When Community Clicks: The LEGO Ideas Story

A headshot of Chad Neufeld

by Chad Neufeld

Illustrated lego character holding a lego block

Twenty-five years after television’s most iconic pals sipped their first Central Perk coffees, the familiar scene has been reimagined in 1,749 acrylonitrile butadiene styrene pieces – or what most of us know as LEGO. The literal building blocks of what is one of today’s most popular, powerful and enduring global brands.

But in 2003 – with sales down 29% worldwide and nearly $800 million in accumulated debt – LEGO was on the brink of collapse. Just over a decade later, LEGO overtook Ferrari to become the world’s most powerful brand of 2015, boasting profits of $1.34 billion and sky-high scores on familiarity, loyalty, promotion, staff satisfaction and corporate reputation on Brand Finance’s esteemed Brand Strength Index. Jump forward to 2020, LEGO is receiving recognition as 'The World's Most Loved Brand'

This extraordinary brand bounce-back was, in part, made possible by a breakthrough decision to turn creative direction over to LEGO’s consumers and biggest fans.

Lego Ideas is an online community that brings together passionate fans and creators from around the world to imagine, iterate, and evaluate ideas for new LEGO kits. It is a shining example of co-creation and crowdsourced innovation where members have actively participated in the launch of several wildly successful new products including the Friends-inspired Central Perk kit released in 2019.

The process behind LEGO Ideas is simple:

  1. Submit your proposal for a new LEGO set, complete with a model, photos and awesome description.
  2. Gather support from the community to garner 10,000 votes in a one-year period and qualify for a review by the LEGO Review Board.
  3. Your idea (if successful) becomes a real LEGO set available for purchase around the world, while you receive recognition as the set’s creator and earn a 1% royalty on sales!

In the early days, the platform was quite open-ended, and almost any project idea was welcome for submission. As the community has grown, LEGO has provided more guidelines to help creators succeed and give them a better sense of what makes a submission more likely to be commercialized as a kit. However, LEGO understands that the Ideas community is not meant to be tightly controlled. They know that fans are brand advocates in their own right and that restricting creativity too much can have a negative impact on the community and the collaborative process.

illustrated lego figure with holding a paintbrush

LEGO first began testing the idea of crowdsourcing product ideas from consumers in 2008. Through a beta project with Japan’s Cuusoo Systems, the company was able to connect with some of its biggest, most creative and most loyal fans. With promising early outcomes, the legendary toy brand approached Chaordix in 2012 to power its global open innovation community. The partnership between LEGO and Chaordix was a natural fit and since launching in 2014, LEGO Ideas has grown to nearly 1.8 million registered members who have submitted more than 36,000 project concepts. Of these submissions, 36 co-created kits have been brought to market, including Central Perk from FRIENDS (which sold out in a number of hours after release), the NASA Saturn V rocket, and the amazing Tree House (which is made from plant-based bricks).

Sets imagined in Ideas and validated by the market can go from concept to shelf very quickly. The company has been able to shorten time-to-market for a set from two years to six months.

Previously, LEGO had relied on a traditional closed innovation process. Although successful, it took more time from ideation to commercialization and didn’t capitalize on the latent creative power of their huge, enthusiastic fan base. LEGO loyalists are naturally creative, know the product inside out and many were already sharing their builds with other enthusiasts. With this foundation in place, it made perfect sense to create a path for the company and its fans to truly collaborate.

Illustrated Lego characters having a conversation

Through Lego Ideas, fans not only have a direct line of communication with the company, they can also fulfill a life-long dream, tap into their inner child, express their creativity and feel like a total rockstar among their fellow fans—and beyond. The creators of recent successful kits have been profiled on CNN and MentalFloss and Kevin Szeto, a Toronto-based aerospace engineer who was the brains behind the Beatles Yellow Submarine kit, received actual rockstar treatment when his winning kit was formally launched in Liverpool, England in 2016.

Any company can take a page out of LEGO’s innovation playbook and build a co-creative community that can become a wellspring for new ideas, meaningful insights and fresh content.

Submitting design ideas is far from the only way to participate on LEGO Ideas. Members can look through other people's proposals to discover how amazingly imaginative and skillful LEGO fans are and gain inspiration for their own builds. They can also participate by hitting the 'support' button to help their favorite submissions gain a shot at becoming real LEGO products. Weekly challenge activities allow members to flex their creative skills and share and compare their creations while earning points and badges. Frequent contests encourage self-expression and put awesome prizes up for grabs including shopping sprees, signed LEGO sets, rare items and sometimes even trips. Remarkably, you don’t even need to own any physical LEGO blocks to submit a design idea. Digital entries can be submitted using third-party LEGO CAD software or LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) which is available for download free of charge.

Illustrated lego figure singing at a concert

But what really makes LEGO Ideas stand out is the community’s shared support and excitement for project ideas that are coming down the pipeline. Members do not see other members as their competition; they see them as co-creators whose success they share in once a product is selected and sold in stores. LEGO Ideas succeeds by providing mutual value to both the company and the community. LEGO gets a constant stream of creative project ideas to boost its innovation efforts and co-created kits sell out instantly as demand has already been built up through the community. Building hype and anticipation prior to “dropping” a limited amount of product is a tactic first made popular by sneaker and streetwear companies in the 80s and 90s that has found renewed relevance in today’s social media crazy marketplace. For LEGO fans-turned-designers, it’s like a dream come true to have their ideas brought to life by the iconic brand and see them fly off the shelves.

You Don't Need to Be LEGO to Collaborate With Your Customers

You don’t need to have a ready-made base of superfans who have been tinkering with your product since childhood to tap into the power of a co-creation community. The same principles of customer driven innovation and engagement can be applied to benefit other types of companies and solve an array of business challenges.

“Every brand or product has its own set of superconsumers,” says Sharon McIntyre, Chief Social Scientist at Charodix. “You can tap into them and create a community environment with members who are already highly engaged and want to help you and your brand.”

illustrated lego character with superman uniform

McIntyre refers to the idea of superconsumers, a term that was coined by Eddie Yoon, a marketing consultant. Yoon says that every person is a superconsumer of something, and therefore, there are superconsumers for every brand. “Because they’re so engaged and passionate, they can offer invaluable advice to managers looking to improve their products, change their business models, and attract new customers,” according to this article and interview with Yoon from Harvard Business Review. 

“Often times, these superconsumers have a lot of insights and feedback that they already want to share with you,” says McIntyre.

That feedback can range from product usage to marketing, and anywhere in between. Once this community of engaged brand advocates has been established, the community can begin to grow. It becomes easier to attract casual consumers of your brand and engage them in the community when they first see the collaboration between your company and its most passionate supporters.

Starting with Co-Creation

Any brand with a willingness to tap into the creativity of its customers can reap the rewards of a co-creative community. Here are a few simple tips for getting one started.

1. Start with your superconsumers.

They already have an established sense of trust and emotional attachment to you – their favoured brand or product – making it easier for you to approach them. Invite them to co-create on something they will get value out of. Your guiding thought should be: what’s in it for them?

2. Create a real community experience.

An engaged community is a creative community – so provide quality content and lots of avenues for discussion, recognition and inspiration to drive self-expression. We’re talking contests, challenges, activities, feedback loops and reward systems. The more people are enticed to share, the more awesome ideas they will generate. A robust community platform helps you with all of this. 

Read More: Build an Online Community That's Off The Hook

3. Provide a process for creativity.

Include helpful guidelines and creative constraints to give clear direction for the community and your innovation contests. Please note we said a process not a prison: the goal is to streamline but not stifle creative expression. If you’re overly prescriptive, you’ll start to seem like a micromanaging boss. Remember that your customers are working with you, not for you.

4. Expand your community.

Once co-creativity has taken shape, open up the playing field and invite more customers into the process. The example set by the superfans can draw out new ideas where you’d least expect them, and help convert casual consumers to fans and perhaps even superfans.

Read More: If You Build It, They Will Come... Right?

5. Dive deeper.

Members feel valued and engaged when interactions are meaningful instead of transactional, so connecting with them on a deeper social level is critical. Ask not only for their ideas but for their unique insights, feedback and shared experiences. What do they need from you?

illustrated lego character swimming away from a shark

People want to participate. They want to belong. And they want to co-create by contributing their ideas, enthusiasm and energy to the brands they care about most. Any company can take a page out of LEGO’s innovation playbook and build a co-creative community that can become a wellspring for new ideas, meaningful insights and fresh content.

Your consumers – and superconsumers – are out there, carrying around all sorts of insider knowledge and real-life insights about your business and your brand. What can your fans co-create with you today? 

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