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This newsletter is about Lego.
Lego plays an outsized role in my life. Working from home, my home, comes with the risk of stepping on a Lego brick in the middle of a zoom call. Did you know you can search for "Lego" in photos on Apple? It may be the only brand name that gives results. ("Apple" returns the fruit.)
When we were young, Lego was a toy company and a promise of an amusement park somewhere deep in exotic Denmark that only one kid in the community had actually visited. In 2020 CE Lego is the world's premier toy company and multiple amusement parks. Also, it's a chain of 'stores', a movie and streaming franchise, a methodology for creative collaboration, and possibly a hint of the "new normal."
Lego is a cultural phenomenon. And a culture itself, complete with a language — MOC and POOP, SNOT and SOTS (hint). Consequently, Lego is a cultural organization.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Lego's flagship stores. I visited the store in Amsterdam with my son on Sunday. While museums and libraries are closed, the Lego store is still open. If you want to see Frans Hals, Van Gogh and Escher, it is the only place you can go during the current lockdown. The store has all of these artists, as well as windmills, the canals, and a range of other exhibits built out of Lego bricks.
Although legally, the Lego store is a store, it does not exist within the same realm as most other stores such as H&M or the Apple store. Typically, there is a queue, although this time we could enter within minutes. Inside, there are about as many staff as in an Apple Store, but then they are about 200 times more friendly and 0.01 times as focused on selling. With only a handful of visitors inside due to Corona regulations, staff told us at length about new sets, new Lego series, and the endless details of the Millennium Falcon 75192 set.
After having spent 90 minutes and 0 euros, we left the store wholly revitalized and encouraged to build more and new things at home.
But of course, Lego stores aren't meant to sell bricks. They're selling the brand. An incredibly successful and profitable brand:
"In 2015, the still privately owned, family controlled Lego Group overtook Ferrari to become the world's most powerful brand. It announced profits of £660m, making it the number one toy company in Europe and Asia, and number three in North America, where sales topped $1bn for the first time. From 2008 to 2010 its profits quadrupled, outstripping Apple's. Indeed, it has been called the Apple of toys: a profit-generating, design-driven miracle built around premium, intuitive, covetable hardware that fans can't get enough of. Last year Lego sold 75bn bricks. Lego people – "Minifigures" – the 4cm-tall yellow characters with dotty eyes, permanent grins, hooks for hands and pegs for legs – outnumber humans. The British Toy Retailers Association voted Lego the toy of the century." (source)
The story of how Lego became the Apple of toys is a compelling business story. Most of us have come of age at the beginning of Lego's long creative decline. I recently flipped through a catalogue from the late 90s. Page after page the sets seemed uninspired, random, with bricks too large and specific to be useful. At that time, Lego almost felt like Playmobil. Lego's revival is exceptional, and it's exciting to have two young kids in this moment of Lego renaissance.
Lego's rise has more than one dangerous edge. I mentioned the 75192 Lego Millennium Falcon. Its one of Lego's largest sets ever created, containing over 7,500 bricks. It is stunning. And it costs around 800 euros. As one reviewer observed at the end of a highly positive review, "I also feel compelled to question whether dropping $800 on any LEGO set is the right way to spend that kind of money. And let me be clear: By "the right way," I mean ethically, morally."
There is one way to justify spending 800+ euros on a Lego set, but you need to keep the box closed. In a few years, as a collector's item, the set will easily be worth thousands of euros. Lego has become an investment tool, much like some art and whiskey. I recently saw an earlier version of the Millennium Falcon on Amazon priced at 8,000 euros. It has since been sold.
A second potential issue with Lego's rise is its core product: plastics. As a company, Lego has set ambitious sustainability goals. "Lego faces a more complex problem than other consumer businesses, though — for this Danish company, plastics are not the packaging, they are the product." (source)
A year ago, Lego launched the largest, "sustainable" set to date, the treehouse. Instead of petroleum-based plastics, sets like this use plant-based plastics. It is worth noting that bio-based plastics may be worse for the environment than traditional plastics. They definitely contribute to plastic waste once you decide to get rid of your toys and cannot sell them.
Fortunately, Lego's bricks are timeless. The bricks from my youth work seamlessly with the brand new ones my son plays with. We have Duplos that are first, second, third and more-hand and we will soon sell (or give away) all of them, as my youngest son also transitions to the smaller bricks. The secondary marketplace for Legos is so big that Lego bought the biggest marketplace last year, to considerable criticism.
Ultimately, however, Lego is a storytelling device. The bricks, the shops, they all tell stories and help children (and grown-ups) to create worlds and new ideas.
Lego's very best storytelling, if you ask me, is done through its movies and series. If you haven't watched Lego: The Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie (and the multi-season series based on the same characters) or any of the other movies they've made, go to Netflix or Disney+ right now. Especially the Ninjago series has some very strong seasons that are full of references to other films, mythology and cultural ideas. The Lego movies are witty and may (or not) contain social and political commentary that makes them edgy and relevant.
Currently, we're addicted to the Lego Disney+ Star Wars series The Freemaker Adventures. It's funny, engaging, well-produced, and a perfect introduction into the larger Star Wars franchise for a six-year-old and his father. Its soundtrack, composed by Michael Kramer, even works seamlessly with elements of the original John Williams music.
(It is probably worth noting that I'm not a Star Wars fan. I'm a fan of its cultural significance, though. As is many cases, I think the Lego spinoff is better than the original.)
The Lego universe is much larger than one newsletter can cover. I haven't discussed Lego ideas, the crowdsourcing platform that gives fans a chance to have their ideas become an official Lego product. Or the joy of watching speed builds on YouTube and the anticipation for the 2021 modular building.
I may talk about this, and more another time. What's left for this week is to congratulate the twenty new leaders who graduated from the Leadership in Culture programme in Utrecht, the Netherlands this week. I had the pleasure of working with this group in my first physical, COVID-era workshop. The challenges of their jobs are formidable. Having met some of them afterwards to learn more about their work and ideas, however, I know they will face these with creativity and cultural innovations that will amaze us.
It is worth remembering that, in the words of Erik Schilp, "Leadership is no longer reserved for leaders. Good leadership is a responsibility of all of us." Equally, cultural leadership and cultural innovation do not happen in the cultural sector exclusively. To me, Lego is both an approach and inspiration for the future.
Thanks for reading, subscribing, forwarding and replying. I hope you have a wonderful week!