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Lego Is for Girls

Inside the world's most admired toy company's effort to finally click with girls

Walk into one of Lego’s 74 red-and-yellow retail stores around the world, or even down the toy aisles of your local Target, and two things are immediately clear: Lego, the Danish maker of plastic toy bricks, is everywhere, and it’s not for everybody. Rows of classic building kits for police helicopters, rockets, and trains soon give way to contemporary releases such as Lego Alien Conquest, a daffy War of the Worlds scenario with spaceships and laser cannons, and Lego Ninjago, a “spinjitzu” warrior-themed product line heavy on martial arts and supernatural powers. Humbled before the Lego Star Wars sets there’s invariably a baffled parent on a cell phone: Am I meant to get the one with clone troopers or the Mandalorians? Is it General Grievous who has the double light-saber?

Linger for a few more minutes and you’ll notice not just the staggering array of Lego offerings—545 in the last year—but an absence. “They might as well have a No Girls Allowed sign,” says Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a fierce, funny investigation of the toy industry’s multibillion-dollar exploitation of the “princess phase,” which consumes girls at age 3 or 4. Orenstein is right. After overreaching and cratering in the early Aughts, the Lego Group deliberately focused on boys, and the short-term effectiveness of this strategy is undeniable. Revenue has increased 105 percent since 2006, according to the privately held company’s 2010 annual report, and Lego topped $1 billion in U.S. sales for the first time last year. It’s on track to do that again in 2011. “They’re killing it now,” says Gerrick Johnson, equities analyst at BMO Capital Markets, who has followed the company’s impact on listed toymakers such as Mattel and Hasbro for a decade. Lego, he says, “is the hottest toy company in the boy segment, and maybe the hottest in toys overall.”