After four years’ planning, 25 million Lego bricks in the building and some 85m investment, Legoland Windsor finally opens its plastic portals to the public this week. It is the ultimate brand extension – a theme park built around building bricks. And as such, the Danish toy giant has chosen its sponsors – or “commercial partners” – carefully.
“It’s not like other theme-park sponsorship, where sponsorship means ‘official supplier status’,” Richard Busby, the managing director of BDS Sponsorship, explains. Busby has been working on the development of the theme park’s commercial strategy since before building work began, in 1994.
The strength of the Lego brand lies in trust. The company’s business is founded on the promise of well-made, brightly presented products that will educate and stimulate through entertainment. “Parents trust it, kids love it,” Busby says. Which is why, despite the Nineties vogue for video games and Power Rangers, Lego was still the second best seller at Hamleys last Christmas, beaten to the top spot by Barbie. Today, Lego employs 9,000 people in 26 countries and enjoys annual sales estimated to be in excess of $1.4bn.
Protecting the brand has been a priority throughout the development of Legoland Windsor, the park’s managing director Robert Montgomery explains. “We have taken great care to ensure that we work with the right people – we are careful about who we want to be seen to be associated with.”
In Lego-speak, “like-minded” means family-oriented, he explains; companies which share similar values, such as corporate citizenship and caring for the environment. The other criteria, perhaps fortunately, include market leadership and a reputation for high quality. Montgomery admits: “That narrowed down the list a fair bit.”
The company has also taken pains to play down the degree of commercial association. In all its product advertising and marketing, product claims are never overstated. In the theme park itself, little overt commercial branding is present, according to Montgomery.
Even so, visitors will be in no doubt as to who has provided the baby-changing facilities: Cow & Gate. Or who is behind the soft-drinks fountain: Coca-Cola. Or even the children’s driving school, where kids can steer their own electric car: Ford. The car giant enjoys forecourt branding in Legoland and a revolving poster site – “for realism”, Montgomery insists.
Lego has struck commercial partnerships only to enhance the on-site experience or better promote the theme park to the public, he says.
“It’s not a question of selling souls to get extra money,” he points out. Lego Group funded the theme park’s development itself; it prefers not to borrow from banks.
Visitors get drinks of Coke not from a simple vending machine but from an elaborate walk-through Coca-Cola fountain, where they wander beneath jets and catch it in their cups.
Travel and promotional partners – ranging from P&O, Eurodollar and Marriott Hotels, to BT, McDonald’s and Mars – have also been selected to complement the Lego image. In return, the benefits of participating in Legoland Windsor are clear: “Association with the Lego brand and a quality product. Plus access to a highly defined market sector – we’re not a park for everyone, we are specifically a good, family day out,” states Montgomery.
Is this corporate arrogance? Some might say so. But the fact remains that Lego commands widespread consumer appreciation and enjoys deep-rooted loyalty.
“It’s an ethical, educational brand that grows up with your child,” says Frances Newell, of design consultancy Newell & Sorrell.
“Good name, good logo, good packaging, good delivery. And the bricks don’t ever seem to break,” adds Adrian Day, executive director at corporate-identity specialist, Landor Associates.
Maintaining this trust in the brand has also shaped Lego’s approach to the design and layout of the Windsor site. Although modelled on the original Legoland in the company’s home town of Billund, Denmark, the Windsor site has been specifically designed to avoid the pitfalls visitors can suffer at other theme parks.
For example, the layout has been designed to minimise queuing and when queues do occur, diversions will be staged. With a core clientele aged between two and 15, excuses and apologies just aren’t good enough. Active, busy areas – such as the Driving School, boat ride, mazes and the Rat Trap – are separated by quiet zones, where Lego pheasants and fox cubs frolic on grassy banks.
Indoor activities are extensive – a must for rainy days. These include a circus school and live show, in which children can take part, as well as a computer learning centre for schools groups.
The company has set up a computerised booking service, which enables families to book tickets in advance and offers a 1 reduction on the ticket price if you visit at off-peak times. Once ticket sales – or visitors – for a particular day exceed 15,000, the gates will be shut. “It’s about maintaining an acceptable level of comfort. We believe families will value that.”
It’s a shrewd strategy and one which, combined with parents’ existing trust in the Lego brand, is expected to persuade them to pay premium prices. At 15 per adult and 12 per child, it’s hardly a cheap day out but, even so, these entrance fees are lower than rates charged at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park. And it seems to be working: with ten days to go until opening, 250,000 tickets have already been sold.
The park’ s success will be judged on admissions during the first season, which ends this autumn. Lego aims to attract 1.4 million in its first year, building steadily thereafter with the constant addition of new features to ensure repeat visits. Meanwhile, work has begun on a third Legoland, due to open near San Diego in California in 1999.
It’s a natural extension. The company constantly invests in new product development and brand extension to ensure that Lego remains relevant to changing children’s tastes. So, the company has moved from bricks to themed sets, ranges aimed at different age groups (and girls), products targeted for in-school use, computer software, book publishing, TV production and clothing. Last month, Lego even announced a joint partnership with Pearson to develop interactive compact-disc software featuring Lego play activities.
The company now hopes to invest a further 1.3bn in 15 more theme parks, which, if all goes to plan, will be open by the middle of the next century. Its aim, to spread the Lego word throughout Europe, the US and Asia, might just work.