Image Credit: Government Technology
“This has been the best year ever for the Lego Group. If I could sing and dance, I should be singing and dancing because it is a fantastic number of results.” — Lego Chief Executive Jørgen Vig Knudstorp in 2015, the year following the release of The LEGO Movie
Imagine you are the CMO for an established toy company. Generations of once-young people loved your product and used it to light their imaginations on fire. Now you face new entertainment competition from video games, YouTube, virtual reality, and mobile games. You’ve tried your hand at a fair share of video games and YouTube shorts, but you need a home run to not just play defense but to gain the upper hand on your competition and inspire a new generation of children. You need something that will win over not just the hearts of children but the minds of the adults who purchase toys and gifts for them — and something that can be shared by the children with their children once they come of age. Whatever this campaign is, it needs to be timeless, it needs to pull in people from age 5 to 50, it needs to move the audience, and it needs to be such a hit as to open the door for new opportunities.
Released in 2014, The LEGO Movie portrays Emmet, a young, optimistic, and naive hero taking on a stodgy, unmoving, and cold villain known only as President, and then Lord Business. Lord Business hopes to use a superweapon known as The Kragle (derived from a worn tube of Krazy Glue) to freeze everything in place so that the individual actions and machinations of society no longer go against his master, orderly plan.
Emmet is the bland everyman. Image credit: Highdefdigest.com
Emmet teams up with heroes and icons like Batman and a blind, wizardly sage known only as Vitruvius to take down Lord Business’ plot and to save the world from his stodgy order. The star-studded cast includes Liam Neeson, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Channing Tatum, Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Offerman, Elizabeth Banks, and Chris Pratt. Ostensibly a children’s movie, The LEGO Movie garnered positive reviews across the film spectrum and registered an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not only did the movie succeed as entertainment, it also drove sales better than any other campaign LEGO ran. In 2015, the year after the release of The LEGO Movie, LEGO reported sales jumped a 25%. In 2014, sales jumped 14% after the release of the movie. A home run if there ever were one, The LEGO Movie goes levels beyond releasing a LEGO video game or riding on the coattails of another brand by releasing a LEGO set for that brand.
The LEGO Movie presents a fantastic lesson for marketers to understand how to reignite an old brand, understand and leverage marketing for sales, and set yourself up as a leader and not merely a follower riding on the brands of others. These are five core lessons to take away from the success of The LEGO Movie.
The biggest point that sets The LEGO Movie apart from any of the brand’s franchised video games or from TV or YouTube shows is its accessibility to audiences both young and old. Children can’t buy their own toys and need their parents to buy toys and video games for them. The traditional marketing model for children’s toys followed an aggressive tactic of hitting the children with as much loud advertising as needed for them to badger their parents until they gave in and purchased the toy for them. This is a high-competition tactic and the winner tends to be whichever brand has the catchiest theme, the most airtime, and the biggest broadcasting budgets. Even this tactic has come under fire from unboxing videos on YouTube and the decline of traditional children’s television.
Unlike the latest flash-in-the-pan toy craze, LEGO comes into the toy advertising space with an unfair advantage: many of today’s parents of their potential users were once users of the toy themselves. From the general plot of an adult locking his toys away when he has a kid and only revisiting them to live out his childhood to the appearance of characters from 1980s movies like Star Wars, The LEGO Movie makes a concerted-but-subtle effort to speak to parents taking their children to see the movie.
The Millennium Falcon makes a brief appearance in the movie and includes several characters voiced by their original actors.
At the end of the movie, viewers learn that the entire plot is in the imagination of a young boy who steals away to his dad’s basement to play with his dad’s childhood legos. Lord Business, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the embodiment of the boy’s dad, played by Will Ferrell. The conclusion brings the boy closer to his father as they play with his LEGOs and share valuable father-son time together, a subtle message to parents in the audience that they, too, can escape the monotony of the business world to spend time with their children by playing with LEGOs.
Image credit: scrdn.com
Other appeals to adults throughout the movie include broader cinematic and storytelling tropes that go over the heads of children. Lord Business’ henchman, Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), is a two-faced LEGO toy with a happy face and an angry face, showing the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop dichotomy seen in noir films.
Liam Neeson with Bad Cop. Image credit: Bustle
By focusing on a strong appeal to parents to rekindle their childhood imagination, spend time with their own children, and to step back from the world of business and back into the family, LEGO only has to rely on Warner Brothers to make sure the children get their parents into the theater. Once they’re in the theater, pulling on their nostalgia and heartstrings makes the sale to the parents while the children enjoy the bright, multicolored action.
There’s no scene that better captures the ability of The LEGO Movie to leverage the success of other brands LEGO once partnered with than the meeting of the Master Builders.
This scene brings together LEGO characters from build sets going back at least until the 1980s and not only allows the producers to feature voice actors like Chris Pratt (Superman) and Shaq (Shaq) but also gives a wink and a nod to the adults sitting in the room who played with LEGO sets long discontinued, like the 2002 NBA Allstars, 1980s-something-Spaceguy, and Swamp Creature. This allows The LEGO Movie to continue the appeal to adults sitting in the audience even if they never played with LEGOs themselves. A viewer of the movie may be moved to see reference to Gandalf or Dumbledore, remember the good times they had as a child reading Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter and be more motivated to connect with the theme of the movie.
The LEGO Movie isn’t just a movie about a child wanting to play with his father’s toys — in fact, that part of the plot isn’t revealed until the end. The movie jumps in pretty quickly to a good-versus-evil plot and one that goes beyond that of childish good guy v. bad guy. Lord Business’ ultimate plot is to keep everything in place so that people no longer mess up his plans. By using a tube of Krazy Glue, he and his minions will glue all of the other LEGO characters in place, stymying their creativity and keeping them from moving the world he commands around.
Lord Business. Image credit: YouTube
This is a classic man-versus-the system conflict structure and one that consistently works. Appeals to man-versus-the system struggles work because viewers and readers feel like they are up against a system in all of their goals. This kind of structure engages the empathy of the viewer and hooks them in for a longer plot structure. The “man” in this case is the creative individual and creative community. These are the people who leverage their creativity to move existing resources (in this case, LEGO blocks) around to create something that never existed before. These are craftspeople, artists, and entrepreneurs. Lord Business represents the status quo and the forces that want to keep existing resources as they are. To the viewer, this may be the resistance they feel when they try to create a new piece of art or launch a new business and quit their cubicle job.
Finn descends into his basement to save his father from the monotony of adulthood. Image credit: screenfish.net
Beneath the main plot of the movie exists another, more personal conflict narrative of man-versus-the system and a child’s descent to save his father. At the end of the movie, Lord Business fails in his plot to control the world and the viewer is broken from the land of imagination to the “real world.” Here, Will Ferrell confronts his son Finn about playing with his toys. Through his earnestness and the creativity on display in the LEGO set, Finn convinces his dad that toys are made to be played with and the movie ends with the two sharing a moment together while playing with the father’s LEGO set. Finn rescues his father from the system that is adulthood. This narrative structure appears throughout successful literature and film, with the most obvious example being Pinocchio, where Pinocchio literally descends into an underworld (versus going into the basement) and saves his father.
While The LEGO Movie ends on an uplifting note, the chaotic scene of the Battle of Bricksburg — which reintroduces many of the franchise characters that appear earlier in the movie — leaves open the opportunity of a number of new LEGO Movies. LEGO took up this opportunity to launch The LEGO Batman Movie in 2017 (itself garnering a still-impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The LEGO Ninjago Movie in September 2017.
LEGO Batman Trailer:
LEGO Ninjago Trailer:
This is significant for a brand like LEGO, which usually only releases build sets or video games as a response to the release of another movie (i.e., a Star Wars build set may be released after the release of a Star Wars movie). By leaving The LEGO Movie open ended and introducing a number of characters who can be recycled (original and otherwise), LEGO and Warner Brothers get ahead of the cart and open up new opportunity for movies not entirely dependent on other brands.
Most movies that employ a good-versus-evil plotline, go to invoke nostalgia, and work to engage adults as much as children run the risk of being preachy or moralizing. Others that actively avoid moralizing often tone down their plot so much that they run the risk of being boring or not engaging. The LEGO Movie both avoids moralizing while keeping an engaging and heartwarming plotline. Although viewers may be tempted to read into it an anti-business or anti-government narrative with the rise of President and then Lord Business, the narrative is more about the stultifying effects of over-seriousness in adulthood than any broader social narrative. This makes it so that anybody, no matter their beliefs or agenda while walking into the movie, can leave with the feeling that they are glad to have gone to the theater and had their hearts warmed, not their minds assaulted.
Image credit: Blu Ray Digest
Movie theaters around the nation filled with families with young children, young adults, and retirees at the release of The LEGO Movie. The movie was the most-evenly-represented movie among both genders for the 2014 box office season, with 55% of viewers being male and 45% being female. The film drastically increased sales for LEGO, reignited a love for the product among aging audiences and their children, and set LEGO and Warner Brothers up to capitalize on any number of future films around the franchise.
As the CMO mentioned above, the lessons you can take from the success of The LEGO Movie don’t end at the theater. Intimately understanding the stakeholders of your sales process opens up new doors for branded content and marketing opportunities. The Lego Movie is a testament to the truth that people don’t mind when brands help tell stories.