Lego doesn't call itself a toy company for boys. But look at the company's website, and its products are clearly geared towards boys' love of combat and action. There's Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Alien Conquest, Racers and Superheroes. One lonely set, called Belleville, is clearly for girls. It's pink-themed and features a horse.
It's not all Lego's fault: The age of 4, when kids are aging into Lego's smaller brick sets, instead of the large Duplo bricks aimed at preschoolers, is also around the time that children become more conscious of gender, and about how to define themselves. So, many girls veer into the world of princesses, while boys leap into Lego.
But Lego also consciously aimed for boy customers when it embarked on its stunning turnaround. Boys were easier to sell to than girls. And it worked. Growth has been in the double digits; U.S. sales last year topped $1 billion.
On steadier footing now, the company is making a new effort to break into the girls' market.
Bradley Wieners, executive editor at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, got the scoop on the new girls' toys, which will hit store shelves this January. He told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that Lego took an anthropological approach when designing the new girl Legos.
The company embedded researchers with families around the world, to shadow girls and boys and watch how they play. Based on this research, it came up with Lego Friends, a line that features five characters with back stories similar to those of the wildly popular American Girl dolls.
"This is the most significant strategic launch we've done in a decade," Lego CEO Jorgen Knudstorp told Wieners, in an article on the new line of toys. "We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world's children."
The researchers found that girls do not like the iconic, chunky Lego minifigure. So the company designed a new one that's slightly bigger than the traditional 1 1/2-inch figure, to make it easier for girls to put hairbrushes and handbags in the minifigures' hands.
Another thing learned from the researchers was that while boys and girls both love to build, boys build in a linear fashion, assembling the kits from start to finish and not stopping until the toy looks like what's on the cover of the box.
In contrast, girls like to stop along the way, and start role-playing while they are building. So, Wieners says, Lego bagged the girls' toys differently, so they can begin playing before finishing the whole model.
The new Lego girl minifigures have names like Stephanie, Olivia, and Emma, and the building sets include a veterinary clinic, a hairdressing salon, a horse academy and a clinic. New colors for the bricks include lavender, light blue and other pastel colors.
"They're definitely running a risk here of reinforcing some stereotypes, even as they try to break down the ones about girls building," Wieners says.
The new toys may flop, like previous efforts. But they're being introduced with a $40 million marketing campaign.
If the new toys do take off with girls and find a permanent place alongside Barbie and American Girl, Lego's CEO will have deftly carved out a whole new area of growth and achieved something his predecessors have so far been unable to do.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the Danish building block copy Lego is enjoying double-digit growth, but its products are mostly geared towards boys. So the company's coming out with a new line of toys for girls.
Bradley Wieners writes about this in the latest edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine. He told Steve Inskeep it's not the first time Lego has tried to woo girls.
BRADLEY WIENERS: They've tried now five times to launch sort of initiatives for girls in particular and have struggled every time. And the lesson they took from that was boys build. Girls role-play. But if you watch the way boys and girls play with Lego, in particular which they have, extensively, boys role-play too and girls like to build. But the themes they were offering have been conducive to boys playing rather than girls.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm thinking of the Star Wars Lego sets, I suppose, which, you know, it's combat. They're little weapons that the storm troopers are holding and that sort of thing. That's boy-oriented or presumed to be?
WIENERS: It is. Yeah. The light sabers. I mean if you go into the kingdoms, you've got the Excalibur, you've got the daggers, you've got all of these mazes and cudgels. It's very much about battles and conflict.
INSKEEP: Now, if anybody's at home thinking that we're stereotyping people, let's be fair here. My daughter plays with Legos, so this is not about individuals. It's about percentages. Broadly speaking, you're saying in percentage terms more boys are playing with Legos than girls. So what has Lego now tried to do about this?
WIENERS: Well, they've come up with a whole new set of themes called Lego Friends. It borrows at least one theme from the American Girl dolls, which is that there are five friends who come with back stories who run businesses, cafes and so on, throw parties. They've also figured out that girls really didn't like the Lego mini figure. This is the sort of squat kind of robotic-looking guy; he's kind of goofy looking. He's ugly to them and they don't want to play him because they don't want to be him. So they've gone back and created a whole new lady mini figure.
INSKEEP: The lady mini-figure. She's a little taller.
WIENERS: Five millimeters taller, which is important because that gives you the skill you need for hair brushes and handbags.
INSKEEP: Okay. But is the hair comb-able, then?
WIENERS: The hair is not comb-able, but you can sort of use your imagination on that.
INSKEEP: I'm guessing that they went ahead and included a lot of pink?
WIENERS: There is, but the pink was already in the Lego palette. And the new colors are lavender and these sort of softer Easter egg colors. And there actually is a lot of research that girls are more sensitive to color at an early age, so they went softer. The other thing that they had discovered is that the girls wanted to quickly get to the role-play - start rearranging things, customizing things, as opposed to boys who like to make it look just the way it appeared on the box. So they've actually bagged the sets so you can begin to play different scenarios before you finish the build.
INSKEEP: And when you open a Lego box, you're going to get a biography of the little character?
WIENERS: Yeah. They're not - they're not, you know, book length, but you're going to get a paragraph and they're going to let you know that you could sort of pick up - one is the veterinarian, one is a hairdresser.
INSKEEP: Although when you named the occupations, I can already hear the complaints coming in. I mean veterinarian, hairdresser - perfectly legitimate occupations, but someone's going to ask, where's the CEO? Where is the secretary of State?
WIENERS: Absolutely. Well, they're definitely running a risk here of reinforcing some stereotypes, even as they try to break down the ones about girls building. So they know they're in that margin, they've talked to a lot of moms. They told me some stories of talking to moms that professed to hate pink, while they were wearing pink too. So they struggle to find that space where they can, you know, be original but also be a mass-market phenomenon.
INSKEEP: Bradley Wieners of Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine, thanks very much.
WIENERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.