Story of a brand: LEGO

The building-block behemoth was praised when it announced it would remove gender stereotypes from its products. But, even for the world's biggest toy company, such moves don't come without risk.
Lego 16x9 hero

The story of LEGO, the world's leading toy manufacturer, began in 1932 with a global economic crisis. Facing a lack of work, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a carpenter and joiner in Billund, a modest town in central Denmark, reapplied his skills to wooden toys such as cars, airplanes and yoyos. He named his company LEGO after the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’, reflecting the quality in his products, which he carved out of beechwood that had been air-dried for two years and kiln-dried for three weeks. 

By 1949, Ole was finding it difficult to source his materials, and began exploring the possibility of plastic toys. He thought about simple, child-friendly polymer bricks capable of forming models of different shapes and sizes when put together. The binding mechanism he settled on was a series of interlocking studs on the top and holes on the bottom. As the Automatic Binding Brick, as it was first known, established itself as the company's core product, his son, Godtfred, who replaced his father as the head of the company (and officially changed his surname to Christiansen with a C), registered the patent in 1958. The aim was to ‘create a toy that prepares the child for life’, he said, ‘appealing to their imagination and developing the creative urge and joy of creation that are the driving force in every human being’. 

The LEGO bricks, as we know them today, are sold in more than 130 countries and remain at the heart of an unrivaled global toy empire that not only turned over $3.6 billion in the first half of 2021 (up 46% year on year while profits more than doubled), but also boasts 10 theme parks, a movie franchise and more than 600 stores worldwide. That's not to say, though, that the company has been standing still: its product range has grown to include DUPLO, a line of larger bricks for young children who struggle to handle the smaller original bricks, plus a range of yellow Minifigures that appear in the company's themed play sets. 

In 1998, the same year LEGO introduced a line of bricks embedded with microchips to create programmable robotics packs, the company was among the inaugural inductees to the US National Toy Hall of Fame. Two years later, it was named toy of the century by the British Association of Toy Retailers, beating the teddy bear, Action Man and Barbie among other iconic toys. As LEGO seeks to keep up with an ever-evolving consumer landscape, the company has invested millions in its quest to make its bricks more sustainable and, more recently, has sought to become more inclusive to all genders and released its first toys based on LGBTQ+ culture. It's now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a grandchild of the founder, and the bricks it produces are still compatible with those produced in 1958. LEGO sells enough of them each year to circle the world around five times.

Removing gender stereotypes

One of LEGO's more significant announcements of 2021 was that it was planning to remove gender bias from its products, as it seeks to ensure that children's ambitions aren't limited by harmful stereotypes. Back in 2012, LEGO was heavily criticized when the brand released a range of pink products specifically aimed at girls. 

The recent move was based on a global survey conducted on the company's behalf by actress Geena Davis' eponymous research institute. According to the findings, based on nearly 7,000 parents and children aged six to 14 across seven countries, girls remain held back by ingrained societal norms as they grow older, even if they're more confident to engage in different types of play than boys. For example, 82% of girls believe it's fine for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet, compared with only 71% of boys.

It remains unclear how exactly LEGO hopes to remove gender stereotypes from its products, other than classifying its ranges by ‘passions and interests’ rather than by gender. What is clear, however, is that it reflects the changing expectations in the toy market and a growing understanding of how gender stereotypes are formed at a young age, says Colin Druhan, executive director of Pride at Work Canada, a non-profit organization promoting LGBTQ2+ workers (the ‘2’ represents two-spirit people). While the move is likely to have positive repercussions on gender parity in broader society, Colin believes it's largely driven by profits. ‘LEGO isn't a mission-driven organization,’ he says, ‘so, if the data shows that more parents are recommending their products to boys than girls, it most definitely sees an opportunity there.’

LEGO is by no means the first toymaker to try to remove gender bias from its products – Mattel, the maker of Barbie, launched a line of gender-inclusive dolls in 2019, while Hasbro, the company behind Potato Head, made the brand gender-neutral by dropping the ‘Mr’ from its name last year – but it is the largest, so the move is likely to have repercussions across the toy industry. 

‘It's really influential to see a company like Mattel or LEGO [that's] going the extra mile to eradicate gender bias from their toys,’ says Jackie Breyer, group director at toy review website the Toy Insider. ‘They're setting a standard and those who follow more quickly will be better off for it.’

LGBTQ+ toys

LEGO's other significant announcement of 2021 came in March, when it unveiled Everyone Is Awesome, its first set explicitly celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. The set features 11 monochrome Minifigures, each a different color of the iconic rainbow Pride flag, and 10 of which are aimed to be genderless. ‘Everyone is unique and, with a little more love, acceptance and understanding in the world, we can all feel more free to be our true awesome selves,’ said Matthew Ashton, LEGO vice president of design at the time of the launch. ‘This model shows that we care, and that we truly believe “Everyone is awesome”!’

The starting point for the set was a feeling that, ‘we, as a society, could be doing more to show support for each other and appreciate our differences’, according to Matthew. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community himself, he wanted to make a ‘real statement about love and inclusivity’, so he chose a ‘bold and simplistic’ design. He included black and brown colors to represent the ‘broad diversity’ of everyone within the LGBTQ+ community, and he added in the pale blue, white and pink figures to ‘support and embrace the trans community’. The set's purple drag queen is a ‘clear nod to the fabulous side’ of the LGBTQ+ community. 

In Lego's footsteps

Prompted by growing expectations among parents for more inclusivity in the toy world, more of the industry's major brands are taking similar action. Dolls were among the first categories to embrace inclusivity – dolls with prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, no hair and the skin condition vitiligo have long been available – so it's logical that other toy categories are following suit. 

‘I think it's forward-looking and reflects a real understanding of how society is changing,’ says Wendy Cukier, the academic director of Ryerson University's Diversity Institute. ‘It's clear that younger people have different views on inclusivity than, say, the boomers and my generation, and I think that LEGO is just anticipating even larger shifts.’ 

Unfortunately, you can't please everyone. Conservative Fox News host Will Cain ‘joked’ that the new toy sets could easily have been designed by David Duke, a former member of extremist group the Ku Klux Klan. Albeit less extreme, marketing LGBTQ-themed products can also lead to widespread mockery and accusations of corporate rainbow-washing – like when big-box store Target jumped on the bandwagon for Pride month last year and went viral for all the wrong reasons. Fast-food chain Burger King suffered a similar fate when it wrapped its Whopper burger in rainbow-colored paper – two high-profile examples of ‘rainbow capitalism’.

From a business perspective, Wendy believes LEGO's moves are likely to be a watershed moment. Whereas, in the past, many brands have been afraid to demonstrate their commitment to diversity for fear of a public backlash, LEGO's move paves the way for an industry-wide transition. ‘Often a single incident can trigger substantial and significant change, like the very visible death of George Floyd did for anti-black racism,’ she says, ‘and LEGO is such a universal toy that I do think this is a significant time.’ These moves, Wendy says, are also a reaction to the increasing spending power of minority groups. 

Nowadays, brands that don't overcome their fears risk alienating an expanding chunk of the population. ‘People have a more intimate relationship with brands than they did previously, because we engage with them on social media and, so, the values of a brand can deeply affect their buying conditions,’ says Colin of Pride At Work Canada. ‘The brands that win are those with equitable business practices. It's not only people who are queer and trans who respond to brands that embrace the community.’

While the reaction to LEGO's unveiling of Everyone Is Awesome was largely positive, there was some criticism on social media because none of the profits from the set will be donated to LGBTQ+ causes. Perhaps the brand was simply profiteering from Pride, users wondered. The company responded by pointing out that it has long made donations to the UK organization Diversity Role Models, which focuses on teaching kids about inclusivity. 

Main takeaways 

Be innovative, but don't lose sight of your core product. 

LEGO hasn't had everything its own way. Suffering at the hands of cheaper toys manufactured in China, the company was in rapid decline throughout the nineties and, by 2003, it was $800 million in debt and facing bankruptcy. The struggles were, in part, down to a reaction to product diversification, which increased costs without much positive impact on sales. Within 12 years, though, the company had re-established itself as one of the world's biggest toy brands. But what changed? When business executive Jørgen Vig Knudstorp joined the LEGO group in 2001, he reduced the number of different pieces that LEGO manufactured from 12,900 to 7,000. It was part of a commitment to taking the company ‘back to brick’, which is to say that brands must never lose sight of their core product. The new LGBTQ+ and gender-neutral toy sets may be a marketing ploy, rather than a huge increase in new products.

Think in terms of solving problems.

When looking to become more inclusive, the first thing a brand should do, says Colin, is engage with people from the community it's trying to support or serve, otherwise the strategy will be ‘informed by stereotypes and prejudices’. Having seen many brands miss the mark by offering products that actually reinforce harmful stereotypes, he says that, like any business strategy decision, this transition must be based on analysis and research. 

One great example is Mastercard's True Name feature, which allows users to put their commonly used or chosen name, rather than their given name, on their credit card. ‘One of the things that can incite violence [against the LGBTQ+ community] is someone using a credit card with a name that doesn't align with how the cashier might view their gender,’ Colin says. ‘Instead of just popping the flag on a card, Mastercard actually engaged with people from this community to find out what problem it could solve.’ 

Focus on the positives rather than the backlash.

It's not uncommon for business owners to avoid overtly encouraging inclusivity and diversity because they're scared about the backlash. There's always a risk, but brands have a social responsibility to speak up and their effects are rarely, if ever, as damaging as one might think, provided the efforts are sincere and well-grounded. 

Wendy from Ryerson University's Diversity Institute encourages brands to think about diversity through a ‘business case lens’, focusing on the positives that inclusivity brings, like better access to talent, rather than pandering to parts of the population that don't share the same values. ‘You can certainly have the pushback but, in order to move forward positively, we can't just adjust your strategy to those people who have these views,’ she says. ‘It's important to remember that the more opportunities you open up, the better your business is going to function.’

Get your own house in order first.

Companies must be careful not to signal their commitment to diversity within their product line if it isn't already embedded deeply within their organization. There's no hard boundary between what you do in terms of diversity and inclusivity internally in terms of representation and opportunities, and how you're designing your products and marketing them. In fact, they're ‘inherently connected’, says Wendy. For this reason, companies require strategies that go from top to bottom, because using diversity and inclusion as a marketing tool can appear not only disingenuous but deceitful. 

‘You can't just roll out the rainbow carpet if you're not willing to actually accept people,’ she adds.

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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