LISTEN -- Introduction (Part 2)

The Wisdom of Freaks

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(In Part 1, we commenced our visit to the Billund, Denmark, headquarters of Lego)

First for its line of robotic toys called Mindstorms, and now expanding to its Lego Creator and Lego Factory lines, this company has pioneered the notion of consumer involvement – not only soliciting ideas from its most loyal and enthusiastic customers, but actively recruiting them for product design.

Mindstorms, which first appeared in 1998, was itself a forward-looking enterprise for a company that began in 1932 selling wooden pulltoys, transitioned to colorful plastic bricks 1949 years later and basically stood pat for 50 years. But the original Mindstorms technology was complicated and sales slow.

That is, until 2002, when the Mindstorms User Group stepped off their turbo-prop, sucked in some methane, and got to work on the product's second generation. For 14 months, between Billund and their own home computers, these volunteers reinvented the brand – which now is a soaring success. And not only did they fly to Jutland at their own expense for the privilege of being unpaid consultants, they turned right around and evangelized the resulting products to the greater community of fans, geeks and total Lego freaks. Internet fans sites, in no way contributed to or controlled by the company, represent virtually the entire Mindstorms marketing program.

The Mindstorms experiment took place in the midst of a crisis at Lego. After the millennium, as electronic toys and Internet games increasingly usurped their customers' attention, sales flattened and profitability disappeared. In 2004, losses were so steep, the company was in danger of liquidation.

That crisis, perhaps combined with revelations about the passion and commitment of the core audience emerging from the Mindstorms project, led management to rethink every aspect of its business, from dumping extraneous product lines to trimming the workforce to institutionalizing the consumer-participation concept. Under its new management structure, Community Education & Direct is one of only four lines of authority within the company – co-equal with administration, supply-chain management and sales & marketing. Its function: to deal directly with consumers, whose collective wisdom, enthusiasm and judgment – as demonstrated in forum after forum online – exceeds that of the company's itself.

What this enlightened company is doing, in other words, is listening. To loyal consumers, to dissatisied consumers, to employees, to suppliers, to any faint echo in the marketplace that may help it sell plastic bricks to the world.

This exercise doesn't necessarily have to take place by flying people to headquarters. It can go on every second of the day, 24/7/365, on your own websites and on the websites of others. And it will create connections, data and insights such as you never enjoyed before, or perhaps even imagined before. Because it turns out that all those guys with the PowerPoint presentations you've been sitting through for the past three years – you know, the ones insisting "The consumer is in control" – are absolutely right. The consumer (and voter and citizen) is in control: of what and when she watches, of what and when she reads, of whether to pay any attention to you whatsover or to make your life a living hell. This might be an excellent time, therefore, to listen to what she has to say. And it sure wouldn't hurt to make her your friend.

This is the future of everything. In fact, if you wish to survive for long in media, marketing or politics, it is the right now of everything – institutionalizing dialogue with all of your potential constituencies and sometimes total strangers for the purpose of market research, product development, customer relationships, corporate image and transactions themselves. The last of those benefits is especially important, because when you sell goods or services, you get money.
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