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The LEGO Lesson: Brick Building Your Restaurant Brand
Or: why community could be the key to the next great eatery
My five-year old son keeps threatening to get me the LEGO Lion Knight’s Castle for Father’s Day. How he plans to cover the $399.99 price tag remains unclear.
I’m not entirely blameless in stoking this scheme of his. I was equally taken by the 4,514-piece set when he and I first laid eyes on it at the LEGO store last winter. At 42, I’ve recently rekindled my love of LEGOs, especially the castle sets harking back to my 1980s childhood. In Internet speak, I’ve become an Adult Fan of LEGO, or #AFOL. TikTok is less kind regarding this demo. Apparently, if I were still single and dating, my love of LEGOs would be a beige flag to would-be romantic partners — the type of eyebrow-raising quirk that TikTok users color categorize as “not quite a deal breaker, but not exactly a plus, either.”
You Do You
LEGO the brand is far less ambivalent regarding consumers like me — adult fans have been a boon for the Danish company, with the demographic increasing by 4x in the last decade. In 2020, LEGO launched its 18+ sets in a bid to further super serve this growing consumer segment.
How did this all happen? By the early 2000s, the now 90-year toymaker was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, suddenly finding itself outgunned by video games, the Internet, etc. Today, it’s the biggest toy brand in the world, seeing a 21 percent jump in sales in 2020, followed by further success in 2022 with annual revenue exceeding $9 billion. So what changed? Simple: LEGO harnessed the power of community. According to a Harvard Business Review study, this began in 2008 with the inception of the LEGO Ideas platform, which allowed fans to submit ideas for future sets. Once a design is submitted, community members can comment and click “support.” If a design reaches 10,000 supporters, it gets sent off for official review. Of the some 30,000 concepts submitted, 51 sets have been produced, ranging from Seinfeld to Voltron, Home Alone to Doctor Who to a Fender Stratocaster. Do any of those sound like ideas submitted by a grade schooler?
“In our work researching community-driven companies like LEGO and helping others to build communities, we’ve learned that true communities are more than groups of customers, they are groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about. This is true of Porsche, who we helped shift from talking at their audiences through ads and marketing, to forging a place for their superfans to connect directly with one another on apps and in clubs. With their app ROADS, Porsche enables passionate drivers to share routes they recommend and connect with each other over their love of driving.” — Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto, Harvard Business Review
What can restaurants learn from LEGO?
Luckily, most people care about food and dining, from their favorite street carts and QSRs all the way up to Michelin-starred restaurants, more than they care about plastic, interlocking bricks made in Denmark. We live in the era of passionate diners, after all; ones who can identify chefs and cuisines, who compile restaurant bucket lists and geek out over all things culinary with likeminded folks. Dining is a lingua franca, especially among urbanites. Just this week, Netflix announced Netflix Bites, the streaming giant’s first pop up restaurant (located in LA), which will feature a rotating cast of chefs from shows like “Chef’s Table,” “Nailed It!” and “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend."
Given the amount of passionate diners already in existence, you’d think that restaurants would be more eager to tap into this market and build a thriving community around their brand. Thus far, that hasn’t completely been the case. Sure, restaurants can create unforgettable experiences that go far beyond the food on one’s plate, but whatever connection is established during dinner is often severed the moment we leave. There are rarely touchpoints between meals, and when we return—especially to bustling restaurants in a city—the staff rarely have enough data at their disposal to remember us, let alone create a bespoke experience. It’s like starting from scratch—for both operator and guest(!)—with each new meal, or even reservation.
But now, at the dawn of web3, this all might change. And we believe that the best restaurant and other hospitality operators will recognize the tremendous opportunity in building community rather than simply courting customers, just as LEGO did 15 years ago.
How? Below, some ideas:
Discord: As we know, the social platform isn’t just for gamers anymore. From generative AI art startups to venerated Italian fashion houses, servers run the gamut. Blackbird has its own server (come join us!), and as we continue to both iterate and dream up the product, it’s been both invaluable and extremely fun connecting on a daily basis with our first cohort of users. As dining fans who want to build and use a loyalty platform that facilitates and optimizes IRL restaurant experiences, we feel like we’re all in this together. Ideas are swapped, tips shared, stories told, all creating a stronger bond around the product and the experiences we hope it engenders. What’s next… Dining DAOs? $FLY Crawls? Community conceived NFTs? Seriously, come join us on Discord to find out.
Community Crowdfunding: We love Blackbird use cases that we didn’t even think of. Case in point: gertrude’s, a Jewish bistro opening in Brooklyn next week from Nate Adler, Rachel Jackson, and Eli Sussman. To help close the financing gap independent operators often face, the team came to Blackbird to create three tiers of VIP “Founding Memberships.” Perks range from direct messaging priority booking and oyster happy hours to bomber jackets and private dinner parties served in the comfort of one’s own home. In a little over two months, the team raised $55,000 through these Blackbird-powered memberships.
Collaborative Cocktails and Menu Items: While still keeping our NFT ideas fairly close to the vest, we can say that LEGO Ideas has inspired us to think of ways in which Blackbird users/restaurant guests can contribute to what’s on the menu. We encourage independent operators to think in a similarly bold and collaborative fashion as a means to further engage their best guests.
And, for the record, I do hope my son figures out a way to buy me the LEGO Lion Knight’s Castle for Father’s Day — TikTok beige flags and other judgements be damned.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.