Movie Fans
Rebecca Erlich, Carol Leinweber, Judy Franks, Laura Yepez, Rahna Barthelmess and John Sullivan

They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That might also be true for kids. At least, that’s what the folks at Starcom were thinking when they came up with their media plan last year for Lego’s “Make & Create” line of construction toys.

Opting for the movie-theater environment rather than traditional TV spots, Starcom engaged its target audience through the innovative use of branded snack packs, earning the Chicago-based shop kudos for Media Plan Spending $1 Million or Less.

Although Lego remains a premiere toy brand, its share of the core construction business has dipped over the past several years because of increased competition in the category. That’s why Lego launched the “Make & Create” toys. By introducing seven designer sets and four inventor sets, the toy manufacturer hoped to “celebrate the heart and soul of Lego,” says brand manager Rahna Barthelmess.

Barthelmess notes that the “Make & Create” line highlights the notion of free-building. “These toys are about kids using their imagination to construct whatever they can dream up,” she says. In promoting children’s creativity, she adds, the toys also appeal to parents in a nostalgic way by reminding them of the days when they played with Lego.

Armed with the challenging tagline “What will you make?” Lego looked to Starcom to spread its free-building message among families. But in today’s hectic world, reaching families isn’t all that easy. Traditionally, TV has been the most effective way to do so.

Judy Franks, senior vp/strategy director at Starcom, says that the opportunities to talk to families through television are becoming rarer. “Given the proliferation of media choices, and the fact that kids and parents are so overscheduled, there are very few moments when you can reach a family together. It’s virtually non-existent,” she says.

All of which led Franks to movie theaters. From Finding Nemo to The Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, feature films remain a big draw for families. In fact, Starcom already had succeeded in marketing other Lego brands in cinemas. In 2001, it launched Lego’s robot-inspired Bionicle line of products. In 2002, it aligned the toy manufacturer with Dimension Films’ hit franchise Spy Kids, for Lego’s Spybotics licensed theme line.

And with the rise of multiplexes mirroring growth in the movie industry, theaters have become entertainment centers. “There are video arcades, the concession stands have become more extensive, and so the lobby has become more of a social scene, which, from an advertising standpoint, makes it a more viable medium,” says Carol Leinweber, assistant media director of Starcom’s out-of-home division.

For the campaign, Starcom partnered with Kansas City-based National Cinema Networks, which represents more than 10,000 screens nationwide, including the high-profile AMC theater chain. Backlit posters introducing the “Make & Create” line greeted consumers at theater entrances. But Franks says she knew that wasn’t enough. “What was missing was how best to leverage the family experience that is so unique to cinemas,” she adds.

Franks’ team landed on the idea of activating not only the hands and minds of children but also their taste buds. After all, she notes, movie theaters are one of the few environments in which parents seem to fully indulge their children.

So knowing full well that kids would be snacking in theaters, Franks says the campaign’s greatest opportunity resided in those snacks. And even though Lego traditionally has not associated itself with food concepts, Starcom came up with the idea of a branded snack pack, consisting of popcorn, soda, and a mini “Make & Create” sample. Once kids entered the theaters and sat down to play with their toys, still slides on-screen rolled into a 30 second “Make & Create” film experience. From the lobby posters to the branded snack packs to the on-screen creative, the campaign “activated kids on all the senses that come into play in a cinema experience,” asserts Franks.

It worked. Barthelmess said Lego delivered more than 250,000 “Make & Create” samples to children, and that its market share within the core construction category tripled for the year. Concession sales at participating theaters rose 6 percent as well.

Looking back on the campaign’s success, Barthelmess credits Starcom with carrying the creative’s fun-filled message all the way through the media plan. “We wanted to make sure everything about the campaign had that sort of fun personality, to the point where we wanted to make sure the medium used was unexpected and creative,” she says. “Starcom really delivered on that.”

Barthelmess added that the product’s tactile nature nearly precluded Starcom from going the more traditional route of TV spots. “If you want to promote free-building, the best way to do that is to get the product into kids’ hands,” she says. “When they get it, there’s that little moment of delight when they see how they can express themselves creatively.” Of course, that’s where Mom and Dad came in. As the kids played with their toys, Franks said, the parents watched, “reinforcing the latent brand equity and emotional feeling they had associated with the brand when they were kids.”

But stirring up feelings of nostalgia in the hearts and minds of parents couldn’t close the deal, Franks says. Ultimately, Lego’s classic play themes had to be contemporized to appeal to today’s sophisticated kids. And that, Franks says, was where the campaign truly succeeded. “If Lego’s not on a kid’s wish list, parents can like it all they want, but it won’t get bought.”

Perhaps the campaign’s greatest achievement was its frugality. Franks said Starcom might have spent four times its budget had it approached the campaign more traditionally. “But working in the cinema environment enabled us to achieve all of our strategic imperatives,” she said, adding that from a financial perspective, “that saved me.”

A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor covering the production community for Mediaweek.