Building an empire: How Lego took over the world

As 'The Lego Batman Movie' hits cinemas, Larry Bartleet looks at how the toy bricks conquered the world.

A piece of Lego can take 432kg of weight – about five average Brits – before it starts to crack. That’s why it hurts so much when you step on one barefoot: there’s no give in the plastic, so the force of your weight zings straight back into your foot.

For 85 years, the Lego brand has proven similarly indestructible. Conventions across the globe cater to hundreds of thousands of fans who’ve taken their love of Lego beyond childhood to become AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego). Sales of Lego’s video game franchises, such as Lego Star Wars, now number more than 100 million globally. And three years ago, the Danish brand celebrated becoming the world’s largest and most profitable toy company by releasing The Lego Movie. It was the UK box office’s highest-grossing film of the year and there were shortages of the actual toy the following Christmas.

A spin-off, The Lego Batman Movie, swoops into cinemas next week, and director Chris McKay is totally upfront about its purpose. “It’s ultimately a 90-minute toy commercial when you take a step back and look at it,” he says. “But Lego’s one of those brands that people don’t have a negative feeling about.”McKay was a key member of the first Lego Movie team and knew that following the success of the satirical original, he’d have even more leeway for creativity with this spin-off. “Lego’s an educational toy – it’s artistic, funny-looking and kind of naïve,” he explains, “so you can make a movie that has multiple layers. You’re not just making a cynical movie advertising a product – you’re making the only movie ever where Batman can actually confront his core problem: the hole in his heart.” It’s true: The Lego Batman Movie takes the ‘anti’ out of ‘antihero’.

With its knowing references to almost every other on-screen iteration of Batman – Bale, Clooney, even KAPOW!-era Adam West – The Lego Batman Movie isn’t just for kids, and nor is Lego. Plenty of famous adults are into the brick: David Beckham says, “It calms me down,” Britney Spears calls it her “pastime pleasure” and when Ed Sheeran’s debut album went gold, he bought a Death Star Lego set to celebrate. “It brings out a bit of your childhood,” he’s since explained, “which is important not to forget.” Many an AFOL would agree.

In the last year, headlines about AFOL-made structures have encompassed a record-breaking 32-metre suspension bridge, a $15,000 statue of Zootopia fox Nick Wilde, and a series of 75 sculptures exhibited by American artist Nathan Sawaya. Monthly clubs, such as London AFOLs, see grown-ups meeting over a communal stock of bricks for free builds and set building. Things are more competitive at conventions: Seattle’s BrickCon lets AFOLs enter their creations into boat races and sumo battles, or compete in ‘blind builds’ and ‘build in a bag’ competitions. The latter sees them attempting to assemble sets inside their plastic wrapping as quickly as possible and yes, it’s better viewing than the televised Rubik’s Cube races of the ’80s.

Lego is well aware of this passionate community, and in 2008 it launched a Kickstarter-style ‘Lego Ideas’ website: 10,000 up-votes mean a user’s idea will be considered for production. To date, success stories include new kits based on Minecraft, The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover – with working suspension – which was designed and suggested by a NASA mechanical engineer called Stephen Pakbaz. “If this is what it means to be a geek,” he told 2014’s A Lego Brickumentary, “I’m definitely OK with that because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

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Why is Lego’s cross-generational appeal so strong? According to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist, it’s because it “represents both order and chaos. You can follow the instructions step by step, or you can go off-piste and create pretty much anything you can imagine.” Sutton reckons the choice of Batman – “perhaps the most subversive character they could have picked” – is “the epitome” of that side of Lego.

The key weapon in The Lego Group’s arsenal, though, is its squeaky clean reputation – and it’s quick to maintain it. In November 2016 a Reading-based father called Bob Jones questioned a Lego promotion with the Daily Mail in a Facebook post that went viral. He recalls: “I had to say ‘no’ to my son when he looked at the front page of the Daily Mail and said, ‘It says there’s free Lego – can I get it?’” His Facebook post criticised the partnership with a paper whose headlines, he said, “do nothing but create distrust of foreigners, blame immigrants and are now having a go at top judges in the UK for being gay”. Within days, Lego had ended the Daily Mail partnership “for the foreseeable future”. Says a wry Jones: “…which can be read one of two ways”.

Yet Lego remains undented and earlier this week was named the world’s most powerful brand (above greats like Disney, Apple and Visa) by the global valuation consultancy Brand Finance. Its marketing and communications director Robert Haigh highlights gender neutrality, a long pedigree and customer loyalty as crucial factors in the ranking – but it’s the company’s new direction that’s really making waves right now. Lego is repositioning itself as a “broader entertainment business”, says Haigh, which means we can expect multiple feature-length films in the wake of September’s The Lego Ninjago Movie and 2019’s The Lego Movie Sequel. It means that Lego could conceivably be the new Pixar.

The big question, though, is whether Lego’s ever-growing bubble might burst one day. “It could,” Haigh concedes. “But the picture is certainly very rosy in the next few years.” The bricks aren’t going anywhere. Best watch your step.