Warning: business books can be damaging to brand health

If you’re planning a late summer holiday, you may be thinking about packing a business book or two. In which case, this article may put you off because it’s a story of how reading business books can be damaging to your company’s health.


Ironically, this cautionary tale comes from the recently published business book Brick by Brick, by David Robertson and Bill Breen, Wharton lecturer and Fast Company stalwart respectively.

The book’s cover puff is a bit misleading. No doubt written to appeal to the airport crowd’s limitless appetite for innovation stories, it shouts ‘How Lego rewrote the rules of innovation and conquered the global toy industry’.

It would be more accurate to describe the book’s content as ‘How Lego succumbed to trendy management theory and nearly paid the ultimate price’.

Brick by Brick is an entertaining read, though whether much of the humour is intended is open to debate. As well as his Wharton gig, Robertson has been Lego professor of innovation at a Swiss business school, and he has obviously spent an unhealthy amount of time immersed in the product.

Unlikely phrases such as ‘What was stupid was doing Bionicle and Galidor in parallel’, jostle for space with more conventional observations about return on sales and distribution management.

The cautionary tale begins in the 1990s with the arrival at Lego of a new chief executive. Determined to make Lego the world’s biggest toy brand by 2005, he embarked on a series of initiatives borrowed straight from the pages of that decade’s leading management books. Hiring diverse talent was one. Disruptive innovation was another. And co-creation was still a third. (There were others, but time is short.)

In the early 1990s, Lego looked like an insular and rather self-contented culture. So the idea of bringing in people from the outside looked attractive. But tragically, the newcomers ignored the obvious, namely, that the heart of Lego’s appeal to children was creative play, and the heart of its profitability was the brick; a product that costs peanuts to make but has massive play value for a child.

Given such a precious set of corporate assets, the boundaries of disruptive innovation should have been clear. But not to the incomers. Determined to turn Lego into a media property, they ventured into the creation of the aforementioned Galidor line of action figures (Defenders of the outer dimension), which came with its own universally derided TV series and video game.

The Galidor crew, and their hunky successor Jack Stone, lacked any backstory or mythos, and so failed to ignite children’s imaginations. More worryingly, their manufacture required a host of limited-run mouldings, a catastrophic diversion from the commercial genius of the ubiquitous yet cheap-as-chips Lego brick.

Lego’s foray into the virtual world was even more bizarre. At the urging of its new management, the company ‘invested’ millions in creating software that enabled users to assemble models on their computer using virtual bricks. It is difficult to imagine a more pointless innovation, although virtual bricks hurt a lot less when you step on them in bare feet.

Finally, there was Lego’s flirtation with co-creation, an online ‘factory’ that allowed users to upload and order real-life models of their virtual creations. In the event, only 0.2 per cent of uploaders converted into real-life purchasers, further compounding the company’s by-then perilous financial situation.

Needless to say, the incomers were swept aside by a ‘new’ old management, much in the way that Steve Jobs returned to Apple to replace the chief executive who had fired him. They abandoned the business book thinking and adopted an organic and insight-driven approach to innovation, rooted in the fundamental strengths of the business and the brand.

Brick by Brick follows the familiar story arc of the successful turnaround, but its conclusions are by no means conventional. If you only read one business book this summer, let it be Brick by Brick. If only to imbue you with a healthy scepticism about all the others.

Richard Madden is chief strategy officer at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email customerservices@marketingweek.com

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here