At this very moment, artist Nathan Sawaya is touring the United States with his brick Lego sculptures. And the National Building Museum in Washington has decided to keep the exhibition – Lego® Architecture: Towering Ambition – on show for an additional year, until September 2012, due to immense popularity.

This, of course, is not surprising. The word ‘Lego’ itself is derived from the Danish words ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’, which is certainly what people around the world, young and old, seem to have been doing with it since the 1940s when it was first designed.

Beyond the entertainment value we are all familiar with, Lego bricks are quoted in many architectural books as a clever example of modular design.

Yet, as if the phenomenal success enjoyed by the Lego Group has not been colossal enough, it seems that now the Danish company is putting its foot on the accelerator in terms of positioning to ensure that this iconic toy turns into a true cult classic.

Curve Europe editor Laura Traldi spoke to Andrew Arnold, senior communications manager of the Lego Group, about the building blocks of their success.

Everyone seems to be talking about Lego and using it in somewhat unexpected ways. What’s happening?

There’s always been a link between Lego bricks and architecture and design. Since the time when the first bricks were launched, children have made what has been closest to them: buildings and the environment in which they live.

In recent years we’ve seen a growing trend of adults taking on the Lego brick and using it as a creative medium to express themselves. This trend has grown along with the development of the adult fan community – the self-styled Adult Fans of Lego, or AFOLs. But it has also progressed further than that in the last few years and we’ve seen people with no connection to our Lego community use the Lego brick as a creative medium in the same way they would use paint or clay.

How much are you investing in terms of time and resources to ensure that creative projects like these are carried out and communicated?

We have a dedicated department for community engagement and communication, which works with a broad range of fans, supporting and encouraging them and championing their cause within the Lego Group.

Lego fans have organised themselves into user groups that represent either physical or online groups. Each of these groups has the right to nominate an ambassador and these people are our contacts for each fan community.

We are also very active in supporting fan events around the world with community operations managers. In addition, we have a program for Lego Certified Professionals – these are talented and dedicated professional Lego builders who have a special relationship with us. We currently have 13 Certified Professionals around the world.

I understand you rely a lot on consumer feedback and on online communities. When did you establish these communities and how do you use them in strategic ways?

The turning point for us came after the launch of the first generation of the Lego Mindstorms robotic kits. Very shortly after the launch we discovered that the kits had been hacked and the software or hardware altered.

However, instead of going after them with our legal department, we started to enter into a dialogue with some of the fans.

We built on this further with the launch of the second version of Mindstorms in 2006, which was actually developed with the help of the fans. These two events helped pave the way for broader cooperation in a range of areas.

It is now common for Lego fans to help with shop openings, big builds for marketing events, ideas for new products and input on new projects as beta testers. And we now also have quite a few fans employed as designers.

How does Lego manage the ‘digital versus real’ relationship?

We pride ourselves on getting to know as many of the fans as possible through visits to fan events, but we do rely a lot on the feedback we get from our ambassadors’ forum – an online forum that fans use to ask us questions and we use to send information. We have both an online community management function and an offline one.

How have all these activities impacted on your brand in recent years?

It is tricky to say how big an impact it has had on sales as we can’t capture that information easily at point of sale. We can certainly say that the activities of the Lego community have really helped broaden the appeal of Lego.

The community is a great distributor of content and through users’ enthusiastic use of social media, we’ve reached a much wider audience of people who want to see some of the fantastic creations fans have produced.

How do you protect Lego from copies and imitations?

We are very protective of the Lego trademark and any infringement for commercial purposes is dealt with swiftly by our legal department. Similarly, any imitations of our products that violate our intellectual properties are also pursued.

However, we have to realise that as more high-profile companies are entering the construction toy market, we are facing greater competition than ever before. We are addressing this by concentrating on the unique aspects of the Lego experience.

Producing plastic bricks that look like Lego bricks is not that hard, but it is the holistic effort of producing high-quality elements, models, building instructions, packaging design and the whole infrastructure around the products that makes us competitive.

The quality of the whole experience is, we believe, superior to anything else that the competition can come up with. But we are not resting on our laurels and we are always working harder to improve the play experience and to broaden our appeal.

But, having said that, we are very generous with the brand when it comes to our fans and the creations that they produce. They show a great love for the Lego brick and an affinity for the brand. Our global community of fans is probably one of our strongest competitive advantages.

What are your plans for the future?

Our core audience is 5 to 11-year-old boys, but we can see great potential in broadening our appeal with products that focus on the use of the brick as a creative medium. 

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