the squeeze. By that, I mean, I think a lot of those social trends are marketers speaking to marketers, brands speaking to brands, and not necessarily bringing too much value to a broader audience.”
So, what’s James’s final word on dealing with trends?
“If there’re too many dots you have to connect to try and make it hyper-relevant to your audience,” you should be reticent to act on them. Highjacking trends only works and makes sense when that connection is obvious and/or intuitive.
LEGO brand has a high affinity with adult fans that has been documented in “A LEGO Brickumentary.”
The LEGO super fans “put on fan conventions, self-funded, self-organized fan conventions. We very lightly support them, but it's all done based on the love of the brand.” While exciting since the beginning, these conventions have massively evolved in the last four to five years since LEGO started focusing on the adult audience (on the product development level as well as through the one-off IP partnerships).
There is even more of that brand love present on social media, which is flooded with user-generated content featuring LEGO. In fact, if you “go onto YouTube, for example, and type LEGO, it is highly, highly likely that the first two pages are full of user-generated content and not LEGO-created content.”
Is this good or bad?
James admits: “We have had many philosophical conversations on ‘Is that okay? Do we need to change that? Do we need to fix that?’ And frankly, we believe it is [good] because we love that LEGO is a canvas for this user-generated content and it shows… it gives different life to the products.”
In fact, if you visit LEGO’s Instagram profile, user-generated content is actually the primary source of content on the channel. Why? Well, “from a very basic standpoint, it's free; we don't pay for it. At the same time, [we are] obviously sharing it with the idea of bringing awareness to our amazing fans and the content that they create [which is] sometimes better than the content that we create. We have to be really, really honest with that. I think it's absolutely one of the sources of the success of our brand, and probably it doesn't get spoken about enough.”
So when you think about building a foundation for brand love, you need to consider reciprocity as one-way love never seems to work out, no matter the circumstances.
Brand Love and Communities
Communities do seem like the perfect place to nurture brand love, no?
James agrees: “Successful brands, successful marketing efforts really do consider the impact of community and how you can build a community to do something.”
However, there’s a warning in that agreement as he cautions that “brand-led activities typically, let's face it, have a commercial objective in mind. You try and tie that with a community-based or a fandom-based objective, and it's gonna be challenging. You really need to try and separate those two because they don't typically mix well.” This opinion touches on many similar ideas shared by community expert Michelle Goodall that emphasize the main role of community as “a place in a space where you can showcase your expertise. You can build your credibility. You can nurture relationships,” but not sell or push your agenda.
So, while it is clear that communities play a crucial role in a brand-consumer relationship, they need to be treated differently from the other marketing channels. Despite your occasional (unsalesly) input, they need to be allowed to have a life of their own, one that doesn’t necessarily fit your marketing goals.
Factoring in Social Media
One can’t talk about communities without broaching the subject of social media one way or another.
Generally speaking, it’s fair to say social networks are not what they used to be, nor are the ways people engage with them. Facebook is perhaps the most obvious example of such a shift.
According to James, up until today, many “brands have really relied very heavily on social media, and I think, they're seeing diminishing returns in that reliance. Not to say that social media is dead, or social media is over, but I do think the traditional social media brand, social media strategy as we know it is really going to change pretty quickly in the next year or so.”
He continues to explain that the change pertains to the traditional way of the high-volume of content published across as many channels as possible. At LEGO, he tries and focuses the efforts “on a fewer, bigger, better approach. I'd much rather focus on the big, impactful pieces of content that are distributed and created specifically for each channel than hundreds of pieces of content daily, across all channels.”
What’s behind this change?
James believes that the lack of governance across social media is having a huge impact on people all over the world. Because of that, he believes that “people, especially after the last two years that we've had living in a sort of COVID world, are really looking… re-evaluating how they're spending their time.”
Previous guests on the Ungated podcasts, such as Olga Andrienko from SEMrush and Yaag Ganesh from Avoma, speak about the same trends. Similar to James, they advocate that the ‘less is more’ and ‘the right channels, right type of content at the right time’ kind of strategies are taking center stage.
Balancing Digital and Real-Life Experiences
LEGO is a tactile toy company fighting for attention in an increasingly digitalized world.
James admits it is one of LEGO's biggest challenges today, as parents try to balance offline and online experiences while raising their children in an ever more digital society.
He confesses: “The parent and the physical play experience purist in me says ‘There's digital, that's one thing completely separate, and then there's physical, the building, the bricks and something that we are absolute experts in doing.’ And I don't want them to merge.” However, things are not that black and white in real life, and he is aware “that's probably an ignorant or unrealistic approach to the world and if we maintained my perspective, I think we might get left behind. [...] I was a digital native growing up, and I'm not that young anymore, right? And my kids will be incredibly digital-first.”
“The reality and the goal is to create experiences that merge the two. I don't think we have been very honest. I don't think we've been incredibly successful at doing that, but I know there is a lot of investment being put into [it].”
So, even the most beloved brand can’t rest on its laurels and ignore its audience's changing needs and wants. It all comes down to reading the market, the data, and keeping an eye on the trends.
On Measuring Brand Love
Speaking of data… can we measure love?
In the romantic sense, probably not. However, James does have a couple of favorite metrics up his sleeve regarding brand love.
The KPIs he is obsessed with are the “engagement rate and the percentage against the benchmark. Just so there's a very quick way to understand what is good versus what is bad.”
In case you are thinking to complain that these kinds of engagements and campaigns are too different to measure and benchmark against anything, James doesn’t accept that kind of excuse: “I've heard every excuse of ‘It's not an apples-to-apples comparison. We’re not always reaching the same audience… this and that. One's organic, one's paid.’ I get it, there's no apples-to-apples comparison when you talk about content, but at the same time, I need to be able to have a perspective on what is good, what is bad. There's no point in walking into a meeting saying ‘This content did really good.’ What did, what does that even mean? Well, it got a million views. And what was the media budget? Oh, well, we had, you know, $200,000 in media budget. Okay. So, a million views aren’t good.”
When looking at hard-to-quantify content and creative campaigns, benchmarking against the investment – whether you measure against the invested costs, time, or work – is the best way to assess the overall success of your efforts.
Building Brand Love as a Strategy?
As a marketer, you are probably asking if making people fall in love with your brand can even be considered a marketing goal?
Is there a reliable and trackable tactic or approach to be designed with the goal in mind?
It is a bit of sketchy territory, or ‘thin ice’ if you will.
James believes that while aiming for people to love your brand can indeed be a goal, it shouldn’t “be a primary objective of your business strategy.” He continues to explain that “it's typically difficult to balance commercial aspirations with brand love.”
Sure, LEGO mastered the approach, but, as James points out, “it obviously comes down to [...] being a toy company. It makes that job easier than for most. I don't think pharmaceutical companies, for example, would have the same level of brand love and that's not because they're not lovely companies. [It’s] because they are not focused on play and play experiences.”
So it all boils down to one of the pillars of LEGO’s success: relevance.
How relevant is brand love strategy to your product?
Brand love is perhaps the most complex status to achieve, especially because the journey and options are so different for every business, industry, and target audience. Yet, when done right, it can make your status unshakable.
If you wish to learn more about how LEGO keeps up its pursuit of relevancy, what are their plans for Metaverse and how are they approaching the challenge of social responsibility, listen below or tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.