I visited Lego in Billund the other day. I should say “I made a trip to Legoland, the ‘real’ land of Lego.” For this small town in rural Denmark not only hosts one of the namesake amusement parks (and a Lego-hotel, -conference center, -boutique, and so on); It is the beating heart and soul of the brand. Physically, we are talking about a Lego campus covering what seems like most of the town and houses everything from R&D to Manufacturing, Distribution, Marketing, Administration – even its own full-service ad agency. The spirit of the brand comes through when you look closer at how the Lego people have chosen to design the product, their spaces, their interactions or production. You see and feel a unique mix of disciplined thought and action with a good dose of creativity and playfulness. “System in Play,” they call it at Lego. It manifests itself in the form of Lego logos made of hundreds of little play figures in the lobby, employees and guests sitting around buckets of bricks and playing around with them while talking or “labs”, where children are invited to try out the latest kits. There are pen mugs made of Lego on office desks, little sorting fields made of the blocks in the quality control lab and the components currently being produced are tagged onto Lego boards next to the machines. Lego and the spirit of play are omnipresent. In fact the entire manufacturing and storage site seems like a construct out of Lego City. Blocks are produced, dropped into isometric boxes in bright colors and driven via robots and conveyor belts to a huge ware house where they are stacked up dozens of meters high. There are not many people around here but the occasional over-sized Lego figure or other construct are looking at you from a nook or cranny. The product of a worker playing around during a break?
Somehow, I was not surprised that the Lego offices and plant would look like this. Intuitively, you can sense this absolute dedication to building things in a systematic but playful way when you play with Legos, I think. (Yes it has been a few years, but I have not forgotten my Legos. In fact, my sons are playing with them, right now). You get a gauge of the enthusiasm for the place of Lego creation when you hear that there are several thousand people visiting the office and plant in Billund every year. And there are more than a few fathers who fly in with their sons from overseas and pay a few thousand dollars each for a VIP tour around the place! And then there are the school children from poor family backgrounds in the region that Lego sponsors and brings to the Billund campus regularly throughout their school years. The staff has experienced that these kids are more motivated to succeed in school and get a job than their peers around the country. “Seeing how important it is but also how fun it can be to have a job really helps them”, I am told.
The Lego experience shows how the place of creation of a product can be a powerful source of a brand’s legend and appeal, representing but also transcending the product made there. – And in the case of Lego, the company has not even chosen to make Billund or the Lego people a part of its official brand narrative.
Let’s look at a few examples where that has happened. In the first case – Yuan Soap – right from the inception of the brand.
About a year ago I found myself standing in the middle of a field in the middle of YangMingShan National Park in Taiwan. It was a rainy day and only plastic bags over my shoes kept the mud from seeping into my shoes. Nevertheless, I stood in awe of the beauty of the site: Multiple paddy terraces ‘fenced in’ by large stone boulders. And the whole scene was framed by wild forests and streams that cascading down into the valley below us with a loud roar. The terraces were the remnants of stone quarries that had been abandoned before the place was declared a national park; it was explained to me by the Yuan Soap export director. This is the place where Yuan cultivates and sources the mostly indigenous herbs that are the key ingredients for its products. How come they are allowed to that in the middle of a national park? The government recognizes the value Yuan brings in cultivating the abandoned quarry and demonstrating the value of some of the national fauna and of organic household care products and foods, some of them traditionally associated with medicinal properties. Yuan uses sustainable methods of agriculture and helps bring back the use of some useful herbs that had almost been forgotten. The workers are recruited from a pool of farmers and fishermen who had lost their jobs to industrialization and are now trained in traditional ways of cultivating the land and of producing soaps, teas and other products…
But let’s rewind. It all started in 2005 with ad agency executive Ah Yuan suffering from serious burn-out and. He couldn’t take the stress anymore and he couldn’t stand the way the products he created advertising for were made. After some time of meditation, reflection and study, Ah (aka Chiang) decided to change direction and find his way back to where his ancestors left. His grand-father and great-grand-father were traditional Chinese doctors. Chiang studies not only the healing properties and use of home-grown herbs but also the traditional ways of farming them and production methods to create all-natural household and health care products. He started by making soaps in his house following a 18 step process that took almost 2 months from the extracting the water to cold-saponifying to molding, cutting, stamping and wrapping the single pieces by hand. Fast a few years forward and this is still the way Yuan Soap workers do it today without the use of any synthetically made ingredients or any machines. We met men and women in a farm house not far from those fields, pouring oils from cooking pots, shaping soap balls with their hands, while others stamped them. In a bigger workshop about an hour away, we witnessed how big soap blocks were matured like cheeses before being cut with wires. There was a strong herbal smell filling the air. Tea, lantana, Asian puccoon, lemongrass, roselle, patchouli, … herbs that are associated with healing such skin problems as housewife’s dermatitis, inflammation, acne, eczema or allergies. Others natural ingredients are cooling, help remove old cells or have antibacterial properties or lighten the skin, we are told.
Finaly, a 30 minutes trip took us to a Yuan store where we could see all the products wrapped in their beautiful artisanal paper and carton packaging which is made locally, as well and decorated with Ah Yuan’s sketches and poetic product descriptions. The line has expanded over the years to include dish and laundry soaps, hair shampoo and conditioners, toothpaste, mouth wash and tea. Walking through the wood-clad store you get to a little terraced garden in the back. On the second-floor balcony, a tablet explains that each terrace is planted with indigenous herbs just like the fields in YangMingShan. The ingredients, provenance, making process and attributes of the products are explained here in the store, in detailed leaflets available with the products and online in blogs and discussions about Yuan.
We sit down for a cup of Yuan tea and hear about the continued growth and now regional expansion of the brand into Asia. Taiwanese hand-made, herbal household care and beauty products at $9-90/piece growing from a few hundred soap bars a month into a multi-million dollar business with some 500 resellers that produce double digit growth even through the crisis. Who would have thought? But as you look at the little herb patch outside and the customers listening to the shop assistant storytelling inside you realize the strong appeal of the story. It’s a story about a guy who breaks out of the rat race, finds his way back to nature and its healing powers and who does good by sharing this rediscovered wealth. The fields, the farming, the farmers, the making… they are all an integral part of the legend people want to buy into and are willing to pay a premium for. After all, what are $30 for finding your way to living in harmony with nature – even if it is jut through a nice looking string of ball soaps, for now?
Many of you will have heard or read about the ateliers of Hermes or Louis Vuitton in the Pantin and Asniere suburbs of Paris. Regularly, journalists and VIPs are invited to private tours to spread the word about the obsessive dedication and the perfectionism with which saddle-, bag- or trunk making are practiced there. This includes oft-repeated details like that of the specialized tissue craftsman who spends his entire working life selecting and folding the paper just in the right way to ensure the bag is well protected and shaped as you unwrap it at home. After all, a special edition Kelly bag or bespoke LV trunk will easily set you back more than a few thousand dollars. There are also some public tours and then the creation legend is spread more broadly via expositions that document the process and materials involved in creating the master-pieces and their history – preferably set in a museum to underline the fact that we are dealing with more than just common products. Hermes, in particular, celebrates ‘provenance’ and creates craft-full creation stories around all of its products. You can read bloggers rave that it takes several hundred kilometers of silk, dozens of color separations, sophisticated dying techniques and silk screening tables that are 150 meters long in their Lyon workshops to make one of their scarves. One of them concludes that one should go for the $375 Hermes scarves and forgo the fake or cheaper alternatives even if it is just to preserve this level of fine craftsmanship. 1
But you don’t have to be a historic luxury house to make the creation of your product a central part of your brands manifestation and worth. In fact, you can create bags that are – in many ways – rough and tough in a contemporary context and an industrial environment and attract a cult following that is willing to pay a premium. This is what the Swiss brand ‘Freitag’ has done. The sourcing and utilization of their materials is what makes this brand. For each bag is cut from used truck tarpaulin (tarp covers) and/or old airbags, the handles made from old seat belts and creases might be reinforced with tire tubes. They use over 200 thousand of those old seat belts, for example. But the differentiation versus your regular urban backpack, wallet or messenger bag does not stop at the choice and sourcing of the materials. The idea of recycling and sustainability is carried much further at their ‘Noerd’ plant and headquarters. Rain water is recycled to wash the traps. The warm used wash water is used to heat the halls and the fresh rain water. The roof is garden for relaxation of the employees and insulation of the plant and the isolated windows are extra big to minimize the use of artificial light while minimizing energy loss in winter. And so on and so on. But Freitag does not only preserve resources and energy. Like Yuan or Hermes it also creates and preserves precious jobs – in this case rare blue collar jobs in Zurich. In fact, Freitag is proud to be the last factory to operate with the city limits (or is it the first, again?).
And what does the Freitag buyer get? A very sturdy, Swiss precision-engineered bag. But this utilitarian benefit cannot be the key reason for these bags to be so popular among a certain urban crowd. After all, the bags are heavy (and a bit smelly, too). What people are buying is a uniquely made, uniquely looking and to some extend bespoke bag (since no two tarps were pre-used or cut the same and one can choose model, dominant color and patterns from a wide variety). But most of all they might be buying a piece of identity – maybe some peace of mind – by joining what feels like a good way to preserve the environment a bit better without giving up on individuality and modern living.
Whether colorful toy building block, natural soap, fine handbag or sturdy tote. Their unique way of being conceived and made can not only make them perform well as a product but, more importantly, can give them an emotional value that raises them above the anonymous crowd of ‘mass made’ products. How else do you explain that people pay many multiples for a bag that even admits it is made of used materials and waste than versus a functionally superior bag made from brand new materials?
Picture Sources and More Reading:
Read more about the storytelling and myth making of Ueber-Brands in our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands“
About Yuan Soap Taiwan, the founder, how the soap is made and what it is said to do for you:
Bloggers reports about a Hermes Atelier visits in Paris, craft exhibitions in London and the store in Vancouver:
The above includes a detailed review of how a Hermes bag is made and thus “why luxury is important”
The blog below talks about The Hermes silk workshop in Lyon and suggests you buy it to preserve the craft:http://seattlest.com/2011/02/23/herms_preserving_craftsmanship.php#photo-1
And here is the oft-recounted Hermes tissue craftsman story :http://www.bagsnob.com/2006/03/hermes_101.html
A blogger visit, this time to the Maison et l’Atelier Louis Vuitton:
How Freitag bags are made and their plant run at Freitag.ch: