Angela Jobson joined Merlin Entertainments three years ago as Global Brand Director of its LEGOLAND Discovery Centres (LDC). She has since worked closely with Brand Vista to improve the customer experience across all 16 LDC sites around the world.
We talk to Angela about how gaining a deeper insight into the concept of ‘play’ has challenged the brand’s preconceptions, transformed its offering and ramped up customer satisfaction...
Q: Please can you clarify your role as Global Brand Director?
I am responsible for the brand strategy at LDC, which covers three areas primarily:
The creative strategy
The communications strategy
Product development and partnership
Q: What are the specific challenges that you felt needed addressing at LDC when you joined the company?
First and foremost we needed to look at the product from our consumers’ point of view; was it meeting their needs? And we realised that it wasn’t 100% of the time. The original LDC was designed from the kids' perspective, as opposed to looking at the key moments when parents can get involved or engage with them in the same space.
But the insight work established that it wasn’t right for parents to always be with their children, ‘helicoptering’ over them.
For example, one LDC has LEGO-themed soft play areas with barriers and netting. Parents of older children are quite happy for their kids to go off and play there, but parents of younger children don't feel as comfortable. Instead, they stand around leaning against the barriers and looking uncomfortable.
So, we removed the barriers and introduced seats. We also introduced some building activities for parents with younger kids. It’s about creating a family day out where parents and children of different ages can enjoy the same experience - maybe on a different level and with slightly different things - within the same space.
Q: So you have focused on making the LDC product more relevant?
Yes - our communications didn't always show families, they just showed children. And we didn't always clearly say what we were; we needed to be a little bit more functional.
We had to go back and ask ourselves, who is this for, what have we got to offer, and why do people come? It was about understanding the basics and going backwards to almost re-set the brand...
The first site opened in Berlin 10 years ago, during which time people have come in and tried various different solutions to re-set the brand. But I needed to go back and really look at why it was developed in the first place and what it was supposed to be.
Q: What is your ultimate vision for LDC?
I have this ‘litmus test’ of any new product or concept at LDC: is it bigger and better than what kids can do at home with a washing-up bowl full of LEGO bricks? If you can do it at home then we shouldn't be doing it; everything we do should exceed expectations...
My brand vision is to create the most unique and inspirational LEGO play experience in the world. One that is bigger and better than you could ever imagine at home.
Q: How did Brand Vista help you to address some of the challenges you've talked about and start to shape your long term market strategy?
Brand Vista have been quite involved in the brand’s journey over the last 10 years, particularly with a lot of the work right at the beginning in terms of understanding consumer response to some of our earlier sites.
When I first started working with them, they acted as an almost historical reference to the brand. There was so much good stuff in the early work they did - that hadn’t necessarily been recognised - and Brand Vista helped uncover this. It was a really good starting point.
We then looked at how we wanted to position the brand and how we define it. We knew that we needed to be about ‘play’ and had to instil our brand essence ‘playful learning’...
Brand Vista were really helpful, particularly in helping us to dig deeper and really understand the concept of ‘play’ - how it is defined, the different types of play, and how we then apply that to an LDC.
They identified a couple of experts who came in to apply some key theories of play to what we were doing. This was brilliant! It allowed us to truly apply ‘play’ to the product.
And it helped educate our design team Merlin Magic Making, who are responsible for coming up with the new features and experiences that we offer. Brand Vista’s work highlighted what we were looking for and the areas that we needed to dial up or dial down.
Q: How did this impact the LDC experience?
Our Merlin Magic Making team came up with some new products and we managed to get some of the key features live earlier than we had hoped.
For example, we now know that narrative and fantasy play are really important for kids. They want to become certain characters and play out real life issues through the guise of superheroes, for example. And we used this to add more scope for role play in our existing soft play areas.
We’re taking all the information around the different play types and bringing it to life, which will make a really big difference to the attractions.
Q: What success are you seeing generally since implementing the insight work?
These new initiatives are doing really well and consumer response is really strong.
It shows the value of applying this thinking to our product development. We have been able to shape our product strategy and also pull out some critical insights for our communications strategy. It is also informing how we talk about the brand internally.
The next step - and my ultimate goal - lies in the creation of unique and inspirational LEGO play experiences, of which our staff (playmakers) are obviously a really important part. Now all the great initial research has been carried out and applied to the product, we need to apply that to our staff by asking:
What is their role and how do they bring that experience to life?
And this is something we are in the process of launching.
Through a series of staff training and engagement programmes, we want to ensure that they understand all this great knowledge. And Brand Vista has been really instrumental in helping me to develop and launch it.
Q: What exactly was Brand Vista’s involvement in developing the staff training?
The starting point was all the work we've done around defining play. We also knew we needed an expert in learning.
Brand Vista brought that resource into work with our internal Learning and Development team, and then we developed key modules around the different types of learning and training.
For me, the external input gave the work a little bit more authority and really helped to shape the programme.
Q: How responsive are the LDC team to the training?
So far, we’ve launched the initial concept with our North American team - explaining what the playmaker programme is - and it was extremely positive. People were really engaged and very hands on.
I even have photos of all of the General Managers and the Divisional Directors of North America lying on the carpet building LEGO and doing all the stuff that we ask staff to get down and do with kids!
People were really inspired by it and as a result it inspired their own ideas. I think it has really energised and refocused people.
Q: How did the insight work help you to prove the business case for some quite radical changes - and convince Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainments, to buy in to your plans?
It was incredibly helpful, particularly for a brand that had started to lose its direction.
We now have a really stable foundation on which to build. So it doesn’t matter who moves in and out of the brand team going forward because we now have that consistent platform and vision to reference.
And everyone agreed internally that it was absolutely what was needed here.
Q: How easy was it to get the wider company on board with the proposed changes?
I made sure I identified the key people I needed to get buy in from, and we managed to get the product live quickly. This was a really good physical expression of the work - it was living proof of the need for change...
Which is why I knew we had to fight hard to push that through.
For a lot of people that's the reality of their job. If they can see that it is better and does what it needs to do - and that they have much happier guests - they are more likely to believe you.
I think everybody believed that the brand deserved to be so much better - it was shouting out for a touch more direction and focus.
Q: How challenging was it to translate some of the specific insights into actions?
I don't think I ever had a moment where I thought ‘that's nice to know but I don't know what to do with it’. It was all very clear, which is what enabled us to get the product up and running so quickly.
We hadn’t expected to be able to take all the information and feed it into our product development cycle so early. But it was all really clear and really actionable.
Q: Can you share an example of how an insight was translated into the LDC experience?
The LDC experiences are all batched to help manage the flow - controlling how many people go into the experience and when. It means that parents and their children have to, effectively, queue for at least the first quarter of an attraction as they go from one experience to the next.
As one of the play experts, Tim Gill, and I walked around the Manchester LDC to observe how children were playing, we noticed a small child playing with a penny press machine whilst waiting in this queue…
The child was playing with the machine because they’d been promised a LEGO experience, yet they were still queuing. They were desperate to let some energy out. And as soon as the doors opened they threw themselves into a brick pit - it was as if we had been holding them hostage to this point.
On the back of this observation we redesigned our attraction - and all of this thinking has gone into our new site, which opens next month in Philadelphia.
We have removed all of the batching from the beginning and re-ordered the entire experience. Now families get on a ride that drops them into the centre and then it is all free play - that is where the really valuable stuff is.
This insight from Manchester fed directly into the actual layout of our attraction, which is massive.
Q: Will that be rolled out at other LDCs?
It is being trialled at two sites this year - Philadelphia, and Jiaxing in China. If it works it will be the future model for LDCs. But we need to test it as it is quite a radical change.
The fact that Merlin had the confidence to take the leap and do something very different is tantamount to the great knowledge and insights that we got.
Q: Is there anything that surprised you about the findings from the work you did with Brand Vista?
I kind of expected an experience that is all about family play to be geared towards the family doing everything together the whole time. But actually, that's not the most valuable way for kids to play.
Yes, there are some really key moments where parents should be involved in facilitating play, but there are also moments when parents need to step back and let kids figure out some of this stuff for themselves. It's more balanced than I expected it to be.
Q: Can you summarise how the customer experience has changed at LDC since the new initiatives started rolling out?
The sites with new products, based on the play work, are seeing markedly higher guest satisfaction. This is probably because they're more engaged and they feel that there's more value for them as a family in the attraction.
The experience has changed for the better.
Q: How do you measure the success of the work you have done so far, and the impact on the business in real terms?
We have some internal measures based on consumer data, and we also measure Net Promoter Score (NPS). We use Trip Advisor too, which is an industry standard for us, and we've seen some really positive momentum in these ratings...
The sites that have already implemented some of these new products have seen some quite markedly different consumer responses which are incredibly strong - the likes of which we have not seen before among LDC sites.
Q: How has this work become a model for other Merlin brands?
Our Sea Life brand, which sits within the same division as us, has a similar journey to go on. I know they are currently talking to Brand Vista and following the model for some of this work; our success has certainly influenced their thinking.
Q: What are your priorities going forward?
It's more of the same. It's about getting more of this new thinking into the product and then aligning it across the estate.
We have 16 sites open and some of them are 10 years old! So it’s about making sure that we have consistency and ensuring that everybody has a great product - as well as getting the playmaker piece live, which is a big undertaking.
We have started this and I need to make sure that it carries on with real momentum behind it - it needs to be embedded into the brand culture.
We've also moved onto another stage with Brand Vista now, and are now looking at how we test some of our future products. This includes modelling around quantitative and qualitative testing to create benchmarks around what is compelling and what appeals to our consumers.
We will carry on working with Brand Vista to make sure that the product continues to deliver what it needs to deliver...
It makes it much easier for us because they know the journey we have been on. They understand us through and through. This is why they're able to provide us with stuff that is tangible and not just a load of theoretical stuff in a deck; their work was immediately useful. They feel like an extension of us.