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Photos: Jann Lipka
Photos: Jann Lipka

Lifestyle

Lego – for kids and grown-ups alike

Fascination with the Lego brick is universal and lasts a lifetime. Only the constructions change. It's also good business for Lego.

Hans Brettschneider has been fascinated by the endless opportunities for play that the Lego bricks present since the age of two. He’s spent many hours playing with Lego. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day – he’s been known to sneak out of bed at night to continue his building.

As he’s grown older, his constructions have grown more advanced.

“I’ve built a number of Star Wars and Harry Potter landscapes, and a custom-built Harry Potter castle, loads of exclusive building sets, including the Taj Mahal, London Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and Sydney Opera House,” he says.

It sounds like a common enough scenario, except that Brettschneider is 48 years old.

“It would be pretty much impossible to say how many individual bits of Lego I have,” he says. “My collection includes 300 Lego Star Wars sets, 500 different Star Wars minifigures, and much much more.”

Adult fans source of ideas – and revenue

He’s far from alone in being an adult with a passion for Lego. The plastic brick by Denmark’s Lego Group has a growing legion of grown-up fans who see no reason why the joyful experience of building with Lego should stop with the end of childhood.

As well as amassing large collections of Lego bricks and building astoundingly elaborate Lego constructions, the more committed adult fans run blogs read by hundreds of thousands of followers and stage conventions across the planet.

Known collectively as Adult Fans of Lego (AFOL), their passion for the toy represents both a significant source of product ideas for the Lego Group and a major revenue stream. Adult fans are thought to have accounted for about 10%, or DKr2.86 billion (€383 million) to Lego sales in 2014.

So it’s not surprising that the company is paying adult fans plenty of attention.

In recent years, Lego’s fortunes have been riding high. The world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Lego bricks has made the Lego Group the world’s fastest-growing and most profitable toy company, with its market share steadily climbing.

In racking up a DKr7 billion (€941 million) profit for the year, the manufacturer managed to turn out an astounding 60 billion individual Lego elements – the equivalent of almost 2,000 a second. The company’s 2014 production output took the estimated number of Lego pieces in circulation worldwide to an almost incomprehensible 760 billion, meaning that, on average, we all own 102 bricks.

Dedicated followers of Lego

According to Professor David Robertson, whose 2013 book Brick by Brick analyzes Lego’s culture of innovation, rather than just tolerating adult fans, the company actively encourages them, using them as a resource to develop and grow its business.

“The average adult fan buys much more Lego than the average family, and is also very thoughtful about what he or she can do with the toy,” he says. “So Lego gets some great ideas from them. They provide direct revenue and publicity through the shows they stage.”

Lego spokesman, Roar Rude Trangbæk says the company’s near-death experience of 2003 taught Lego to return to what it did best – manufacturing plastic bricks and the stories around them. It’s also one of the reasons that today’s more robust Lego Group has a strong focus on the adult fans who make up 8–10% of its sales.

“Ten years ago, when we had our crisis, one of the key learnings was that we had a lot of dedicated fans around the world,” he says. “Being aware of that is something that was key to our turnaround, and having a dialog with them remains key to us today.”

Developing sets for adult fans

Besides being a profitable target group, adult fans also make another important contribution: product development. The Lego brain never rests, and the company gets ideas from its devoted fans.

One example is the Lego Architecture line, which features realistic models of famous buildings. The series was created by Adam Reed Tucker, an architectural artist who sold his models independently and caught the eye of Lego executives. They formed a partnership with Tucker to sell some of the models under the Lego brand. Tucker lives in Chicago, so he started with the Sears Tower.

“Doing anything that wasn’t for the target group, which was boys between 5 and 11, used to be almost a complete no-go,” David Gram, head of marketing and business development at Lego’s Future Lab, told Fast Company recently.

That changed when Paal Smith-Meyer, a Norwegian Lego executive, came up with a cost-efficient plan for working with adult fans and got the go-ahead to try it out.

“We provided [Tucker] with the bricks and he sat in his kitchen of his apartment, making the first 200 boxes of the Sears Tower and the Hancock Tower,” Gram said, referring to two well-known Chicago skyscrapers.

The first sets were sold in a limited number of stores, but they sold well. Not only that, they were more profitable than children’s’ sets with an equal number of bricks.

“[They sold for] 70 dollars instead of 30. That proved the case,” Gram said.

Somehow, Lego has managed to capture the imagination of a more mature generation of builders.

“We remember Lego from when we were children and it is a beloved brand, which is something the company takes very seriously.” Robertson says. “They've remained true to their values, and they work with their communities to connect and publicize their new products."

Photo: Sean Kenny

Crowdsourced ideas

One of the ways the Lego Group reaches out to fans is through a global network of Lego User Groups; clubs where fans share their hobby. Lego maintains relations with more than 220 of these groups, bringing together 320,000 adult fans.

“We have a special department working with the fan community, says Lego spokesman Trangbæk. “The network is testament to the fact that Lego is not just for children. It’s something that you can use no matter what age you are, as long as you’re willing to play and be creative.”

Robertson says there’s an aspect of geekiness and social awkwardness to the adult fan network.

“But you also meet people who are managers of Fortune 500 companies – and still love to build with Lego,” he says.

The groups in turn are linked to the Lego Ambassador Network, a program that gives representatives from the groups the opportunity to talk directly with company staff, sharing ideas for new products and gripes about existing products or unpopular company decisions.

The Lego Ambassadors website lists the numerous Lego fan conventions and exhibitions that are scheduled throughout the year, with dozens of large-scale events typically taking place around the world each month.

It’s not the only way adult fans are encouraged to contribute to new products. The Lego Ideas crowdsourcing platform is an online space where adult fans can suggest ideas for new Lego sets, have their concepts vetted by other fans and the company and, if successful, have them produced as Lego products.

Tom Poulsom from Bristol, UK, proposed a set of three realistic birds – a blue jay, a hummingbird, and a robin – that can be built from Lego.

“I set up a Lego Birds Facebook page and shared my idea with companies and organizations that were relevant to my project, and was constantly adding new species of birds to keep the attention coming,” he told the Lego Ideas blog.

Lego as art and profession

In 2014, four submissions from fans were given the green light to go into production. Poulsom’s was one of them, and the 580-piece set “21301-1: Birds” is recommended for ages 12 and up.

A handful of truly lucky adult fans are recognized as Lego Certified Professionals. With the official blessing of Lego, they work full- or part-time to create Lego-based items such as corporate signage, mosaics, and engineering models for paying customers.

Other adult fans, such as Nathan Sawaya, use Lego as an art form. The 42-year-old American was a corporate lawyer, but left his profession in 2004 to become a professional Lego artist. His artwork, which often centers on the human form, is completely constructed from Lego bricks. The idea has proved popular with both adults and children, and Sawaya has successfully toured his “Art of the Brick” exhibition in several countries.

Lego is an intriguing medium, Sawaya says.

“Part of the magic of using the rectangular Lego bricks is that when you are up close to one of my sculptures, you see all the right angles, the squares, the rectangles, but then when you back away from the sculpture and see it from a different point of view, all of those sharp corners blend into curves.  As in life, it is all about seeing things from a different perspective.”

For Hans Brettschneider, maintaining a connection to Lego as an adult has involved opening his own Lego shop next to a permanent exhibition of his creations in Skellefteå, Sweden. He’s not a fan of the expression “Adult Fan of Lego” and prefers to describe himself simply as “an enthusiastic Lego builder.”

Brettschneider says that while he has suffered the occasional taunt for his passion over the years, not least from a partner who thinks he should grow up a little, it’s all worth it when other people share in his love of Lego.

“Just about every adult today has some relationship with Lego, and even if they’re not building today, the memories come flooding back when they see my exhibition,” he says.

 

Text: Daniel Dasey

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Last edited: August 10, 2015

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