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Girls and Marketing: In Defense of LEGO Friends

A year ago I was asked to do a workshop on raising girls for an audience of mothers with kids in the preschool years. There is lots of information out there about raising girls, but the books and advice really focus on tweens and older since that’s when most of us parents start panicking about our daughters. I was looking for any research out there about girls in the preschool years, especially things moms should be worried about. And I stumbled on the topic of girls’ toys and marketing. I read a very interesting book (Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) about Disney and its practice around marketing princess everything to preschool aged girls and up. It piqued my interest about marketing to tiny girls and I again I stumbled on the debate over Lego Friends: the new line of LEGOs designed specifically for girls.

I learned there was a new line of LEGO products with a purple and pink logo that was all about girls and their relationships with another. Girls could build ice cream parlors and campers. The characters had storylines and puppies and there were lots of flowers involved. Some parents came out against the new line that appeared sexist with its apparently gentile version of building blocks. “Why can’t girls just play with regular LEGOs?” they demanded. And I could see their point. Why do girls have to buy everything in pink and purple? And LEGO’s response was simply “They aren’t.”  

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In 2011 90% of LEGO users were boys. The company reported they’d put in gobs of money to do research about WHY girls weren’t playing with traditional LEGOs and their research dollars found girls around the world don’t play the same ways boys do (we could have told them that, but the researchers “proved” it.) And there is a benefit to playing with LEGO products that they wanted girls to receive (and I’m sure they wanted girls and their parents to spend money, it was MARKETING after all.)There’s something about LEGO play that helps build STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills in kids. I’ll take their word on that. Anyway LEGO Friends was the answer to the LEGO/girl dilemma. And it was working. Girls were buying LEGO Friends at record girl-purchasing rates. All very interesting, but as a mother of four girls who’d never had a LEGO darken the door of our home, not completely relevant at the time.

Fast forward a year and I stumble on (I know lots of stumbling, are you seeing a patter in how I acquire information?) a piece published by NPR weekend edition that aired this summer and apparently the debate is still going, Why can’t girls just play with regular LEGOs? Same question, but I now have new insight. I’m a mother whose house has been taken over by LEGO products. In fact the two children who are awake as I type out these words are indeed playing with … LEGOs. And with every step of our converted household I’ve thought about that research I read a few years ago. When my eldest daughter first asked for a LEGO Friends set because she’d been at a friend’s house and played with one. When my second daughter, the spatially inclined one, asked for LEGO Friends as her toy of choice last Christmas. As we walked into the mall just last week with two big girls who had money in their purses to burn: one wanted to go to The Gap and Claire’s the other wanted to go to the LEGO store. How when we walked into the store this independent purchaser walked straight past the sales associate asking if he could help her find anything to the purple and pink signature LEGO Friends corner of the room. How my girls opted for a LEGO Friends movie yesterday when given all of the choices on Netflix. And now how little sisters are emulating big sisters and playing with their own LEGO sets. In all of these steps I’ve thought about that research and how LEGO Friends have been pure marketing genius to get my girls interested in a toy line they never paid attention to before.

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So the last step in the process, younger sisters emulating bigger sisters, is what strikes me from a marketing/mom consumer standpoint: LEGO Friends were our gateway drug into Lego products. We in fact have a hand-me-down set of large, traditional, primary color LEGOs given to us years ago by a family who was done with them (love that! Free toys). The first few years this set lived in our house they were only played with when boys came over. That’s right our male guests would quickly peruse the playroom full of dress up clothes and doll strollers and make a beeline for the red, yellow and green LEGOs. Until younger sisters started seeing older sisters playing with (and fighting over) LEGO Friends. LEGOs were suddenly coveted, and therefore had value, in our girl-filled home. These larger, traditional building blocks are now carried from house to car and back to house in lieu of a security blanket by my two-year old. The four-year old builds trucks and trains (yes trucks and trains) and all those STEM tendencies are being nourished. Meanwhile older girls look at intricate instructions about how to build two-story houses and speed boats and continue to spend their own money on tiny pieces of LEGO Friends.

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My point a year ago was that sometimes marketers just give girls what they want. If girls tend to play with the inside of a building and boys tend to play with the outside (LEGO research) why not give them products that allow them to do that? If girls are wired in a different way to desire relationships than boys are (all kinds of baby development research), why not call the girl product line LEGO Friends? If our family is any type of test case I’d say the Lego corporate thinkers were right. And if it is true that these STEM skills are being developed with LEGO play, those marketers are giving my girls something they never had before, an interest in participating. I’ll call that a win-win.

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