For generations, Lego has been considered a pretty unisex toy. You could build anything with those colorful little plastic blocks, but that was before big-time partnerships and licensing ever became truly part of the marketing equation.
When you walk into a toy store and look at the Lego shelves, it’s not too hard to find Lego products aligned with things that are traditionally marketed to boys, and lately they've been co-branded: Lego Harry Pottery, Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Alien Conquest, etc. The strategy helped Lego engineer a massive brand turnaround, making about $1 billion last year in the U.S. alone. The next step, naturally? Creating Lego lines aimed at girls.
Having dipped a toe in the water with pink boxes containing brightly colored bricks and flowers, Lego went all out with the launch of Lego Friends, a line expressly targeted to girls, that launched in December. Not everyone, however, is convinced that gender-specific Lego is the way to go.
The line’s catch phrase? "The beauty of building." It’s got a beauty salon, a cafe (with cupcakes, of course), a purple convertible, a splash pool, and a vet’s office. There are six characters related to each scene. The bricks are less complicated than traditional Lego pieces, while the emphasis is on the dolls (some in miniskirts) and not construction of their settings. The figures' hands are also designed to accommodate accessories such as hairbrushes and handbags. No wonder it’s got a whole slew of angry people who don’t like that Lego is going out of its way to market based on gender.
While there is a Friends science lab or "invention workshop," with techie tools and a cute robot, that's not enough to mollify opponents.
“The main problem with the new Friends line is not that Lego is trying to reach out to girls after 15 to 20 years of marketing only to boys,” stated Bailey Shoemaker Richards, who is cosponsoring a petition on Change.org, on NPR. “It's more the way they're going about it. It's a very narrow and limiting sort of idea of what girlhood Lego experience should be.”
Richards added that she doesn't see this fitting with Lego’s core mission statement “about wanting to create innovative products that help kids develop creativity... All they've done is sort of throw in with Barbie and Bratz and that sort of very, very narrow stereotypical type of marketing.”
She's also irked that there's a different edition of the Lego Club magazine for girls, which "very noticeably lacks any build instructions and the storylines are very domestic. They're very limited. It's the characters eating and partying and looking for a lost puppy, as opposed to going on these big adventures that they're selling to boys.”
Surprisingly, Lego didn't apply its boys-marketing chops to the girls market by co-branding with (for instance) Barbie, Disney or Polly Pocket, as Squinkies is doing.
Bloomberg Businessweek notes that Lego didn't venture into girls products without some serious marketing research into these new toys. “This is the most significant strategic launch we've done in a decade," Lego CEO Jorgen Knudstorp told the magazine. "We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world's children."
Your thoughts? Smart brand extension for Lego or a sexist and dumbed down version that dilutes the brand? Weigh in below.
Update: Click here to read Lego's response to concerned parents and others about the intentions and goals of Lego Friends. Lego has also agreed to meet in March with bloggers and others who are protesting the line.