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Lego: What Not To Build

“There’s no signs or anything! How does anybody know what not to do?”

Emmett Brickowoski, The Lego Movie

Lego is everywhere.

It’s on our toy store shelves, the subject of documentaries, the hero of a mindboggling array of kids TV shows, is a textbook case study for MBA students, the subject of countless (grown up) fan clubs, attached to an endless procession of lucrative entertainment franchises, the main feature in movie theatres, a symbol of both cultural currency and deep nostalgia and, of course, scattered (sometimes painfully) over our floors.

But it is in Billund, the small Danish town famous almost exclusively for being the spiritual and physical home of The Brick, that Lego feels more everywhere than anywhere else. The place is a microcosm of the Lego universe and, in Lego House and Legoland, it also contains perhaps the two finest close-proximity examples of exactly what to do, and precisely what not to do, with a brand.

On the one hand, Legoland is by far the most famous attraction. Founded in 1968 it welcomes nearly 2 million visitors every year to Denmark alone, has franchises in the UK, the US, Japan, Malaysia, Germany, Dubai and South Korea, is a global icon for the brand but, despite all of the buzz, feels far too much like a joyless, generic, over-hyped exercise in cash cow-milking.

Yes, Legoland has all the rollercoasters a child under 10 could possibly want, need, or deserve. Yes, Legoland has a bunch of bricks of various shapes and sizes designed to fill time during the interminable queues, and to stare at. Yes, there are intermittent gestures towards some very basic interactivity. And yes, as an experience it’s occasionally fun-ish, in an utterly transient kind-of-a-way. But, unforgivably for such a unique product and brand, the Lego bricks themselves are almost entirely incidental. The flimsy Lego wrapping paper can’t disguise the fact that you might as well be at Disneyland, or any other cookie-cutter theme park you can think of. It utterly lacks the soul and joy that makes The Brick so close to the hearts of so many. All wait and ride, no play and imagination.

On the other hand, a mere brick’s throw away from Legoland, we have Lego House. Built from scratch in 2017 it’s based on the vision of founding family member Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen “to create the ultimate Lego experience which truly unfolds the endless possibilities there are with our bricks and our Lego system of play”. It attracts just a quarter of the Legoland’s visitors, it only exists in Denmark and yet the place is a magical marvel. Unlike its far more pedestrian cousin just down the road, if you cut it, it would bleed Lego – profusely.

Everything that happens in Lego House has been designed from The Brick out, not “how do we make more money out of this?” in. From the kid-friendly wristbands, to the colossal Lego tree (and six million-piece homage to infinite creativity), to the structurally ‘impossible’ brick-shaped buildings, to the Lego fish you can build and release into the wild, to the car testing facility, to the Legos next to every single seat, to the basement museum, and the shared spaces set free for community use, the soul of Lego shines through. It’s a place where almost every child and grown-up seem to be visibly and joyfully playing side by side.

As an adult Lego House is all about giving yourself permission to become a kid again. As a kid it’s about having your passion taking seriously by adults. And the Piece of Resistance* (*with apologies to the Lego Movie) comes at the exit where every visitor is given a bag of 6 pieces of Lego – each, we are told, containing 915,103,765 different permutations. It’s an invitation to unleash your imagination, whoever you are, and take it wherever you want it to go.

All Legoland asks you to do at the exit is buy a bunch of merch.

I’m sure Legoland makes a vast amount of money for the brand, but I’m also sure that it feeds off Lego’s hard-built equity – vampire-like – rather than doing anything meaningful to add to it. It can’t be a coincidence that Legoland is only indirectly managed by Lego Group these days, having been sold off when the company was is much-publicised financial trouble in the early 2000’s. It shows.

But brands that have nothing to do with kids or multi-coloured plastic bricks should also pay attention because Legoland is a living metaphor for the mistakes of that era, and a warning to others. About the danger of ignoring the real meaning at your core. About the risk of putting your spreadsheets ahead of your equity. About the slippery slope of mistaking badging for branding. About what happens when you embrace innovation without insight. And, of course, about the perils of forgetting that it’s better to empower your customers to play with your brand, rather than just making them follow your instructions.

In a world where experience matters more than ever, Lego House is the beacon that authentic brands should seek to follow, Legoland the trap they should make every effort to avoid – a living testament to what not to build.

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