The tremendous success of LEGO’s storytelling and world-building can be seen in toys, games, TV, movies and even fan fiction.
“[LEGO] scores highly on a wide variety of measures on Brand Finance’s Brand Strength Index such as familiarity, loyalty, promotion, staff satisfaction and corporate reputation. LEGO is a uniquely creative and immersive toy; children love the ability to construct their own worlds that it provides. In a tech-saturated world, parents approve of the back-to-basics creativity it encourages and have a lingering nostalgia for the brand long after their own childhoods. The LEGO Movie perfectly captured this cross-generational appeal. It was a critical and commercial success, taking nearly US$500m since its release a year ago. It has helped propel LEGO from a well-loved, strong brand to the World’s most powerful.”
But why? The statement encapsulates many of the layered reasons for LEGO’s success story, but two pieces stick out — “children love the ability to construct their own worlds” and “The LEGO Movie perfectly captured this cross-generational appeal.” Both points highlight the success of LEGO’s transmedia storytelling. Storytelling has emerged as a hot topic in business, as emerging companies have found ways to unleash the power of telling a good tale.
Frank Rose, Columbia’s School of the Arts Senior Fellow, said in his book “The Art of Immersion,” “Today, storytelling is colonizing realms of commerce, such as branding and retailing, that traditionally have had little to do with the actual telling of stories. Marketers who understand the immersive potential of stories have a considerable edge over those who try to connect with their audience in less sophisticated ways.”
So let’s look at how LEGO did it. Along the journey we’ll not necessarily see a master plan per se, but a strong understanding of how transmedia experiences are built, iterated on and managed.
Transmedia is a buzzword that every other person you ask has his or her own definition for. At its simplest level transmedia means “across media.” So that adjective can be attached to many concepts — transmedia branding, transmedia play, transmedia storytelling. All of these concepts apply to LEGO.
For a definition of transmedia storytelling let’s go to the grandfather of the idea, Henry Jenkins, the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California:
“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”
In its purest, most deliberate sense, transmedia storytelling is rare. Many examples of good transmedia brands, such as Star Wars, are a mix of many transmedia concepts. In one of Jenkins’ talks, “Toying with Transmedia: The Future of Entertainment is Child's Play,” he shows an original Darth Vader novel as an example of transmedia storytelling where the story from the films is extended in print. Then he shows Star Wars cereal; it’s not extending the story so this would be transmedia branding. But then he shows a Darth Vader action figure.
He states that critics like Peggy Charren of Action for Children’s Television argue that toy tie-ins were the “destruction of storytelling.” For Charren, the Star Wars toys are simply crass merchandising. But Jenkins has powerfully argued that toys like these are just a different storytelling medium that allow kids to enter the world of Star Wars and tell their own tales within it.
“For some people, [the Star Wars action figures] were just a cool decoration — something they could look at, and remember the film. But for most children, they were something else — they were a gateway into the Star Wars universe… You would see children give these characters completely different names, and completely different relationships than they had in the film…”
“So, if it wasn’t the plotline or the characters that the kids were so excited by, then what was left? The answer that it was the world of Star Wars that was so compelling — and the toys provided another gateway into that world — one that was better than the movie, in some ways, since it was interactive, participatory, flexible, portable, and social. And weirdly, these toys made the Star Wars world more meaningful for children, not less, because the toys afforded them the ability to visit the world, sculpt it, change it, and make it their own.”
This is the power that transmedia taps into. It’s why world building is so closely associated with transmedia storytelling. If the world is compelling, you can tell endless stories within it across various media, using the storytelling advantages of those mediums, which will be consumed by fans at varying levels. If the world is well defined people should be able to enter at any point and understand it. A casual fan might only watch the TV series. Another might watch the TV series, films and play a game that is in the style of games they like. Then there is the fan that consumes it all — series, films, games, books, comics, etc. And often the über fan extends the story via fan films, fan art or fan fic.
The über fan also becomes an ambassador. The playground legend. They know facts about the world that someone else doesn’t. For content creators this is great because it inspires that someone to seek out the content they missed and consume something the über fan might not have. It’s the most authentic advertising.
So where is LEGO in all of this talk about Star Wars? Star Wars is actually where LEGO’s transmedia journey really begins.
Two Worlds Collide in Games
The year was 1999. One year after LEGO posted its first ever financial loss. In a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas was launching the prequels to his groundbreaking franchise. LEGO had received the license to create toys based on the transmedia juggernaut.
Rewind a few years to 1997. LEGO made its first venture into video games with LEGO Island. The setting for the game was a small island built from LEGO bricks and inhabited by minifigures, or “minifigs.” The plot follows Pepper Roni as he attempts to stop The Brickster, a dastardly criminal who escapes from prison, from disassembling the island. The world of the game combined the LEGO toy style and embodied the building play associated with LEGOs. Pop-culture infused, toy-centric humor captured a modern nostalgia. Example: the film noir-like police detectives are named Nick and Laura, a play on the classic detectives Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. From a game perspective, the open world mechanic complemented the natural customization aspect associated with LEGO toys. From a world building, storytelling perspective, the world of LEGO Island is more believable because all the pieces fit together (pun not intended) in a way that fits consumers’ expectations.
The critical and financial success of LEGO Island encouraged LEGO to make a sequel, LEGO Island 2: The Brickster’s Revenge, in 2001. But the “LEGO Universe” established in LEGO Island didn’t wait until the sequel, but continued in the construction sim game, LEGO Creator, amusement park sim game, LEGOland, and racing game, LEGO Racers.
In 2005, the emerging transmedia universe of LEGO collided with the transmedia empire of Star Wars in LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game. To great effect, the game used the “LEGO Universe” aesthetic to satirize the Star Wars universe. In the truest sense of transmedia storytelling, this was more of transmedia style. The style of the “LEGO Universe” was applied to the Star Wars story. The first game was simply a retelling of the Star Wars prequels, while the follow-ups re-told the original trilogy and the Clone Wars TV series.
The success of the first LEGO Star Wars game led to LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Harry Potter and LEGO Batman. As written in the New York Times, in the U.S. alone, LEGO sales increased 32% in 2005, because of Star Wars and Indiana Jones themed games. But LEGO wasn’t satisfied with the “LEGO Universe” just being a transmedia style that spoofed other transmedia worlds. Soon it became part of their own IP.
From Bionicle to Ninjago
Around the time LEGO gained the Star Wars franchise, the company decided that it wanted to create a line of toys with a storyline. Themes were created in its Technic toy line — Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders. What emerged from those lines was Bionicle — one of the most successful lines in LEGO history.
Many factors of course go into any success, but one critical component was its planned-ahead and tightly managed transmedia storytelling. LEGO developed the original concept of the part-organic, part-machine sapient beings with Danish creative agency Advance. But as Jenkins notes in his studies, most successful transmedia experiences are driven by a single guiding force or small team and this is the case with Bionicle as well. Producer Bob Thompson and his team at LEGO took the concept and developed it into a multi-arc story that crossed comics, online games, TV series and movies. Unique elements of the story played out in each medium and drove fans to engage in additional story points in other mediums. Collectibles in toys drove sales and “Kanoka points” on packages allowed fans to connect toy play with online exclusives.
The developing stories of the characters invited fans into a new and epic world of six element-themed tribes. Thompson and his team developed a grand mythology that kept fans coming back for more. By unfolding the mythology across mediums it allowed fans to engage with the story when and how they wanted and created “playground legends” who spread the “gospel” of Bionicle to eager converts.
Bionicle’s first-year sales were $161.7 million and it was awarded Toy of the Year for Most Innovative Toy from the Toy Industry Association. Stephanie Lawrence, the global director of licensing for LEGO, was quoted in BusinessWire, “We've created an evergreen franchise to complement the many event-based properties on the children's market. An increasing number of category manufacturers want to tap into the power of the Bionicle universe.”
The final part of her statement goes to the heart of the engagment that transmedia storytelling/world building can create. It can save a company.
Meanwhile, as the Bionicle world was ever expanding, the previously mentioned “LEGO Universe” aesthetic was expanding from games to TV. To coincide with the launch of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in theaters, LEGO not only created LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, but also released LEGO Star Wars: Revenge of the Brick, a 30-minute TV special spoof of Sith that aired on Cartoon Network.
Up to this point, the “LEGO Universe” wasn’t a pre-designed universe like Bionicle, but more of a transmedia style that brought a toy aesthetic to video games and spoof adaptations of other franchises. But in 2009, LEGO, with partner Lucasfilm, tapped into the power of transmedia storytelling by telling an original story in the TV special LEGO Star Wars: The Quest for R2-D2. In addition, LEGO created a mini-game, found on both LEGO.com and StarWars.com, which extended the story even further. From a business standpoint, the power of the licensed universes was helping build the viability of the “LEGO Universe,” which was now helping grow the Star Wars universe in return. Other original LEGO Star Wars shorts would follow with voice actors from the Clone Wars — only strengthening the believability of the “LEGO Universe.” What the “LEGO Universe” had created was an opportunity for Star Wars to expand its own universe with new humorous content without worrying how it would fit within its own official Star Wars universe canon.
Likewise, the concept of using the light-hearted “LEGO Universe” has helped other franchises create inroads to new fans. LEGO Batman 3 has been created as a lightweight primer for the depth of the larger DC Universe.
As Bionicle came to an end in 2010, LEGO looked for a story-based successor. In comes LEGO Ninjago — and the “LEGO Universe” expanded to include original non-game IP.
LEGO Ninjago is the story of ninja warriors who live in a world of dragons, golden mythical weapons and video games. But it’s also set in the “LEGO Universe” embracing and incorporating that universe’s aesthetic and sense of toy-centric and pop culture humor. With its creation LEGO took the lessons learned with the epic mythical world building of Bionicle and created a distinct Ninjago world within the larger “LEGO Universe.” In doing so, the “LEGO Universe” expanded and became richer, showing that different kinds of stories could be told within it.
Up until now the “LEGO Universe” was really just a transmedia aesthetic. The toy look and a playful tone were being carried over from toy to games to TV series. With The LEGO Movie, the “LEGO Universe” became a place with “rules” and legends and a story of its own.
In the film, Emmet Brickowski, a seemingly inconsequential construction worker minifig, inadvertently becomes the Special when he accidently gets the legendary Piece of Resistance stuck to his back. In the prophecy, the Special is the chosen one who will use the Piece of Resistance to stop Lord Business and his Kragle, a weapon that can freeze all minifigs into place. Soon, the rebels fighting against Lord Business discover Emmet is not that special and not even a Master Builder, a minifig capable of building anything they need without instruction manuals.
The preexisting “LEGO Universe” was now given a story — one in which all previous stories told within the universe were all brought together. As the characters move through the plot of The LEGO Movie, they arrive in different worlds within the larger universe. We visit a Western world with all its Wild West tropes and the über-colorful and crazy Cloud Cuckoo Land (a pop culture spoof of My Little Pony and Hello Kitty). Characters from different worlds move in and out of these themed worlds and the “real” LEGO world of construction sites and apartment complexes. While we never visited it, we now know that within the “LEGO Universe” we could visit a LEGO Gotham with Batman or the world of Ninjago, because they are all part of the same universe. In doing so, LEGO created a kids’ dream universe — a universe kids have been creating on floors for decades. The what-if scenarios of “what would happen if the worlds of Batman and Star Wars came together?” were made real!
Subsequently, any new specific story told in the “LEGO Universe” transmedia aesthetic becomes part of the larger transmedia story. It opens the world up to continuing stories and one-off stories, comedy and action stories and anything in-between. How powerful is this? Just think about it — the entire Star Wars transmedia universe fits inside the LEGO transmedia universe now. Every time Disney expands the Star Wars universe it expands the “LEGO Universe” without disrupting the “LEGO Universe” at all.
In expanding the “LEGO Universe,” LEGO, along with writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, carefully crafted the story elements to fit like interlocking bricks. That might sound like just a pun, but it’s actually what they did. They went back to the original idea of bringing the LEGO toy aesthetic into the “LEGO Universe” more fully.
The theme of the “Master Builder” strengthened the idea of building, which is a key feature of LEGO toys. Elements of this idea were incorporated into some of the video games, but the concept became very real when characters used creative building to become heroes. From a marketing perspective, this is golden — because it made what kids do with LEGO toys everyday seem heroic. It re-enforced a differentiating feature of the toy to a fan through story and emotion rather than simply telling it to them via a tagline in a commercial. Show, don’t tell is a principle of irresistible storytelling since time immortal. But sometimes that idea is lost when trying to “get out a message.” LEGO showed the courage that kids would get it. More importantly, they would feel it.
Because the world is based on LEGO toys, the “Master Builder” concept was easily accepted because it naturally fit expectations of the world for fans going in. Likewise, the struggle between those who make crazy creations and those who follow the instructions is a real world debate in the LEGO fandom and was incorporated into the film. The hero Emmet is an instructions guy and the rebels were the crazy builders. Throughout the movie it seemed like the open-play and creative freedom of the rebels was the “good” side or even the “cool” side. From a marketing standpoint this could have gone very wrong if LEGO wanted to not alienate any of their fans on either side and keep the inclusive “so many ways to play” ideal.
In a lesser execution the rebel view of building would be the “right” way throughout and would ultimately save the day in the end. Then some speech would be made where the instructions side would accept the other side and the rebels would give some lip service that following the instructions isn’t all that bad. However, The LEGO Movie found a way to bring both sides together to save the day, enforcing the line from the theme song “everything is awesome when you’re part of a team.” As a result the “LEGO Universe” embraces diversity of thought — when various points of view come together to work as a team they can solve any problem. Do kids “get” that message? Maybe not, but they feel it and it supports the carefree, open world of the “LEGO Universe” in a deep way — not just a message tacked on at the end. Again, show, don’t tell.
Children Love The Ability To Construct Their Own Worlds
Now we look back at Brand Finance’s statement “children love the ability to construct their own worlds.” LEGO has now created a world where that is a primary feature of the myth of its universe. The universe is so engaging because each part supports the next. The toy aesthetic supports the toy-centric humor. The pop culture humor supports the mixing of licensed universes, which is supported by the real world experience of mixing universes via toy play. The “Master Builder” supports creativity and self-expression like the toy. All the elements live up to the promise LEGO has made with their products. The universe does not fight against expectations or assumptions from the real world, but only re-enforces positive expectations and uses humor to defuse criticism that it’s all just one big commercial.
Prof. Henry Jenkins has been arguing for years that toys are a powerful storytelling medium. His love of the transmedia world of He-Man is well known. Critics said toys were just products to be consumed. But look at YouTube and see who was right. Toys of the ‘70s and ‘80s shaped the creativity of storytellers working today. Fans are creating their own stories using toys as their medium. Before those fan stories could be shared via video over the web, the audience was limited to who was in the playroom. Toys are many people’s first foray into telling stories and help shape their creativity and problem solving. LEGO became the most powerful brand when they stopped trying to tell (and sell) people this idea and just went out and showed them instead.
Rick DeMott (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance transmedia strategist and writer who has worked on such brands as Barbie, Thomas and Friends, Max Steel and Ever After High.