Gandalf, you've got company.
Middle Earth will not be the only fantasy world coming to Lego this summer. And while the introduction of Lord of the Rings is sure to generate blockbuster sales, the other fantasy world--the one of the videogame Minecraft --has the potential to not just move units, but revolutionize the way a venerated toy brand does business.
That's because of Cuusoo , Lego’s recently enhanced foray into crowdsourcing. Launched in Japan in 2008, but only opened to global beta this past October, Cuusoo invites users to submit--and vote for--ideas for new Lego sets. When an idea crosses the 10,000-vote threshold, it gets a formal internal review and a shot at production. If produced, the creator of the project will receive a 1% royalty on the net revenue from the set, not to mention serious bragging rights at the next BrickCon. The first Cuusoo project hit Japanese shelves almost a year ago--a limited-edition version of the Japanese deep sea submersible, the Shinkai 6500. The second, a Japanese asteroid reconnaissance spacecraft called the Hayabusa , is scheduled for release on March 2nd.
So far, Lego has been pleasantly surprised by much more than simply the interest these new sets have generated--they are rather psyched about the sets themselves. Peter Esperson, Lego’s Online Community Lead, tells Fast Company, “If we got all the Lego designers, and probably even all the fans in the same room and discussed what it was we should make, and put it to a vote? It probably would not have been the Shinkai. But some guy in Japan decided he wanted to do this, and he tapped into the deepwater marine biology community and then it happened. And we would never have been able to guess that there was a market for it.”
According to Lego New Business Group Senior Consultant Tim Courtney, it was partly the success of the Japanese beta launch that led Lego to take the Cuusoo project global. Courtney enthuses, “Could a runaway success come from outside the organization? We want to find out. We’re very interested in ideas from fans that maybe...they’re weird, they’re different, they wouldn’t have survived the product development process. There might be things that we’ve thought of before, that we’ve killed, or we’ve never tested them outside. But if our fans can tells us there’s demand for them through something like this, then why wouldn’t we consider it? And if we could take something like that and turn it into a runaway success for the business, then that will show the value of listening to our consumers.”
And while Lego actually has a long tradition of listening to, and even collaborating with, its fan base on toy concepts, doing so at the ever-accelerating rate of the web demands tremendous agility from the world’s third largest toy maker. The first Cuusoo project--the Shinkai--took 420 days to accumulate enough votes to trigger a review (only 1,000 were needed for the Japan-only project), while Minecraft, with its 20 million registered users, racked up 10,000 votes in just 48 hours.
Such an outpouring of interest would be squandered though, if that consumer desire was left to wither through a traditional product development cycle. And this is where the second, and possibly more significant piece of the Cuusoo endeavor comes into play: Lego Minecraft will go from concept to release in roughly six months, rather than Lego’s typical two- or three-year process.
The customer groups Lego hopes to reach with Cuusoo are essentially dark matter, if you'll forgive our lapse into geek-speak: small, all but invisible demographics, but taken in aggregate, colossal. Esperson jokingly says that most of these potential customers--the gamers, marine biologists, and space geeks they’ve found so far--are people in what he calls a “dark period.” That's the time between outgrowing the Legos they used as kids, and having them reintroduced through kids of their own. Bringing those people back into the world of Lego a few years early will greatly expand the notion of what the Lego brand is.
The task Lego set for itself is tricky. That is, proving it can be as nimble, creative, and responsive as a startup, while still moving units like an industry leader. (According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Lego reached $1 billion  in sales in 2010 for the first time and was on track to do the same last year.) There are some things that only "Industry Leader Lego" can accomplish: the release of Friends, Lego’s latest attempt to gain a foothold in the large but frustratingly elusive girls’ market is one such case. It is supported by years of ethnological and marketing research, and backed by a $40 million marketing push. You can’t do that with a Kickstarter campaign.
Other areas are cut out for "Startup Lego." They continue to expand their Architecture line  of minimalist models of landmarks. Life of George  is an interesting experiment in fusing digital and real life play. And the company recently launched ReBrick , a social bookmarking platform that is the ultimate rebuke to anyone who still says people only build what’s pictured on the box.
Overt branding and marketing is conspicuously absent from the site, with the focus instead on fostering peer-to-peer sharing. For the casual user it functions almost as a glass bottom boat, a way for users to see down into all of the various Lego fan sites and subcultures, without needing to find and decipher each of them (which can be surprisingly difficult). The goal is to make these deeper parts of Lego cultures more accessible to those casual fans, and to make the different tribes of devoted fans more accessible to each other.
From the outside these may almost look like two different companies at work: Industry Leader Lego is a blockbuster machine, with Friends, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile "Quirky Startup Lego" expands the public’s notions of the brand with ReBrick, Architecture, Life of George, and Cuusoo. At the core though, they’re both motivated by the same two things; first, encouraging play and creative expression by as many people, in as many ways, as possible.
The second motivation, to put it bluntly, is selling toys. And when it comes to turning plastic bricks into money, all roads lead to Billund, the small Danish town where the company keeps its HQ. Then again, if the new top project on Cuusoo is any indication--it’s a Back to the Future  set --where they’re going, they won’t need roads.
[Images courtesy of Lego]