What Makes LEGO® Likable

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Feb 05, 2013 @ 01:07 PM

When we think about brands that get it right with youth, we can’t help but think LEGO®. We’ve highlighted the lessons to be learned from looking closely at the LEGO® brand in numerous webinars and conference presentations. And we continue to admire the brand’s moves, and marvel in its appetite for reinvention.

Lego NinjagoBut beyond LEGO®’s strategy, there’s something that the brand just gets right when it comes to kids. Many brands could partner with Star Wars and see a spike, but what does LEGO® bring to their partnerships that make them so salient? Many brands have taken offline equities to the homeland of the digital natives with success. And recently, more and more brands have managed to matter to multiple age segments (a difficult task, although one that seems more accessible than ever). What makes LEGO® so likable not only sheds light on the LEGO® brand essence, but also on some undeniable truths about youth… 

  1. LEGO makes edge accessible. The plotline: A team of Ninjas engage in an epic battle to defeat Lord Garmadon, the embodiment of underworld evil, and a group of scale-laden serpents. Too scary for kids? Not when the characters look like LEGO®s! Whether it’s making menacing characters more comfortable to watch, putting pre-teen properties in a format that kids can embrace, or making play patterns (like the battles of Beyblades) in a slightly more benign form (Ninjago’s line of Spinjitzu Spinners), LEGO® makes exploring a bit safer.
  2. LEGO leverages the cute and the cool. Just when traditional toys take a backseat to digital doings, LEGO likability seems to rise. Boys, in particular, find solace in the systematizing play, to go along with systematizing brains, that LEGO® owns. With a look and style that feels quirky but not risky, LEGO® lets boys keep their toys in tow without losing face. LEGO® Friends, a new line from the brand designed to engage girls, lets girls continue to play Polly Pockets without feeling like she’s lingering for too long in childhood. The over-the-top cuteness of LEGO® figures, in particular, elevates them beyond babyish to a kind of cool that have helped brands like Hello Kitty keep their kid audience long after they outgrow baby dolls and stuffed animals. “Cute” might not be a concept that we associate with boys, but deep down , there might be something sweet and silly that LEGO® lets them express. 
  3. LEGO® makes little look big. Like kids, LEGO®s are the little things that feel big (or sometimes want to!). Their small stature, juxtaposed with the grand adventures they go on, make for visually arresting images, and somewhere along the way, the idea that these little figures can steer ships, fight aliens, and stop bankrobbers feels believable. With size and strength taken out of the mix, characters can be judged by who they are and what they do, not their age or size – a kid fantasy come true.
  4. LEGO® puts play in place. When LEGO® partners with a property, that property doubles its play value. No longer do products simply promote reenactment of storylines; instead, they facilitate story creation. LEGO® play invites improvisation in a way that a standard play set can’t, letting kids bring themselves to play versus letting the toy lead the way. LEGO®s let kids feel ownership of these properties, not just participants in stories that someone else has written.
  5. LEGO® pleases parents. Finally, LEGO®s have evolved, but still look pretty familiar to parents who grew up building with those little bricks. LEGO®s not only gets kids their moms’ and dads’ seal of approval, but it also gets them on the floor or sitting side-by-side with their sons and daughters, allowing them to play architect, builder, designer and artist. Few other playthings invite parent participation like LEGO®s do. And for this generation of youth, parent approval puts brands at the top of their lists.

Tags: Gaming, superheroes, kids tweens teens, TV, culture, parenting

Anecdotes and Outliers: When Kids, Tweens and Teens Go Against Type

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 01:35 PM

“You can’t trust 6 kids in Podunk…” might be a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve attempted to make decisions about the youth market based on qualitative research…Or, “those kids just aren’t representative.” Enter quantitative research, developmental models and other reassuring statistics and structures that show us what’s really happening in the world. But the problem is that sometimes youth defy expectations, act counter to “type,” and occasionally, the outliers are more relevant than we might care to think. The question for youth researchers: when do we change our minds about youth, and how do we know whether what we’re seeing is really right, or just reaffirms what we already believe?

I found myself wondering about this recently in relationship to what I’ve come to believe (and often seen) about gender identity and children’s play. It might be easy to see that gendered play is part nature, part nurture (clearly, boys will try on the tutu in the daycare dress-up trunk if they’re given permission, but at the same time, just try to talk a boy out of their crush on cars). And there’s no denying that girls gravitate towards princesses and pink in large numbers, if not exclusively. Countless studies and developmental paradigms provide explanations ranging from exposure to gender expectations to a cultural/biological need for boys to separate from their mothers, while girls model their behavior. But, what happens when you’re confronted with anecdotal evidence that all seems to converge on the same themes?

My four-year old son recently caught a severe case of Spiderman fever. superheroesDespite never seeing any of the recent or old Spiderman films or cartoons, and rarely finding himself in the toy aisle of any store (mom and dad prefer shopping online to taking a preschooler into a manufactured Mecca), he seems to have a version of the Spiderman narrative inscribed in his mind…This “version” seems to be the result of a telephone game of sorts that has been playing out in his preschool. Clearly, someone has heard of this magical man with webs shooting out of his wrists, but my son has brought home numerous variations on this theme. “He is friends with all kinds of spiders…” “He wears a red costume because that’s his favorite color…” “He says nice things to his friends – but the bad guys don’t…” Some of these ideas seem more authentic than others…

But his conflicted parents encourages him to dress up as a firefighter instead of a crime fighter this past Halloween. And he agreed. When we showed up at his school parade, we cringed – our little one was a lone community helper amidst a sea of superheroes. And here’s the kicker – it wasn’t just the boys. There were a few preschool princesses, but supergirl and spidergirl lined up right behind our son. And just the other day, we warned my son that our friends with daughters ages 3 and 7 (without an older brother to pass down his toys) might not have cars or superhero toys, only to arrive and find that – right next to the Barbie castle – was a pile of well-loved Spiderman dolls, vehicles and even trading cards. Soon, imaginary webs were flying.   

So what does a student of youth do with this kind of info? Do we deny the evidence that shows that the stereotypes are often true (regardless of what causes them)? Do we encourage brands and organizations to go against type and to stop making all of those girls toys for girls, and boyish gear for guys? Probably not…But, back to our original question, when do we acknowledge that these outliers might be evidence of a real trend or truth, and when do we simply dismiss them as “not representative?”

Clearly, the answer is more art than science…But a few questions might help.

  • Are you making assumptions about what one “like” means about another category? Youth often relate to brands, products and experiences in complex ways. Youth – particularly kids – can sometimes love both an experience and its opposite…Being an athlete doesn’t mean one’s not an artist…Liking TV doesn’t mean that you shun books or reading. Being connected to Facebook doesn’t mean that friendships in the real world don’t matter.
  • Does your method fit the answer you want? Don’t get us wrong – we think quantitative information is incredibly valuable. YouthBeat is founded on the premise that your perceptions might lead you astray if, for example, you see a six year old on Facebook and assume every elementary schooler is a member of the site. Or when you need to know how many teens really own iPads. In other words, 6 kids in Podunk might help you really understand your audience in a nuanced way. But if you’re wondering about your brand’s ability to resonate among members of an unexpected group, qualitative might help you understand not just the “whats” but the “hows.” Clearly, Spiderman hasn’t replaced princesses as the most popular play-thing of the preschool girl set, but careful observation and age-appropriate conversations might show just how “super” they think those heroes are.
  • What perceptions are we bringing to the table – and where do we place them? Finally, any great researcher knows that your own knowledge and experience with a category or audience segment is both your advantage and your Achilles heel. Knowing a lot about kids, tweens and teens, we would contend, is an incredibly important foundation on which to build your youth-specific custom study. In our opinion, you can’t truly make sense of the data you get back without knowing how these groups of youth express themselves, develop and make meaning of the world. But as important as knowing a lot is knowing when to blink…Even the most strongly held conventional wisdom deserves a re-think when evidence to the contrary emerges. This applies not only to what youth do, but perhaps even to what might be “good for them.” 
Regardless of what you know about youth, don’t forget to pay attention to the occasional outlier – it might just inspire you to get a leg-up on the next big insight.

Tags: youth research, qualitative research, quantitative research, superheroes, Superman