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LEGO Shares The Love, But Can They Do More?

Shop Window display for Louis Vuitton
Consumers expect brands to be more ethically and socially conscious, but doing so can sometimes backfire. How can they get to grips with cause-related marketing?
  • Consumers increasingly expect brands to speak out about important social issues
  • A lot of cause-related marketing doesn’t fit with the brand image and is unnecessarily controversial
  • How the world’s biggest toy company LEGO can extend DEI initiatives to other social issues

The storefronts of Louis Vuitton are particularly colourful for the holiday season, thanks to a collaboration with the world’s biggest toy company LEGO. The three-dimensional installations include snow-capped Christmas tree sculptures, Parisian scenery and Vuitton-inspired trunks stacked to resemble the Eiffel Tower.

Fifty years ago, LEGO builders were limited to just seven colours: White, Gray, Black, Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. Today there are over 60 colours, with light, medium, dark and transparent versions of a pallete that also includes Salmon, Lavender, Rust, Nougat, Lime, Chrome Silver and Terracotta.

The rainbow palette was embodied in June 2021 with the Danish company’s first ever LGBTQ-themed set, ‘Everyone Is Awesome.’ Inspired by the rainbow flag, a symbol of solidarity for the LGBTQ community, the set includes 11 figures each in a different rainbow colour.

In describing the set, which retails for $34.99 on the LEGO website, the company says that it, “celebrates positivity and kindness in our families, our communities and our world.” Explaining why he designed “Everyone Is Awesome”, Vice President of Design Matthew Ashton says, “The starting point for this was my feeling that we, as a society, could be doing more to show support for each other and appreciate our differences.

“Design-wise, I love how bold yet simplistic the set is. We’ve made sure to include black and brown colours to represent the broad diversity of everyone within the LGBTQIA+ community. We’ve also added in the pale blue, white and pink to support and embrace the trans community as well.”

This is one of the sets Matthew Ashton is most proud of. “Because of the statement that it’s making, I’m really proud that I’m working for a company that wants to have a voice on topics like this. This sends a signal to everyone that this is what we stand for at The LEGO Group and that we want to embrace all of you, because creativity is for everyone.”

But this is still a company that produces 60 billion plastic bricks every year, that could take up to 1,300 years to degrade. And consumers increasingly expect brands to both address, and speak out about important social issues. Airbnb ran a commercial during the Super Bowl in January 2018 that was in direct response to an order signed just a week before by President Trump that temporarily closed America’s borders to refugees.

Called ‘We Accept’, the ad showed people of different nationalities with the message, “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

It was one of the acclaimed and most talked about ads of the Super Bowl that year, and not only promoted Airbnb’s stance on issues of race and diversity but also enabled the company to address claims of racial discrimination on its platform by making its own position clear.

Pepsi however had to quickly pull an ad with Kendall Jenner that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, after intense criticism that it trivialised the widespread protests against the killing of black people by the police.

LEGO’s rival toy maker Playmobil provoked public reaction in marking Queen Elizabeth II’s death by sharing a black and white image on Instagram and Twitter of one of its toy figures wearing a regal hat and waving with one hand while clutching a handbag in the other.

“There’s a lot of cause-related marketing, that should not be happening,” says Dr. Rajesh Bhargave, Associate Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School. “It either doesn’t fit with the brand image, or it’s unnecessarily controversial, alienating certain segments of your customer base.”

When discussing evolving marketing techniques with his MBA and Master’s students, Bhargave points out that getting behind a social issue was initially a way to cut through the noise. “That was a factor for many years, but then it became more of a bandwagon thing with a lot of companies doing the same thing because they read that this was the playbook, this is how you actually cut through.

“The problem was that more and more brands started getting into this, but they didn’t realise that the cause wasn’t relevant to their brand. It also then made it all the harder to cut through the noise, because everyone’s now used to seeing cause-related marketing.”

For David Dubois, Associate Professor of Marketing at INSEAD and co-Director of the school’s campus and online programme, Leading Digital Marketing Strategy, the Playmobil strategy was neither crass nor class. “It’s a tactical move that leverages an emotional event such as the loss of the Queen to expand their brand. It can be effective, as long as it is clearly linked to their point of differentiation e.g., linked to parents’ goals to share something about history with their kids, or to the educate x play equation.”

Dubois points to another area that can hurt brands when they engage with issues of climate change, DEI, or animal welfare. “One known factor that hurts brands is when they engage in CSR activities in an area that is core to their business, such as a leather goods company sponsoring animal welfare. The public ends up doubting of the sincerity of the company’s engagement. “

It is a point that is not lost on Rajesh Bhargave at Imperial. “No one’s going to criticise a brand because they make football boots. That’s what they sell. It’s a product and as long as they do it in an ethical way, we don’t need to know how to live our lives and their views on racial or gender equality.”

Bhargave thinks that social media is sometimes the tail that’s wagging the dog. “Brands are looking for social media engagement and they want to see people retweeting their message. They’re counting the number of retweets in social media engagement as a positive outcome, when from a purely marketing standpoint, what we care about is overall brand engagement and loyalty towards the brand, and sales in the end.”

At the LEGO store in Paris, sales in the run up to the festive season are brisk, if not euphoric. The store window features a new model of the Eiffel Tower, which at 1m50 is the tallest LEGO set yet. It is part of the successful Icons series that also includes landmarks such as the Colosseum, as well as classic vehicles – a Porsche 911 and the DeLorean from Back To The Future – and pop culture favourites. The marketing blurb says they are “designed for a challenging yet rewarding building experience.”

Could LEGO take the challenge further, extending the thinking behind the rainbow-coloured ‘Everyone Is Awesome’ set? They could add to the architecture, the cars and the artwork of a flowerpot with new sets that include a Ukrainian monument, a Technic functioning Wheelchair or the Banksy Balloon Girl? A share of the proceeds could go towards refugee initiatives, disability efforts or charities for child welfare. We know, after all, that the next generation in particular are increasingly aware of how their shopping habits and lifestyle choices are affecting the world around them, and are more engaged by companies which can show they’re able to make an impact as well as a profit.

“They could,” says INSEAD’s David Dubois, “but again the critical factor is what’s in it for the brand? Sometimes it can help the brand in the long-run, sometimes it can reinforce customers’ appetite for the brand. Lego strengthens the brand association with parents when launching new “retro” products such as models of older cars.”

He’s right about that. I have the LEGO James Bond Aston Martin DB5 sitting on my desk – probably the closest I will ever get to the real thing. But a recyclable plastic LEGO set that contributes to climate action? I’d pull my Louis Vuitton wallet out for that.

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