Welcome back as we count down to the 90th Anniversary of the LEGO Group on the 10th August 2022. When we last left off, we saw the LEGO Group expanding its portfolio and diversifying its playthemes. New Technologies were being embraced, as were new licensed themes. But in just a few years, the company might find itself in a bit of a pickle…
The early 2000’s were a time of expansion for the company, despite a relative economic slowdown, world wide: we saw new building techniques such as Bionicle, new licensed themes, the company was also investing in theme parks: Windsor and Calilfornia had opened previously, and, in 2002, another park was opened in Gunzberg, Germany. In the meantime, the company was developing computer games, and selling clothing.
The Studios theme launched in 2000 – there was a webcam to encourage children to create brick films, and the core material had expanded from crossing over Adventurers and Pirates to licensed themes such as Jurassic Park III and moving forward would include the first minfigure sets tying in to the Spiderman Movie in 2002.
2002 Sales seemed to be riding high on the back of Attack of the Clones, as well as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, although Bionicle was leading the sales for the year. DUPLO had been rebranded as LEGO Explore this in 2002, and while it performed well, overall sales of those products were down.
Perhaps this note for the Annual report of 2002 is a preemptor of things to come:
One particular product launch during the year proved disappointing: The introduction of Galidor products in the United States.
The Galidor TV series from which the products drew their inspiration failed to attract the audience figures in the US that were originally expected.
Indications are that the figures in this range are too distant in their idiom from the kind of thing that LEGO products are known for. This may be one of the reasons consumers displayed little interest in the product, which seemed to have the necessary characteristics to expand and renew the action-figure category.LEGO Group Annual report 2002 page 5
This range consisted of buildable action figures which did not readily mix with elements of the existing System bricks. While of limited appeal at the time, they seem to have attained a cult figure status amongst serious collectors.
All was not bleak, however: the first LEGO Brand retail stores opened that year, and would continue to do so in years to come.
Despite these grandiose expansions, there was a drop in profit overall compared with 2001. Certainly there were multiple threats to the company – fewer people were playing with traditional toys; games consoles were on the rise; clone bricks of inferior quality were being produced in many places around the world, occasionally getting seized by customs, and in 2003 we saw a record loss – around 1.4 Billion DKK (around 190Million USD): Harry Potter and Star Wars both underperformed in the absence of any new films that year. (Star Wars maintained a top 5 position, Harry Potter did not) Bionicle performs strongly, as does the relatively new Sports theme, tying in NBA players, with realistic skin tones. Creator and Racers also performed well.
An Action Plan was put in place – Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen took over the day to day running of the company, before ultimately passing the role of CEO on to Jørgen Vig Knudstorp in 2004.
Strategy was developed for “revitalising the LEGO Brand as one synonymous with creative building experiences, and role playing which makes learning fun, as children learn by play”(2006 annual report, page 11) A three part plan for the company was developed: 1. Survival – stabilising the company, and taking control, after the financial crisis; 2. (2006-2008) Establishing a stable, profitable core platform and finally 3 – from 2009 onwards, aiming for organic growth.
Part of this plan involved outsourcing manufacture to ‘Plantronics’ in Mexico and Hungary. Before long, it became apparent that the LEGO company had one skill, it was creating plastic bricks. And this is not something that should be outsourced. In time, the company set up their own factories in these regions, servive the Americas and Europe respectively.
However, there were other aspects of the company that were not the core business: Clothes, computer games and theme parks. Moves were put in place to sell off the theme parks, while other products would be produced under licence by other companies. Unfortunately, there were inevitable staff redunancies along the way.
Instead, they invogorated the Core Business: Building Brick Toys. We saw some significant introductions including LEGO City, Vikings, and Dino 2010/Dino Attack. Racers saw the introduction of some Ferrari sets, and Technic brough a new Flagship Crane. The DUPLO Brand was relaunched for preschoolers – the Explore rebrand from 2002 never really caught on.
In 2005, LEGO Star Wars performed well enough, despite the absence of a supporting movie. We also saw the release of the LEGO Star Wars Video game – produced by TT Games, this became the template for a large series of games tying into external IP over the next few years.
By 2007, the company was back on track for producing a respectable profit, having the company running on track to commence growth in 2009.
In 2004, we saw the introduction of LEGO Digital Designer – LDD – a program that would allow users to build with virtual bricks and submit designs to potentially become sets or merely as an extremely limited run (LEGO Factory 2005-2008) or simply custom sets with an extremely limited run( LEGO DesignByME 2009-2012). A fan driven , open source program, LDRAW is also in development at this time. People start to use digital building as a prototyping tool, or even create elaborate models in software, unhindered by the availability of bricks.
The Factory program saw a limited number of Fan Designed sets go to general release, and included the unofficial Space themes Star Justice and Space Skulls, as well as the Modular Building, Market Street.
2007 saw the 50th anniversary of the LEGO Brick, and to celebrate, a new versionof the town plan is produced at minfigure scale. Kjeld features on the box cover again, looking a little older than he did in 1957…
2007: A Great Year For AFOLs
As the decade went by, it became apparent that the company was no longer only building toys for kids.
In the Star Wars line, the Ultimate Collectors Series became an annual event, bringing large scale/minifigure scale vehicles, or character sculptures to the market. But in 2007 there came a set that made it apparent that these sets were certainly not for children any more:
The 10179 Millennium Falcon is the set that people who weren’t LEGO fans knew about: with more than 5000 pieces, and a rather heft length, this was regarded for some time to be the definitive LEGO Star Wars Experience. The part count wasn’t even rivalled in Star Wars for 10 years, when a reissued, reimagining set was developed with over 7500 pieces.
In the mean time, the Creator Expert line, which had been producing large scale, brick based vehicle models such as the VW Beetle and Boeing Dreamliner for a few years came out with a couple of sets aimed squarely at the adult fans: one was a 1:300 model of the 10180 Eiffel Tower. But the next set in the series 10182 was the set that would revolutionise what fans would come to expect from the group on an annual basis for years to come: the Modular building. Cafe Corner was a 3 story building on a 32×32 baseplate. The internals were relatively undecorated, but the stage was set for future sets in the range to feature a greater level of detail.
Also in 2007, we saw the release of the Hobby Train. The LEGO Group engaged the assistance of a number of Train Fans in designing models to be built from a common set of pieces. With a hero model featuring the Crocodile locomotive, there were instructions available for another 29 models.
The following year, we saw the launch of another theme that has been promarily aimed at adults: the Architecture range. Architect Adam Reed Tucker had previously built large scale models of the Empire State Building and other landmarks. In conjunction with the LEGO Group, he designed small scale models of the Willis Tower/Sears Tower and John Hancock Centre. The Architecture range was launched, and has had several main subthemes: Architecture, Landmarks and Skylines. Primarily a display theme, rather than a play theme, it has traditionally attracted an adult audience.
Embarking on an Augmented Journey
The future is coming, and digital play remains one if the biggest threats to the LEGO Group, as they endeavour to establish the ongoing relavance of building bricks in a changing millieu. And over the next decade or so, we see various toys designed to encourage a mixture of Digital and physical play. One of the first examples was a simple box of bricks and a piece of cardboard. The premise is simple: build a copy of the flat model that appears on his screen, take a photo of it and get scored for accuracy. The images produces revolve around items encountered by George, as he travels around the world. The game runs well enough on modest hardware – something which may not be so successful in the future.
It is early days, and the first attempt made to combine bricks and devices in the one play space.I’m sure more will follow…
Storytelling: Conflict in a Box
In the 90’s, it was uncommon to see more than one castle or space faction present in any given set: multiple factions might be on the shelves in parallel, but the sets were not mixed. After the arrival of Star Wars, we saw a change in the Story Telling: be it Exo Force, Mars Mission, Knights Kingdom or the Fantasy Era Castle, we were more likely to get figures from opposing factions, especially in larger sets. We were now almost always set up to have an adventure, with drama, betrayal, truce or just a right royal dust up as we proceeded.
Moving into 2011, we found things start to evolve again. The playtheme Ninjago – bringing ninja back to LEGO sets was released alongside an animated series screened on cartoon network. Featuring six ninja, each mastering their own element, and their Master, the stories have continued to evolve every year, focussing on different characters, and changing locale – it is just as likely to be a pirates theme one year, or castle / dungeon based, or even a more futuristic steam punk submarine-centric story. Either way, you can be sure that there will be Ninjas, and Dragons. The theme is slated to run for 3 years, its replacement already in development at the time it is released.
What could possibly go wrong?
Come along tomorrow to find out, as we continue to look at the previous decade of LEGO history. I hope you have enjoyed this instalment of Counting Down to 90 years of play. Just 2 more sleeps. Hooray! Until Next time…
While you are here, there is still time to join the 90 years of play classic themes challenge on Instagram, hosted by myself and Jen from @brickfambuilds. You can find further details here…