Like Freud, who pondered, “What does a woman want?,” toy marketers struggle to figure out what it takes to appeal to girls. Lego recently introduced its Friends line in an attempt to address this issue. Some consumers applaud the line as a way to encourage girls to play with building toys. But critics say the curvy components in pink and other feminine colors perpetuate sexist stereotypes and betray the brand.
The crux of the issue can be found in a statement from Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp: “This is the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade. We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children.”
In that statement, Lego is conceding that its toys are for boys if they're not labeled “for girls.” That runs counter to the company's longstanding mission. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, son of company founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, said in 1963 that Lego toys were “for girls, for boys.”
What happened to gender-free, open-ended Lego? As the last century closed, tastes changed, Lego sales slumped, and the company went in a completely different direction. As toy-buying parents know, Lego's marketing no longer focuses on the collections of bricks that let you make anything. Now Lego sells individual sets to make very specific things, often tied to action movies, superheroes, or Lego's own characters. This change brought the company success, but it also made some girls -- or their parents -- see Lego as a maker of toys for boys.
A company spokeswoman told me Lego has had significant demand for toys for girls. It devoted four years to developing the new line -- twice as long as it usually spends. It researched the playing preferences of girls ages 5-12 around the world.
Critics decry the new toys' feminine color palette and curvy female figures, along with the focus on conventional feminine beauty and accessories. Critics have started at least two online petitions to get Lego to change. One of them, “Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls! #LiberateLEGOs,” was almost halfway to its goal of 5,000 signatures on Wednesday.
The most effective ammunition against Lego's current marketing is its own marketing from the past, specifically this ad from the last century:
Lego "What Is Beautiful" Ad
This ad represents Lego the way it was -- no boundaries set by gender or expectations about the right way of putting together a set. But Lego has found that it makes a lot more money by defining its sets with clear instructions and labels for age and gender. The Friends line (explicitly for girls) was timed to come out with the new Batman line (implicitly for boys). As long as consumers demand toys defined in such ways, it's understandable that Lego would pursue this line of marketing.
Lego is not the only company to market pink versions of building toys for girls; Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs do so, as well. However, consumers seem to feel a stronger emotional connection to the Lego brand, and that kind of connection can boomerang against the brand when people feel their trust has been betrayed.
As much as my own daughter loves standard Lego toys and hates the Friends concept, I don’t believe Lego should cancel the new line. Instead, it should come up with a broader marketing campaign for girls that offers them Friends as an option, but not the only one. Instead of focusing solely on the new brand, commercials could show girls playing together -- some building Friends sets while others build robots, spaceships, cars, castles, or just imaginative structures. Because really, whether they prefer dolls or dinosaurs, girls just want to have fun.
— Ariella Brown is a writer, editor, Web content developer, and social media coordinator.
The CMO Site is an executive social network that provides CMOs and other marketing executives from the world’s leading organizations with a real-time, online venue where they can convene to discuss how they're delivering on the most critical marketing priorities. Join us!