Friday, 4 February 2011

Top Secret

Another day, another brief flurry of excitement as an image of an upcoming LEGO set transiently appears on various websites, only to disappear shortly afterwards as LEGO ask for it to be removed. This time the image was of the utterly delicious Set 10219 Maersk Train Set; on previous occasions it's been preliminary images of collectible minifigs, or future Star Wars sets, or something else.

You can generally tell when images are not for our consumption - they usually have a huge watermark with "CONFIDENTIAL' stamped across them. The spat over Set 10219 was different however, as the 'offending' image wasn't marked as confidential and was in fact hosted on LEGO's own server in a publicly accessible area. An enterprising fan discovered the image and alerted Brickset, who quite understandably published the picture. Shortly afterwards, Brickset were asked by LEGO to remove the image, which they did. Other websites and individuals were not so accommodating, however - the image is still freely available elsewhere, including bizarrely on LEGO's own server in exactly the same place as it was when it was first discovered......!

LEGO have on a number of occasions shared their reasons for wanting such images to remain confidential until such time as they feel ready to go public with them. Indeed, an open letter from LEGO CEO Jorgen Vig Knupstorp was recently posted online explaining the reasons. In a nutshell, they're concerned about competitors copying 'novelty products', their future products being misrepresented because products may be modified prior to launch, and the confidentiality of licensed partners being compromised. LEGO also say they want to "give customers a 100% experience of our products and campaigns", although I don't really know what that means.

I have to confess to being somewhat conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, I can sympathise with at least some of the reasons above. I have no doubt, for instance, that the manufacturers of other brands of construction toys (you know who they are) look enviously at the success that LEGO enjoy and would just love to get an early warning of what their competition will be doing. I can also well believe that some of LEGO's licensed partners insist on being 100% in control of the release of every single image and snippet of information that emerges.

The problem I have is two-fold, however. Firstly, when I see the explosion of excitement and anticipation that invariably accompanies the leakage of these images, it seems to me that contrary to concerns about the business being harmed, the leaks are instead acting as spectacular pre-marketing. Just look at the comments on Brickset following the posting of the Set 10219 image if you have any doubts. This also provides LEGO with valuable feedback which is almost certainly more honest and candid than that provided by the kind of focus groups that companies pay handsomely for. On balance, therefore, it could be argued that such leaks are actually beneficial rather than detrimental.

Secondly, it appears to be LEGO's own practices that fuel the leakage of confidential images. Aside from the appearance of the picture of Set 10219 which was a special case (i.e. someone made a mistake, basically), it seems to me that the majority of leaked images originate from the catalogues that LEGO give to retailers to help them to decide what new LEGO products they're going to want to stock in the future. While this practice might have been low-risk prior to the advent of the Internet, it seems incredible to me that LEGO still apparently believe that they can hand out catalogues filled with confidential images, and that these images won't be posted on the Net and spread like wildfire within minutes...... I mean, if secrecy is really so important, it surely can't be beyond the wit of the company to find more secure ways of sharing information about upcoming sets with retailers, be it via a secure website which prevents screen grabs, or something else. In the final analysis, while LEGO persist in handing out catalogues containing images of upcoming sets to retailers, the power of the Internet means that they will never be able to keep those images under wraps, and they must surely know this.

Still, when all's said and done, from a personal perspective it's really no great hardship to respect LEGO's wishes - they'll release official images sooner or later anyway - and hence the lack of images of Set 10219 in this blog post. And who knows - despite my doubts, maybe they're actually right about the negative effects on the business.....?

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