When Bad Things Happen to Good Bricks

Lego's catalog is a veritable textbook of its problems, says one fan. It features endless brand extensions but no coherent direction.

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It is Christmas Day 1975. I am seven years old. I have just finished extracting small items from a well-stuffed stocking. Among the gifts is a tiny Lego police-car set. I have just lost interest in opening any other gifts.Flash-forward to the present day. I'm no longer seven, but oddly I have more Lego bricks now than during my childhood. Thankfully, my patient and understanding parents allowed me to keep not only all of my old bricks but also all of their packaging and instructions. Technically, I am an AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego), although I revile the acronym. What I really am is a Child Fan of Lego who happens to be nearly 6 feet tall and has a full-time job and a wife. My current collection consists of all of those old sets and roughly 50,000 more bricks added with my own money. Among those bricks are the ones that can still be used to make the tiny police car that came into my world more than a quarter of a century ago ... all 13 pieces of it.The new bricks come from my rediscovery of Legos three years ago. I see them as a great design tool, a sculpting medium, and a way to revisit fond memories. I also discovered some cracks in the bricks that I hadn't noticed as a child.

imageIt's now summer of 2001. I have just received the most recent Shop at Home catalog, the Lego company's polite way of showing you all the interesting sets, including those it will no longer put on store shelves, that you can buy directly. The catalog represents many of the problems besetting my beloved Legos these days. The publication looks as though it has been put together over a weekend by a group of primary-school kids strung out on pizza and Jolt cola. The catalog is unfocused and muddled, and presents an image of a company desperately searching for a place in a product-driven world that seems to have passed it by ... or has the world passed it by?Ironically, in the world of Palms and Web browsers, Lego has found kindred spirits in the form of adult geeks. These are folks who brought their Lego bricks, at least metaphorically, with them as they headed off to college dorms and then later to urban lofts or tech-company cubicles. For many of us growing up in the 1970s, Lego helped usher in the transition from the analog world of Checkers and LP records to the digital world of Space Invaders and compact discs. And Lego did it one brick at a time.For many people who became computer programmers or techies, Legos were an excellent introduction to binary thinking; the idea that 1s and 0s -- or, in this case, bricks snapped together or not -- can be combined into nearly infinite organic patterns. Douglas Coupland touched on that notion in his geek-speak classic Microserfs . But Lego itself did not seem to realize that it had raised devoted fans on solid products only to set them loose in the world without a way of continuing to play as adults. Today, the company struggles to deal with this dilemma: It must attempt to capture the malleable minds of its young customers while also making products that appeal to an ever more vocal and demanding adult customer base. Can Lego accomplish that? Should it even try?Is it possible that Lego's struggle to relate to its adult customers is reflected in its difficulty coming up with strong new toys for kids? Looking at what keeps the adult Lego fan interested is a clue to what may also spark and hold the attention of younger consumers.For me, the problem is clear in the catalog, a hodgepodge of more than 20 disconnected product lines that inadvertently telegraph this message: If we try everything, something is bound to work. Given enough hands, pulling in enough directions, even a plastic Lego brick will snap. Here are some examples of that problem, taken directly from the catalog.The Classic Reissue series : The company has finally begun to reissue some of the classic sets on which its original popularity was built. But the write-up for the first installment (the famed Guarded Inn) fails to introduce the reissued line or to indicate that the set is a result of a company actually listening to its customers. In other words, Lego can produce the right product, but it can't figure out how to tell folks what it's doing! A single set with little fanfare or explanation does not a successful relaunch make. When Volkswagen "reissued" the Bug, everyone knew. Of course, in a stroke of marketing genius, the first reissue Lego set also isn't available in any retail stores.The Bionicle series : This series shows what happens if you take a whole bunch of old surplus Lego bricks and toss them in a clothes dryer set to tumble. A loose collection of parts that look like some toy designer's migraine headache won't fly as a real product. Bionicle stinks of specialized parts and a lack of "backward compatibility" that has been built into Legos from the beginning. The Bionicle series may be a commercial success, but it isn't really a Lego success.The Sculptures series : In the past year, Lego has begun offering a series of large sets -- using mostly basic bricks -- that allow ordinary people to make large Lego sculptures like the company's own artists have produced for the its theme parks. Among the earliest products is a Statue of Liberty kit.You can have these sets ... if you can afford them. At anywhere from $99 to $199, they won't be under every tree this Christmas. Lego needs to realize that the same design principles used on these sets should be applied to sets in the $20 to $50 range. Of course, regardless of the price, in another marketing masterstroke: None of the Sculptures sets is available in a retail store.The Jack Stone series : These products are so far from the original Legoland or Town sets of the 1970s and early '80s that they may as well have been produced by some other toymaker. Rather than rely on existing licensed characters (as Lego has with Star Wars and will do again later this year with Harry Potter), the company has tried to create a hero who didn't exist before and has so little substance that he barely materializes at all. We have no sense of who Jack Stone is, or why we should care about him. To add insult to injury, the Jack Stone police station contains barely enough Lego pieces (they're not really bricks anymore) to build this one model but little more. Surely that violates some sacred design principle set down by the company's founder. For the record, the Jack Stone series is readily available in retail stores. Charles Fishman's article noted that the company had produced an internal document entitled "Remembering Why We're Here." But judging by products on shelves, the sentiment expressed in that report has not yet made its way into the day-to-day operations of the company. The time has come to obliterate numerous product lines, delve even deeper into previously issued sets, and turn the Lego Web site into a must-visit Internet destination. You don't need a corporate handout, market research, or an earnings statement to know how to fix these problems. You do need some math, but the equation is simple. LEGO = bricksIf you stick to doing what you know how to do and make every effort to do it even better, the products will sell themselves. If new and exciting themes are merged with the traditional idea of making big things out of lots of little bricks, then today's kids can find their own ways to reuse the bricks.Lego should stop hiding behind customized and single-purpose parts when the product's strongest suit has always been generic bricks -- perfect for building multicolored dreams.Allan Bedford (Apotome@altavista.net) is from Ontario, Canada, where he lives with his wife. He works as a programmer analyst for a large financial company.

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