This summer, LEGO launched a minor revolution. It introduced professional women -- scientists, no less -- into its latest toy line aimed at girls. The new figurines -- called "minifigs" by Lego die-hards -- feature a female palaeontologist, an astronomer, and a chemist. They sold out on the first day.
This, after years of mediocre "pink" products that did little to grow LEGO's share of the girls' toy aisle.
Why did it take until 2014 for the world's second-largest toy maker to offer girls (and their toy-buying parents) products they might actually want? (After all, even Barbie has been an astronaut since 1965.)
Perhaps it has something to do with the profile of LEGO's management team, comprised almost entirely of men. The three-person board of the privately-held company is all men, led by CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. The 21-person corporate management team has 19 men and two women -- both in internally-facing staff roles, not connected to the customer base or product development. When your leadership isn't gender-balanced, it's tough to have a balanced customer base. The new 'Research Institute' range was proposed by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman on one of the company's crowd-sourcing sites. But it begs the question, is there really no one inside the company who might have come up with the radical idea of having women scientists feature in a 21st century toy company's line?
The debate has been raging about toys and gender for decades. Should toys be gender neutral, or targeted differently at boys and girls? Lego's somewhat tumultuous journey here will be familiar to anyone in a company struggling to tap into the female half of the market.
Family-owned LEGO toys used to be staunchly gender neutral -- as self-professed Lego geek David Pickett exhaustively demonstrates. The early advertisements featured both boys and girls playing with identical toys. When minifigs were first introduced in the late '70s -- the era of androngyny -- gender was downplayed, and the '80s were a golden age for the company. But between the late '80s and early '00s, the company launched a stream of product lines aimed at girls, none particularly successful and most heavily anchored in pink. These weren't toys that boys and girls could play with -- the company was now making one set of toys for boys (which were often more interesting and challenging to build) and one set of pink, simplified products for girls, including a jewelry line and dollhouses. As Pickett points out, many of these pieces weren't even compatible with the majority of Legos (i.e., the boy Legos) -- and interchangeability is the whole value proposition of the Lego system.
Things finally got so bad that in 2004, Lego almost went bust. The first non-family CEO took over and turned the company around. LEGO rebounded through disciplined management -- which included cutting back the unpopular line of pink toys, and making its products more macho. Lego's customers were 91 percent male by 2012, when the company released girl-targeting Lego Friends after "four years of research." What are Lego Friends? Essentially a gaggle of girls who live in Heartland, wear a lot of pastels, and hang out in a salon or at a pool. And, like Lego's unsuccessful line of pink toys from the '90s, these figures are much less functional than the boys' toys. In a sad and metaphorical twist, the male minifigs can drive cars, run, and hold tools. The female minidolls can't move their hands. They can only sit, stand, or bend over.
And yet the company multiplied sales to girls threefold. So why argue with success?
For the same reason that any male-dominated company's 'pink' strategies are limited in both scope and impact. You can build a female niche, you can make money off it -- but wouldn't the company make far more money if it doubled its existing market size, rather than incrementally improving a strategy that is not hugely popular with a wide swathe of public opinion, parents, and educators?
Moreover, the girls who want to play with dolls and accessories are probably not Lego's target market. Doesn't Barbie have a lock on those girls? Why not create something for the "other" girls entirely ignored by the majority of the tyrannically pink toy aisle? (In business, this is what we call a market opportunity.) Perhaps because the male-dominated LEGO company doesn't see girls as a massive market containing a multiplicity of profitable niches -- they see 'girls' as a single niche market in and of themselves. This is what the phone companies like Siemens and Nokia used to do with their range of pink ladies' phones before Apple blew them out of the water with a gender 'bilingual' iPhone that integrated the preferences of both genders to make their market 50/50 gender balanced. That's where the gold mine lies.
So let the immediate, sold-out market response to the timid introduction of the three new figurines be a message to the gentlemen at the table. Be bold! Innovate! Think outside last century's box. Invite some of these innovative female Lego-lovers onto your board or into your top team.
Don't hold your breath, though. Despite its first-day sold-out success, LEGO has decided not to continue the Research Institute line. It was only a "limited edition." So girls, back to the pool. The guys in this boardroom don't seem to want to give you any ideas... let alone seats at the table.
LEGO's corporate mantra is "only the best is good enough." In 2014, as the most ambitious, educated, and employed generation of girls the world has ever seen heads back to school, I suspect most girls might not agree that the company is making their own grade.