From children’s toys to Legoland, a look at the resurgence of Lego
Who doesn’t love Lego? Those distinctive, colourful interlocking blocks carry with them a sense of boundless possibility.
Children love Lego because they can, in their minds at least, build anything. Parents love Lego because in building, there’s learning – although the relationship is best described as love and hate when it comes time to navigate a sea of jagged blocks scattered across the living room floor, or uncovered down the back of the sofa.
And big business loves Lego, too. Today, the brand accounts for a global empire of 125 shops, eight amusement parks, and a clothes range. Those stacks of bricks have inspired rafts of books, computer and board games, and two Hollywood blockbusters. There is even a business consultancy brand Lego Serious Play – in which adult participants solve problems in a virtual world with Lego bricks, and presumably come away better people.
All reasons why, in February 2015, business valuation consultants Brand Finance named Lego as the “world’s most powerful brand” – overtaking Ferrari.
Such accolades, corporate tie-ins and affiliations would doubtless have been unimaginable to Ole Kirk Christiansen, the Danish carpenter who coined the term Lego in 1934 for his series of wooden toys, adapting the name from the Danish phrase “leg godt” (“play well”).
More than eight decades later, the Lego empire continues to build upwards, brick-by-brick. Bucking a global trend of decline in the toys market, Lego posted a 10 per cent revenue increase in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier.
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■ Pictures: Dubai Parks and Resorts opens with a bang
The UAE’s relationship with Lego is positively blooming. This week, it was revealed Dubai would play host to the Middle East’s first Legoland Hotel.
The garishly coloured 250-room metropolis will include playful-sounding “disco elevators” and immersive play and adventure areas, while Lego characters will adorn guest common areas and rooms.
An opening date is yet to be confirmed.
Naturally the child-friendly paradise will sit inside Dubai Parks and Resorts, within easy walking distance of the new Legoland Dubai and Legoland Waterpark, which opened in October and December respectively. The park allows visitors to gawp at 5,000 Lego model structures made from more than 60 million Lego bricks, as well as hosting 40 themed rides, shows and attractions.
Dubai is the latest land conquered in bright bricks, as part of a sudden global explosion of Lego-themed amusement parks. Of the eight Legoland outposts globally – across Europe, Asia and the United States – four are less than six years old, and a ninth is set to open in Korea later this year.
It is a far cry from the days when Lego lovers were forced to travel to the source. The original Legoland in Billund was the brand’s sole physical outpost for close to three decades, from its opening in 1968 to the launch of the United Kingdom’s Legoland Windsor Resort in 1996.
It was before that date when, after years of nagging, this writer’s parents finally consented to taking one of its first family holidays to Denmark, ostensibly for no other reason than to visit Legoland.
The opening of Legoland Dubai represented a significant investment in the UAE, and naturally the opening did not pass without a certain amount of shrewd marketing pre-amble.
Shortly before October’s grand opening, Legoland Dubai unveiled the world’s tallest building made out of Lego, at 17 metres and weighing in at 1,000 kilogrammes. Emirati youth Mohammed bin Ahmed Jaber Al Harbi’s ambitious subject was, naturally, the Burj Khalifa. His effort took 5,000 hours and 439,000 Lego bricks to realise.
Days earlier, the emirate also hosted the Middle East’s first Lego Stack event, which saw SkyDive Dubai flooded with more than 10.2 million bricks of all shapes, sizes and colours, weighing some 22 tonnes. Families from across the region converged to attend workshops and watch “certified Lego master builders” at work.
Last week was the global release of the second big Lego blockbuster – The Lego Batman Movie, an animated superhero caper which reimagines the Caped Crusader made out of Lego.
Such a pairing might have bristled hardened DC Comics fans, but the critical consensus has been generally positive. After the increasingly dark onscreen turns the Batman franchise has taken – first with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, and later with Ben Affleck’s series entry in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – the tongue-in-cheek cheeriness of The Lego Batman Movie is arguably the fanciful grounding the franchise needs.
The fans appear to agree – at its recent opening weekend in the US, the film grossed $55.6 million (Dh204 million), toppingly February 10’s other big release, Fifty Shades Darker.
Such an audience turn-out would not have been possible without tapping into the vast resource of goodwill stoked by 2014’s The Lego Movie, a critical and commercial smash banking $469m (Dh1.7 billion) worldwide. Clearly onto a winner, future spin-offs include The Lego Ninjago Movie, in cinemas later this year, and continuation The Lego Movie Sequel set for February 2019.
Batman may be one of the few international children’s franchises older even than Lego. The Caped Crusader first appeared in Detective Comics #27 back in 1939 – exactly a decade before Christiansen began producing his first Automatic Binding Bricks. Ironically, the now-iconic design was modelled on an earlier range of Self-Locking Bricks from British firm Kiddicraft (Lego would eventually acquire the rights to Kiddicraft in 1981).
The Lego brick as we know it today – in shape, size, and locking mechanism – was debuted in January 1958 by Christiansen’s son, Godtfred, a moment which would change the look of playtime for millions of families for years to come.
A little more than a decade later there was the introduction of Duplo, a system of larger locking blocks aimed at younger children who might struggle with the precision of Lego – or shallow those smaller pieces. The Duplo range also had the uncanny effect of hooking a younger bracket of children into the Lego universe, ensuring the brand’s longevity through passing generations.
The entrepreneurial inventors’ next move was to increase its reach to an older demographic. In 1977 came the launch of Lego Technic, a more advanced system complete with rotating gears, marketed to a mature, conscientious audience, which would ensure Lego lovers would keep building into their teens.
However, the most significant breakthrough perhaps came a year later with the creation of Lego people. By offering the Lego world a human face – allowing children to make houses for people to live in and jets for them to fly – it paved the way for a whole new kind of play. Of course you could still build, but once a world was built, your characters could live in it, to.
Without these now-iconic figurines Lego’s various popular themed universes – such as space, pirates, vikings and Wild West would not be possible – and the tracks were laid all the way to lucrative Star Wars and Batman ranges to come.
These ranges in turn set the tone of an increasing market for spectacular one-off kits, which would be bought, built once, and displayed like a monument – therefore requiring ever-more Lego to be bought – and ever-grander kits to be invented.
These innovations and smart brand partnerships – as well as expanding into different virtual and physical mediums – have each played a vital role in keeping Lego relevant with ever-changing generations of children.
However. the things Lego has kept the same should not be overlooked. A brick bought at Legoland Dubai today will fit snugly into one acquired back in 1958 – a fact more unimaginable to parents than their children. When adults buy Lego and encourage loved ones to play with it, many are subconsciously embracing their own childhood, spent toiling over the bricks. By playing with Lego you embrace both possibility and the past, tapping into an intergenerational tradition that has proved immune to trend.
As I learnt this summer when I visited my brother’s home, and found his two sons bent, seriously, over several plastic toolboxes. Inside, each was divided neatly into walled compartments, each compartment containing dozens of tiny Lego pieces carefully sorted by type – exactly as I’d left them, two decades earlier.
Updated: February 15, 2017 04:00 AM