4 Lessons From LEGO's Mastery of the Old and the New
Forget about trying to bend it like Beckham -- it’s time you consider building it like Beckham instead.
For years, former pro footballer David Beckham has found peace and serenity by building LEGO sets. He seems compelled to add that his children are as obsessed with the iconic bricks as he is -- but increasingly, successful entrepreneurs needn't find shelter in the "it's because of my kids" rationale for building with LEGO bricks. As it celebrates the 60th anniversary of its initial LEGO brick patent, the Danish company has become a source of inspiration for executives and entrepreneurs across the globe. The LEGO Group’s legacy transcends ethnicities, age groups, socioeconomic strata and interests, and it’s hard to imagine any other toy that superstars such as Beckham would literally lose a week of sleep over.
This is all by design, of course. The LEGO Group is one of the only modern businesses (let alone toy companies) that has designed a product meant to be passed down from generation to generation. LEGO blocks don’t erode, so those same LEGO bricks from your childhood still fit perfectly with the design sets your children are using today. That alone makes them unique in the toy industry.
Most children’s playthings aren’t meant to stick around. They’re created to sell fast at Christmastime and get buried at the bottom of the closet by Valentine’s Day. The LEGO Group doesn’t play that game; instead, it works backward by conscientiously designing a product that has firmly planted roots. At the same time, though, it stays relevant decade after decade by associating itself with the hottest new movies and cultural phenomena.
Balancing tradition with innovation, LEGO-brick-style.
To be sure, the LEGO Group’s journey hasn’t been without peril. From the late 1990s to around 2008, the organization was on the ropes and losing money. Its mistake? Trying to expand into too many areas, including amusement parks and crazy online initiatives.
By the mid-2000s, the company faced more than $800 million in debt, according to The Guardian. Yet it rallied back, doubling down on licensing, branding, short LEGO brick runs and LEGO special edition kits. In 2014, its film The LEGO Movie earned rave reviews (including a 96 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating) and millions in box office sales -- which led to a 19 percent increase in annual revenue, according to a report from the company.
The LEGO Group didn’t get out of the hole by remaining stagnant, but it also didn’t abandon its core product line. Its leaders got better at making strategic bets while staying fundamentally grounded in its target market.
Although your firm might not operate on the same playground as the LEGO Group, you can learn a few strategic lessons from its resilience and consistent relevance:
1. Design a product that will last for generations.
Designing something fleeting might seem like a good way to make fast money, but it doesn’t translate into an enduring relationship. When your customers are excited to pass your products down to the next generation, you’re building loyalty that lasts a lifetime -- and that starts by designing a product that will stand the test of time.
The Yeti Tundra cooler is a prime example of how durable products create strong companies. Iconic in the outdoor recreation industry, the cooler is known for its strength and durability. It’s so successful, in fact, that it has helped propel Yeti to a $5 billion brand earning more than $450 million in annual revenue in just over 10 years in business, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. Yeti knows its products will stand the test of time because from the beginning, the corporate mantra has been to design a product that "simply wouldn't break."
2. Experiment, experiment and experiment some more.
It’s tempting to experiment with new trends and fads, and that’s not always a bad thing. As long as you don’t lose sight of your roots, experiment with inserting your product into the topic of the day -- just don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
For example, the LEGO Group associated itself with both the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, which kept it relevant culturally and socially. The LEGO Batman Movie wasn’t all that innovative in terms of superhero cinema, but it was set in a digitally derived LEGO universe.
At the end of the day, though, even though the company experiments with films and design sets centered around popular franchises, traditional LEGO bricks are still the main focus.
3. Embrace all your audiences -- even the unlikely ones.
The LEGO Group primarily designs its products for children, but that doesn’t mean adults don’t love them, too. The company realizes this and embraces it. To include its adult fan base, the brand creates sets that are catered specifically to this audience, such as the Eiffel Tower and the New York City skyline. These types of sets are so popular that there’s even a Reddit group called Adult Fans of LEGO, in which fans share photos of their creations and discuss the latest and greatest designs.
You might need to look past your target demographic to find some of your biggest fans, so be open to change, and take off your blinders. Once you find an engaged audience, keep those people engaged by offering products just for them.
4. Innovate from within.
Each year, about 50 LEGO Group employees head to Spain. Their mission? Brainstorm new LEGO kits and concepts for the coming months and years. Rather than rely on outside consultants, the LEGO Group pulls its best ideas from its insiders.
Don't just seek external advice and recommendations; put together a team of employees, and see what ideas they come up with for innovating your brand and offerings. Be sure not to limit the membership to people with experience in research and development. Sometimes the best ideas come from team members in non-obvious roles (such as accounting, legal, etc.). Strive to include new team members as well. They don't know the "rules"; as such, they will be quicker to make suggestions that push the organization to think differently.
Although we sometimes forget, every business is like a LEGO creation. With the addition of each new LEGO brick, you can change the structure for the better and take things in an entirely new direction. Build your brand’s legacy with the same excitement you get when presented with even the simplest set of LEGO bricks, and you'll be celebrating your continued success for decades to come.