If there was moment at the 2015 Oscars that turned more heads than host Neil Patrick Harris in his underwear, it was how Lego turned an Academy snub into the marketing moment of the year.
Though The Lego Movie, a fan favorite and $468 million blockbuster, earned not a single nomination in the animated feature category, the 83-year-old Danish toy company proved it didn't need one. During a two-and-a-half-minute rendition of "Everything Is Awesome," dancers fanned out through the audience to hand yellow Oscar statuettes (made from Lego bricks, naturally) to the likes of Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood and, most memorably, Oprah Winfrey, whose look of surprise and delight reached 35 million viewers. In fact, according to data crunched by Amobee Brand Intelligence, Lego dominated the night with close to 47,000 social mentions and 44 percent of the real-time discussion. That little Oscar trick handed the toy brand some $7.5 million of free advertising. Not a bad night for a loser.
"Nobody really knew what would happen," says Lego senior director, brand relations Michael McNally. "It was organic, and a testament to how people feel about the brand."
Marketing vp Michael Moynihan modestly minimizes his own role in the activation. "I'm not really doing any marketing as such," he says. "It's more making sure that my people have the resources they need."
And his people clearly do. Rather than dictating the brand's marketing from the corner office, Moynihan oversees a kind of creative collective charged with devising memorable work to surround the brand—say, a 43-foot-long, 23-ton Star Wars X-wing fighter in Times Square in 2013. Because Lego mainly targets existing fans, it really just needs to do cool stuff, and let the rest take care of itself. "It's not marketing in the traditional sense," Moynihan explains. "In order to have something to market, we need to create experiences."
Consider The Lego Movie. While Lego could have bought a 90-minute commercial (as Moynihan puts it: "Here's the line of toys, now make a movie around it"), it instead focused on story and character development, reasoning that when good content leads, customers will follow. The same holds true for Ninjago, Lego's hit series on Cartoon Network, and its impressive array of online videos (both on its site and its YouTube channel), which don't just showcase product but also give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how the toys are made and tips on how to play with them. "We do research among kids on what kind of content they're looking for and gear our content around those needs," Moynihan says.
While that approach has won Lego much attention in recent years, it's really just a continuation of the comeback strategy that CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp deployed in 2004 to save a bloated, directionless Lego from bankruptcy by licensing top franchises like Star Wars and soliciting customer feedback about product, both from kids and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego). Thanks to an internal rallying cry Moynihan describes as "serving, not selling," the brand that nearly disappeared a decade ago posted 18 percent revenue growth in the first half of this year—fueled in part by the movie and that memorable night at the Oscars.
Speaking of which, those Lego statu-ettes (by artist Nathan Sawaya) came out of Lego's in-house model shop, which also built props for the show's Lego musical number. And while social media exploded with images of movie stars cherishing their ersatz Oscars, McNally points out that the stars themselves were actually secondary. "It doesn't matter that there are celebrities," he says. "It matters that the brand resonates with them. They get a statuette made of bricks and they're losing their minds? It was a pure genius moment."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.