In a tech-crazed, gizmo-loaded world, it's not particularly easy to peddle plastic building blocks to kids. Unless, of course, you are LEGO. If anything, our economic downturn has helped the Denmark-based toymaker, which saw its sales stack up nicely in 2009. In the United States, LEGO Systems' consumer sales grew 31 percent over 2008, the fifth straight year of growth in the United States for the company.
So, while other marketers hunkered down last year, LEGO felt it was flush enough to take a few chances with its marketing. Its first gamble was to take a deep dive into social media. Its second wager was to focus on adults instead of kids, including adults who like to play with plastic bricks without a youngster in sight.
Research had uncovered a once-invisible group of LEGO-friendly grownups - older teens and young professionals who are creative, outgoing and had been avid LEGOs fans as children. "We figured this group already had an affinity to the brand and would be easy to reactivate if we found a way to engage them," says Mike McNally, brand relations director at LEGO. "This audience harbors a sense of nostalgia for these little bricks that can turn nothing into something."
To grasp the potential of this group, the company had only go to YouTube and check out the 300,000 user-generated videos that involve LEGO bricks, often making clever use of stop-action animation. While many are from parents or children, thousands are the handiwork of arty types who like to create things and share what they've done. LEGO bricks happen to be their (relatively inexpensive) medium of choice. For instance, "LEGO Arcade," a collection of video games from the 1980s made with LEGOs, has captured about 900,000 views and more than 1,700 comments.
What the new social-media-oriented campaign needed was a link between youngster and adult. With its agency, Pereira & O'Dell, the company solved that problem by picking a theme that celebrated problem solving, as well as inventiveness and creativity. The theme was boiled down to the "click" moment of inspiration, when a solution or a new idea suddenly hits you. They decided the symbol of that click moment would be a light bulb. "We realized early on that we are dealing with a pop culture icon, not a toy, and had to treat it that way," says P.J. Pereira, agency founder and creative director. "So we started with an idea, not an application."
Let the Games Begin
To get the ball rolling, the company sponsored construction of the "world's largest light bulb" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History over a weekend in August 2009. Adults and kids visiting the museum built an eight-foot tall light bulb with more than 300,000 LEGOs, generating a burst of online buzz and press coverage.
Then in December, posters of portraits-turned-into-LEGO-mosaics appeared overnight on the streets of New York City. The only clues were the LEGO logo and the URL of the campaign's new "Click" Web site.
The Andy Warhol-like portraits triggered the next campaign component - a free iPhone app unveiled in January, which allowed people to take their own photos and turn them into LEGO mosaics. The LEGO photo app lets people chose a photo from an existing gallery or snap a photo, and then touch the screen to watch it transform into LEGO shapes. Touching the screen again changes the color options. The app opened up a new way for people to interact with the brand, letting people build things with electronic representations of LEGO bricks, rather than bricks themselves. The result can be emailed, printed, tweeted or uploaded to Facebook and other social sites. A link from the company's new blog at legoclick.com sends people to the app directly.
In the meantime, the toymaker released a three-and-a half-minute video, "Lego Click." Pereira & O'Dell teamed with Blue Source and a52/Rock Paper Scissors for the whimsical film, showing a fictional inventor's journey to his next inspiration. The work taps animation, a playful score, mosaic portraits of famous inventors and the signature LEGO light bulb to make its point. It is shown on the company site, social media sites and has grabbed some high-profile eyeballs. At this year's TED conference in early February, organizers ran the video as entertainment between speakers and included it on a conference DVD. A few weeks later the film won a bronze award at the One Show in the online branded entertainment category.
Hub of the mobile, outdoor and video components of the program is the dedicated site legoclick.com. The site is also a collection of inspired moments, quirky stories, solutions and tips from artists, designers and inventors as well as everyday folks. Photos and videos are welcomed.
In the month of January, the LEGO iPhone app had almost 2 million unique downloads and more than 8 million sessions, per Apple.
By March 2, the "Click" film had amassed more than 1.6 million views and enjoyed two consecutive weeks in the top ten of Ad Age's weekly Viral Video Chart, which lists branded videos with the highest number of views. By the end of February, LEGO had 836,000 fans on Facebook, and the average time spent on the "Click" site was just under four minutes, per Google.
Oddly, the company does not track how many people go to the LEGO online store after viewing "Click" content. Why is that? The overriding goal of the marketing program is to drive brand affinity, so the task of selling LEGO kits is taking a back seat, says McNally. To avoid a commercial edge that could turn people off, the campaign does not direct users to the LEGO store from any of the "Click" content, he says.
But McNally insists that the number of app downloads and other metrics from the campaign are "compelling to the company," and that budgets for social media will become a permanent part of the marketing mix and will likely increase. "We want to start a conversation with people we don't generally talk to. And we are blown away by what we've accomplished so far," he says.
And how about the video? Might all or parts of it make their way into paid ad space in theaters, on TV or next to online programming?
Don't hold your breath, say insiders. The plan is to keep the film in its long form, so as not to shortchange the message, according to Pereira. The hope is that social media will take care of distribution. "We want to make the point that we are celebrating personal moments via personal media. It is not [supposed to be] a corporate-made thing," he says. But after the first six months, "when we've made that point and established its authenticity, then perhaps we can play around and use it in different forms," he adds. More likely is that a Flash version of the iPhone app will appear soon on a computer near you. "You can't overplan a campaign about inventiveness and creativity. The concept is that the brand sparks new ideas, so we have to be open to fresh directions ourselves," Pereira says.
Indeed, the marketing program appears to be the first salvo in the company's U.S. expansion efforts. In announcing that LEGO is debuting board games this year, Soren Torp Laursen, president of LEGO Americas, stressed that he wants to "explore ways to translate the LEGO values into new ways to play with the brand. We're bullish about our ability to grow the brand beyond construction toys."