Two years ago, in 2011, 90 percent of Lego's consumers were boys. A tough statistic to swallow for those of us who grew up playing with Lego's gender-neutral buckets of bricks. But the statistic came straight from Lego, which was then focused on boys with franchised sets based on properties like Star Wars and The Avengers after weathering a disastrous period in the 1990s that left the company on the brink of collapse.
"Construction had never worked for girls, for whatever reason," says Garrick Johnson, a toy analyst for BMO Capitol Markets. "It took [Lego] four years of research to figure out how to address the girls' market, how to attack it the right way."
Lego Friends turned out to be one of the biggest successes in Lego's history. They're five adorable little dolls with distinctive names and storylines and sets that encourage girls to build karate studios, beauty parlors and veterinary offices. The line doubled sales expectations in 2012, the year it launched. Sales to girls tripled in just that year.
Johnson says the company carefully studied differences between how girls and boys play. "When boys build a construction set, they'll build a castle, let's say, and they'll play with the finished product on the outside. When girls build construction sets, they tend to play on the inside."
And research showed that girls loved little details, says Lego brand relations manager Amanda Santoro. "When we were testing this, we asked girls what would you like to see in a Lego school?" she said, as she showed off the line at Toy Fair, the massive industry event held each year in New York City. "Of course, they said an art studio. So we see a lot of detail here with the different paint canisters and the canvas here [a Friend] is creating."
David Pickett blogs about Legos at Thinking Brickly, where he's criticized the Lego Friends' gender implications. "Their legs can't move independently, so they move as one big block," he points out.
That's not the case with "minifigs" — the classic Lego minifigures with stocky little torsos, snap-off heads, and feet designed to click onto Lego blocks. Additionally, Lego Friends cannot turn their wrists.
"That sort of sends a message about what we expect women being able to do physically," Pickett notes.
Lego Friends triggered the ire of Joy Pochatila, a scientist and mother of two small girls. Her first reaction to the line was dismissive. "Why can't they just play with regular Legos? Why does it have to be girl-driven?" she wondered.
But Pochatila also was dismayed by how many of the regular sets revolve around male superheroes. "You don't see a Wonder Woman set," she points out.
Her husband, Davis Evans, is a staunch Lego defender. When presented with the minifigs' skewed gender numbers, he argued that the androgynous figures could be read as female. Pochatila said she'd prefer a few more specifically female figures, ones that reflect a real-life ratio. And it's hard, she admitted, to argue with Lego Friends' appeal, the complexity of their sets and their overall message of empowerment.
The success of the girl-centric Lego Friends has led to little girl dolls popping up in construction sets all over the place, including pink ones from Mega Blocks and Mattel's Barbie. That's great, say fans, for developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills for girls. But critics wonder, would it be so hard for Lego to develop — even market — toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?