The Talking Brand

When the computer controlled Furby was launched in 1998, many people were surprised that a soft toy could sell more than 1 million units in five weeks. For parents it was perhaps not so surprising – they had already witnessed the invasion of interactive toys.

The LEGO group was probably one of the first to identify the dramatic shift in kids’ interest areas. What makes LEGO’s trademark special is that among the 30 to 50 million users of the Internet, a disproportionately large number are former or current core LEGO customers.

The majority of early technology adopters – the “techsetters” – played with LEGO a lot and have passed on their enthusiasm to their children. Douglas Coupland’s book, Microserfs, describes this phenomenon: “Have you ever noticed that LEGO plays a far more important role in the lives of computer people than in the general population? To a one, computer technicians spent huge portions of their youth heavily steeped in LEGO and its highly focused, solitude-promoting culture. LEGO was their common denominator toy.”

Studies carried out among major Danish consumers of the colorful bricks show that perceptions about the LEGO brand have changed, but not always positively. Eight- to ten-year-old boys with lots of LEGOs talk about it like this:

    “LEGO is something my parents played with.”

    “When I play with LEGO I am always by myself and I don’t talk about it at school.”

    “There aren’t enough options, so it is more fun to play with the computer, it’s different all the time.”

    “It isn’t all that smart to play with LEGO.”

    “If I had to choose between all my LEGO and my computer, then I would choose (long pause) my computer.”

It therefore was extremely important for the LEGO group to be on the Net, but in the right context. For LEGO, the Internet can be the ultimate channel of communication with children, while at the same time blurring the line between promotion and product by means of various activities.

The above research resulted in the launch of LEGO Submarine, a CD-ROM game with the purpose of adding value to the classic plastic bricks.

Barbie had to go the same way. Mattel’s launch of My Design, which allows you to choose your own customized options for Barbie’s fashions on the web, beat all sales expectations.

In other words, these brands have come alive. LEGO bricks are no longer passive. They can talk to you. The latest version, LEGO Mindscape, can even listen and feel, based on small sensors built into the classic looking plastic bricks.

The Furby can talk and listen – and react. And Barbie can dress up for you – and walk the catwalk.

The days when brands based all communications on a monologue are long gone. A brand without a web and email address is seen as old-fashioned. There is now a communication channel established to “talk” back to the brand.

This is just the beginning. Even though the launch of Philips Internet Microwave didn’t result in a sales record, it heralded a new wave of products.

Scanning your fast food feeds the microwave with the appropriate link to the web. The link not only feeds the oven with cooking data, it gives the consumer the opportunity to ask the product about health-related topics. Talking to your food sounds futuristic, but it’s already a reality.

All these trends point in one direction. Monologue-based brands have a short life expectancy. The only brands that survive will be those that not only talk, but listen, learn and react.

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