Take a Glimpse into the Anthropology of Lego

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Lego is revolutionizing their products to attract that other half of the market: the girls! Photo by Flickr user mia3mom via Creative Commons.

The other morning, while getting my sons ready for school, I heard an interview on NPR between Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and Business Week’s Brad Weiner.  The two journalists were discussing a new line of Lego brick sets hitting the market right after Christmas in the U.K. and U.S. The line is called “Lego Friends” and is not to be confused with the “Lego Friends” CD-ROM video game from 1999. During the interview, the two men discussed Mr. Weiner’s recent Business Week article, and all of the research that went into Lego’s latest attempt to corner the female market.  The details about the research captured my attention–they were fascinating!

According to the Business Week article, as part of Lego’s corporate reboot in 2005, Lego “anthros” (a play on “anthropologists”) were dispatched, spending time in homes around the world and learning about the differences between how girls and boys play.  These anthros also learned about cultural differences in play. For instance, that Japanese children seem to develop a sharp distinction between “play time” and “learning time,” while Western cultures better embrace “learning through play.”  It was through this first set of “anthros” that Lego masterfully rebuilt their company — expressly targeting boys and their love of building creations from start to finish.

This same anthros program recently spent time expressly analyzing how girls play. After all, Lego is no stranger to gathering demographic data, they invest a lot of time and money on research.

During the NPR interview, I kept hearing Mr. Inskeep qualify the discussion with statements that began, “I know this sounds stereotypical, but…” regarding some of the things Lego plans to do with their “Friends” line.  He was right, he certainly did sound stereotypical, but statistically speaking, Lego has statistical proof to back up what they say girls want. According to the data:

  • Girls want to role-play with their toys.  Their figures need names and back-stories.
  • Girls want to be able to partially assemble a set, stop for a while to role-play, then opt to continue building.
  • Girls want to be able to accessorize their minifigures.  Lego discovered that purses and hairbrushes didn’t work well on the current size of minifigure, so the new “Friends” will be larger, and will have accessories.
  • Girls want their minifigures to be veterinarians, hairdressers, and coffee shop baristas.  Sorry.  Statistically speaking, while we adults probably want our girls to be video game designers, Nobel-prize-winning physicists, and Supreme Court justices, this simply isn’t how most little girls prefer to play.  And Lego is a business: they want to sell toys that kids will play with (and ask their parents for more of).

So, for those Geek Parents with little girls who enjoy the Lego Castle line of bricks, or Ninjagq sets: great!  But for these “Friends” sets, Lego is aiming at the demographic already successfully cornered by “American Girl.”  To this end: each friend will come with a name, a back-story, a career, and a group of other friends and pets in order to help foster imaginative play.

Lego “Friends” sets are currently available in France, and will be available in the U.K. on December 26th, and in the U.S. on January 1st.  Look for them wherever your favorite Lego toys are found.

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12 thoughts on “Take a Glimpse into the Anthropology of Lego

  1. I am torn about this. Because, like you said, there is something really stereotypical about it. Maybe little girls *do* want to play at being hairdressers or baristas, but does that mean we shouldn’t offer them other options? Still, when my husband showed me the science lab set, my interest was piqued…this is gonna be a wait and see thing, I guess. I just have to remind myself it’s okay to let little girls do girly things. Just have to make sure they have less “traditional” options available too.

    1. Tough one, isn’t it? I’m similarly torn. Disney pulled something similar last year by not making Rapunzel a “Princess” and instead making the movie called “Tangled” and putting just as much emphasis on the male hero — all to garner more interest from boys.

      And it worked, my sons LOVE the movie “Tangled”, not because of Rapunzel, but because of Flynn and the horse.

      While Lego might appreciate what the parents want their girls to like, I’m afraid in this case Lego was learning about what the girls themselves want.

      I hate thinking about it, but Lego is trying to make more money. And by giving girls something they’ll ask their parents for, they had to give in to the stereotype.

      1. You are very right there. It’s understandable from a business standpoint, but kind of sad nonetheless. Hopefully they’ll do it in true Lego spirit though and manage to make it not as bad as we fear. Maybe there will be some cool spins on the “traditional” roles.

  2. If I wasn’t on a programming binge all last week, it would have been rant at LEGO week for me. First, my second daughter wanted to get my oldest daughter a LEGO set with Princess Leia in it only to find that she only comes in sets over $100 mark. (Female minifigs are notoriously rare, in all the sets – named or not) Then after I started my rant I learned that other main characters can be just as rare, naming Han and Chewie.

    Then this was announced. I originally saw it a few days ago. LEGO already does have a girls line, but store don’t often carry it AND it’s not really compatible with the “boys” LEGO because the minifigs are much larger and more dolls than LEGO, so are all the horses and everything else. They’re cute, my middle daughter likes the colors (please will she outgrow pink soon???), but the incompatability with the rest of the world of LEGO has stopped us from buying any.

    So my husband sent me the NPR story and I looked up from my code long enough to think it looked like repackaged Bellvue (the current girl line), but he insists that these minifig dolls would only be marginally bigger than actual minifigs, and that lab set does look really cool. For us, the dolls could be the killer of the whole thing. We want girl minifigs! We want universal LEGO compatibility. Heck, I’d love to see some of the themed sets without an action/violence theme and be more about the scene itself, the characters (minifigs), and what it is your building, not how far it can launch LEGO bricks. My daughters don’t need a whole new line, just sets in existing lines that fill out the rest of the world where there isn’t a robbery, or guns and swords, and nothing needs launching for a change. (yes I know this isn’t as much of a case with the CITY set – we are getting several of those lately).

    Also, with LEGO Lord of the Rings/ The Hobbit also coming out…. the girl LEGO needs to be compatible fully if it’s going to get a chance.

    Thanks for writing up all the demographic research details, but i seriously wonder about them… even with one daughter who went through the beautician phase, they never played that way with the Littlest Pet shop beauty parlor set, she just wanted to play that way on people in the family and maybe her baby dolls. The minfigs she plays with (and other figures that size) she likes to play family with, or have them all playing a game, but maybe she’s not their target demographic yet – even though she wants the pink and purple LEGO blocks and the minifigs are her favorite part of the Castle sets.

  3. It seems to me that Lego is straying into Playmobil territory with this move: accessories, backstory, baristas…

    I loved-loved-loved Lego when I was a kid but I loved it in (maybe?) a “boy” way: I liked to build houses and buildings. I used my Barbies (which I also LOVED) for all of my accessorizing and story making. I didn’t need my Legos to fill my Barbie play-time.

    It seems to me that Lego may be trying to engage a demographic that would otherwise NOT WANT to play with Lego at all. In which case, I would say ANY Lego play is better than no Lego play at all…

    1. I also loved Lego in a “boy” way. Similarly, I was happy with Barbies and dressup when I wanted to play with girl stuff.

      They’re definitely wandering into Playmobil, Littlest Pet Shop and American Girl’s territory with this!

      As wonderful as we think Lego is, this story seems to hit home to me that they’re STILL a business, after the moneymaking.

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