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Sticking to What You Do and Doing It Best

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Bob Grogan takes us on a walk through toy store hits and failures, with praise for those products and manufacturers that withstood the test of time because they "got it."

Recently, after a typical trip to the local discount superstore whose name sort of rhymes with stalwart, we arrived at home with a copy of the new Lego Creator board game. Don't worry too much—I do have a five year old.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Lego Creator board game, the idea is that a pool of pieces is placed in the center of the board, with each player receiving a card. On this card is a plane, car, or whatever and a list of the pieces required to build it. As you march around the board, you land on squares that tell you to "Pick a blue brick" or even "Take two pieces from another player." As you may expect, first one to get all the pieces wins.

Best board game to emerge on the scene since Sorry™ .

The part that made me wonder is that Lego has taken a decidedly technical direction recently. Lego MindStorms, vision sensor, movie studio, and a myriad of video games. Admittedly, I keep meaning to pick up that Alpha Team game, but otherwise my idea of Lego has remained that pain underfoot in the dark of night.

Of all the toys and games of my youth, I have been most amazed by the enduring quality of Lego. Erector sets are as hard to find as that one nut that I needed to finish the submarine. Capsella had much cooler moving parts. I still have calluses on my thumbs from snapping together Kinex dinosaurs, but the bruises on my head from flying Lincoln Logs have long since healed.

It's shocking enough that my son is entranced by the shenanigans of Scooby and the gang, laughs uncontrollably at Tom and Jerry, and thinks that every rabbit is named Bugs Bunny. But Legos?

After the sort of critical thinking that I would bother to apply only to Legos, I broke the appeal into three basic areas: quality products, quality engineering, and market savvy.

Quality Products

In so many industries, there is one company with products that seem unreasonably expensive compared to their competitors. MagLite survived an ugly marital breakup at the top to maintain its position as the premier maker of flashlights because anodized aluminum is too cool and no one else can get that much light from two AA's and a tiny halogen bulb.

For some reason, no company other than Brio can manage to cut train tracks outs of wood for less than four hundred dollars a set. That would be funny, except that it's true.

For some reason, the good folks at Lego have internalized a lesson that has been painful to teach B-school grads. Quality sells in spite of price—it's just a matter of determining the market. Establishing a brand is relatively easy. Getting jingles to stick has been reduced to a science (getting the product to stick to the jingle is a somewhat different story). A positive reputation takes time and concerted effort and is easily lost.

Imitations of Brio trains, Lego play sets, and MagLite flashlights exist. They're cheaper. Actually, they're much cheaper. In some cases, products do cost more simply for the label—if my wife's shoes are going to be painful anyway, why can' t they be cheap? In these cases, I'm sure a little padding is included, but only one flashlight is in our drawer, the edges on real Lego pieces are less painful, and...well, I still can't bring myself to shell out four hundred dollars for wooden tracks.

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