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How Lego and other brands grab the news spotlight

From space probes to royal weddings, Lego is inserting itself into all sorts of newsy events — and getting that instant exposure which few others have replicated.
Image:  Lego figurines
The Lego figurines flying aboard the Juno spacecraft are the Roman god Jupiter (right), his wife Juno and Galileo Galilei (left). The spacecraft is expected to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, on a mission to investigate the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.Ho / AFP
/ Source: Fast Company

On Aug. 5, NASA's Juno spacecraft began its five-year journey to the planet Jupiter. Not generally known to the broader public, there are three "crew members" aboard, and they've all signed up for the duration of the trip. These "crew members" are in fact Lego representations of the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance astronomer who made many important discoveries about our solar system.

The well-planned mission is part of Lego's "Bricks in Space" program (not to be confused with "Muppets In Space"). A long-standing partnership between the Lego company and NASA has resulted in every space mission carrying numerous Lego sets onboard. This is more than simple product placement. And this is not the first time Lego has demonstrated its skill at insinuating itself into the news.

To celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in April this year, a team of Lego designers created a replica of Westminster Abbey for the British Legoland Park. Of course, it included the royal bride and groom, along with thousands of Lego spectator figures witnessing the marriage of their future king. The cost of the exercise was probably around $50,000, give or take a few thousand. In return, Lego was given news-style publicity that reached millions.

In a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube environment, you'd be forgiven for believing there's never been so much going on in the world. A few companies have become expert at using these resources and hijacking the news, making their brand the story. With the steady increase in alternative channels, the opportunities have never been greater. When the Hilton Hotel group in Australia closed their Sydney hotel for renovations, they donated all the beds to flood and bushfire victims. Their act of generosity was reported in every news outlet. Similarly, on the same day evacuated victims of tornado and flood were able to return to assess their damage, Procter & Gamble installed hundreds of washing machines replete with truckloads of Tide washing powder to help with the cleanup.

Nike kicks Adidas
Setting all good intentions aside for the moment, there's more to brand hijacking that just harnessing attention. At the 2010 World Cup, Nike managed to ambush the ads of Adidas, who have been the official sponsors of the world's premier soccer event since 1970. Nike's World Cup campaign featured three-minute sporting biographies of soccer's superstars — their triumphs as well as their failures. The payoff was phenomenal. In a matter of days the global football community was convinced that Nike was indeed the official sponsor. Nike managed to achieve this prestigious status without paying a single dollar to FIFA, the World Cup's governing body.

So if hijacking the news can be so very powerful, how come hundreds of great opportunities consistently pass brands by? It obviously has little to do with the cost factor, given the fact that Lego, Nike, and P&G's assertive actions have paid off handsomely.

Capitalizing on the immediate is a familiar concept to anyone younger than twentysomething. They have no problem with turning ideas into action in a matter of minutes. They don't bat an eyelid at instant celebrity. Theirs is a universe where dropouts become billionaires and startup software companies dominate the market in a few short months. Corporations, on the other hand, are far more circumspect. Their wheels turn so much slower.

I'm convinced that most senior marketing executives would love nothing more than to focus the spotlight on their brand at every major event, but they are hampered by the inflexibility of the bureaucracy and politics of their organization, making them unable to react instantaneously. This is somewhat ironic when you consider that the rest of the world is moving faster and faster, but the corporate world seems to be moving slower and slower.

Strategy in place
So, the question that remains is how have some companies managed to gear up their internal machine to swoop in and perform successful brand hijacks, while the majority don't get a look in? Perhaps the answer can be found in the wisdom of sixth century military strategist, Sun Tzu. He wrote, "Every battle is won before it is fought." In other words, you need to win a war before it has begun.

P&G have learned that the public expects the largest consumer packaged goods company to help society, and as a result they have a strategy in place for disasters before they actually happen. Their strategy can be activated in an instant. There's no need for endless internal wrangles, long legal processes and running around in circles to get last-minute sign-offs. The day disaster strikes, P&G can activate the delivery of Tide aid, or whatever else is required.

The Lego story is slightly different, though just as relevant. They learned their lesson the hard way, back in the early 1990s: The company had unknowingly allowed a great distance to develop between themselves and their core fans. When they hit rock bottom and were threatened with bankruptcy, they realized that the most important asset the company had was its legion of Lego fans. In 2000, they began to hand over the power of the brand to this hard-core group of users. The result? You only need visit the headquarters of Google, NASA, and even Apple, and you'll see Lego everywhere. In fact it was the fans that created most of the opportunities for Lego, and not Lego themselves. Instead Lego took on the role of facilitator, helping their fans turn dreams into reality.

So while Lego Roman god Jupiter, his Lego wife Juno, and Lego Galileo make their way to Jupiter, marketing people in the corporate world should be wondering what on earth has gone wrong within their organizations. Why didn't their brands manage to secure a ticket to outer space? Well, the spaceship Juno is scheduled to return in five years, and that should provide even the most staid in the corporate world enough time to dream up a way to hitch their brand to the next trip to the stars.