Listening to Customers: Making a Business Case for Gender-Inflected Legos
In the 1970s, Lego boxes would contain the following note for parents:
“The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.”
As much as the company wanted young girls to buy and use its products, they didn’t. In 2011, the LEGO Group identified a market opportunity: girls.
LEGO used gender biased research which certainly did not further the cause of equality or feminism. However, LEGO successfully identified a market opportunity and, after making an effort to understand who their customers weren’t, successfully acquired a swath of new customers.
Until 2011, the tiny-toymakers had focused their products on a male demographic, without expressly considering the constructive play needs of their female counterparts. In short, LEGO found that boys received over 90 percent of all LEGO sets bought. Products like the then-largest ever Star Wars Millennium Falcon set and the Indiana Jones line, one might argue, were clearly marketed towards boys. The research operated under the assumption that boys and girls played differently: Boys played with LEGOs by constructing things, and girls played with LEGOs by… well, effectively, they didn’t. Only nine percent of LEGO sets were bought for girls, and LEGO set out to find out why.
To get more girls to play with LEGOs, the company figured, they needed to not only market to them with gender-inclusive figurines but offer toys that girls would actually play with. LEGO needed to figure out how girls play with toys, rather than simply which toys they play with. Enter the LEGO Friends line, complete with five characters who have detailed backstories in shades of purple and pink. The line includes a pop star, an outdoor adventure-seeker, a fashion designer and photographer, a wrench-wielding handywoman with a robot best friend, and a champion tennis player. Andrea, Mia, Emma, Olivia, and Stephanie, respectively, were crafted based on years of careful market research.
Drawing our attention briefly to the reality that this has been considered deeply offensive by many, it did work.
Here’s why: LEGO Friends was the result of a four-year research initiative intended to understand a potential customer base and then deliver to them.
The new Friends line sought to encourage girls to build, and while it has received widespread criticism for its limitations (e.g., fixed wrists and legs and pinkification, among others), LEGO’s push to understand how girls play with toys and its desire to suit those characteristics reaped massive returns. Nanna Ulrich Gudum, LEGO Group Vice President, said the following of the initiative:
“The  girls we talked to let us understand that they really wanted a LEGO offering that mirrors what the boys experience, but in a way that fulfills their unique desire for redesign and details and combined with realistic themes in community and friendship.”
LEGO doubled sales forecasts in the year following its Friends launch and, according to the Guardian, net profit rose 35 percent from January 2012 to June 2012. The company’s success with the new product line was the result of listening to their target customers’ wants and needs (to the extent that we are focusing on the case at hand).
Companies like LEGO are well-versed in what we’re in the business of at Avenue Group: Customer Diplomacy. Customer Diplomacy not a prescribed research process, and it’s more straightforward than you’d think. Primary market research methods vary in degrees of complexity, at times returning bias-inflected results with little recourse as how to proceed based on data. At Avenue Group, we employ best practices from a range of primary market research methods, creating our own approach that is adaptive to each research objective we encounter. By listening deeply, and by positioning one’s customers’ insights in the greater context of one’s business, companies stand to excel at serving their customers’ needs.
This article was written by Avenue Group Content Strategist Chelsea Catherman.