- Conveying the ‘Power of Play’ Through LEGO October 12, 2023
Korea's First Korean Head of LEGO Korea: General Manager Jeong Hee-young (Communication Major '93)
The tales of those who pioneered a path are always fascinating. Alumni Jeong Hee-young, who was appointed as the General Manager of LEGO Korea in January this year, is certainly one of those pioneers. While she was a student, Jeong dreamed of a wider world and took full advantage of Yonsei University's internationalization program. And after graduating, she strategically filled in the necessary aspects of her capability according to the career path she designed for herself. Eventually, her vague dream of ‘becoming the head of a global corporation’ became a reality. On top of that, Jeong managed to hold the prestigious record of being the "first Korean head" and the "first female representative" of LEGO Korea since its establishment in 1984. The following article presents an interview conducted with General Manager Jeong Hee-young, who has consistently advanced in life with bold decisions and risk-taking whenever faced to make a choice, as she shared her journey of pioneering an unventured path.
Dreaming Big in a Global Educational Environment
Alumnus Jeong Hee-young cited the liberal and enterprising academic style of 'Yonsei’ as well as a variety of internationalization programs it provides as the prime reason for her decision to enter Yonsei University.
"Though many universities offer these opportunities now, back then, very few universities offered student exchange programs. It was one of Yonsei University’s strengths. Additionally, Yonsei had the Department of International Studies providing English lectures of high quality, and there were ample opportunities to interact with foreign students. As an individual who aspired to work on the global stage, I couldn't have had a better school."
Upon making the decision to pursue her career in a business-related field, Jeong took full advantage of Yonsei’s internationalization programs. Apart from taking English lectures available through the Department of International Studies, she also went to the University of California, Berkeley in the United States as an exchange student. Living in the U.S. for a year gave her the opportunity to broaden her horizons.
"It was great meeting students from different cultures, and it was refreshing to see students engaging in open discussions with professors. There were a lot of opportunities available within Yonsei, and these experiences played a significant role in my decision to study abroad later on. I firmly believe that Yonsei got me to where I am today, and I am always grateful for that.”
A Fresh Start as a Marketer After Studying in the U.S.
Jeong’s first job upon graduation was at a trading company. Being one of the first batch of female university graduate employees, she was assigned to the steel trading team and was in charge of overseas sales for three and a half years.
The dynamic work within a trading company was fun, but for Jeong, it was hard to find a long-term vision. With the large number of companies pursuing growth with the development of their own export and import capabilities, the position of trading companies within the industry seemed to be narrowing even more. Jeong noticed these changes taking place within her field, and while contemplating a new career path, marketing came to her mind.
"Creating something out of nothing seemed quite fascinating. I submitted a considerable number of resumes and CVs, but it wasn't easy because I didn't have any experience in the field. I then decided to pursue further studies abroad as I felt the need to study the field properly.”
After completing her MBA at the University of Michigan Business School, Jeong resumed her career. Her first job was not directly dealing with the "consumer goods marketing" she wanted, but it was a chance that took a detour, allowing her to gain experience in a related job. Since then, she has mastered various tasks in various companies such as sales, advertising execution, CRM (relationship marketing), and product sales, and has laid a solid foundation for marketing.
Then an opportunity presented itself. After moving to a global consumer electronics company, Jeong was granted the chance to take on full-fledged consumer marketing work. After working for 10 years and serving as marketing director for kitchen and home appliances in the Asia-Pacific region as well as executive vice president of domestic sales and marketing, she moved to a domestic e-commerce company and worked for two years before joining LEGO Korea as a Marketing Director in 2018.
Launching Products Incorporating New Technologies Such as Augmented Reality (AR)
LEGO, composed of variously colored interlocking plastic bricks, is also the name of a global toy company headquartered in Denmark. The proportion of LEGO Korea within the LEGO Group is not small. Not only does Korea top the list in terms of sales, but when an innovative product is launched, South Korea also serves as a testbed. This is because South Korea is a globally recognized IT powerhouse. In recent years, innovative products that go beyond simple assembly to be combined with new technologies have been released one after another, making LEGO Korea's mission even more important.
A prime example of this is 'The Hidden Side', a LEGO theme released in 2019. The Hidden Side, which incorporates LEGO's first augmented reality (AR) technology, received a favorable market response because customers can enjoy not only the fun of building the LEGO set but also a digital game of catching ghosts through the linked app.
In March of this year, the 'BTS Dynamite' set was also released, captivating fans around the world. Two BTS fans in the United States uploaded their creations to 'LEGO Ideas,' which was later realized into an actual product. 'LEGO Ideas' is a platform where anyone who likes LEGO can propose a product, and if it gets more than 10,000 votes, it will be deliberated by the head office and turned into a product.
"BTS is a Korean group, so we did a lot of marketing to commemorate the launch of our new product. We opened pop-up stores in three locations, Gangnam Station, Pangyo Hyundai, and Yeouido 'The Hyundai Seoul', and the response was better than I could have imagined. There were so many foreign visitors as well, which made me realize the huge influence of K-pop. If you think about it, the people who came up with the idea were Americans. It was a surprising new experience for us. It was an immensely proud moment for us as well."
A Unique Experience Through Handmade Construction
New products are developed at the headquarters and launched simultaneously around the world. One recent change is the presentation of products alongside additional content, including animated series and games. For example, "Dreams," which was released on August 1, is based on dreams and was created by conducting preliminary research on thousands of children around the world.
In addition, three months prior to the release of "Dreams", 10 stories containing the worldview of this series were aired on the cartoon movie channel, YouTube, Netflix, etc. The strategy is to naturally translate that interest into the actual product.
"Since it's aimed at children, you have to quickly figure out 'what's trending' and 'what children like' to survive (laughs) in the industry. LEGO is often compared to YouTube, and when you think about the amount of time kids spend with digital media these days, it's hard to ignore its influence. This is why we also collaborate with YouTubers to produce content introducing our products and instructing how to use them. But unlike such types of media, children playing with LEGO benefit greatly from the process of building, disassembling, and rebuilding by hand. It fosters creativity and flexibility, and it also increases the bond with family and friends. They can experience failures while building, and in doing so, they build up resilience as well. I think that's a powerful competitive advantage for LEGO that can't be compared to digital media."
'Playtime' is Also Necessary For Adults
LEGO also enjoys wide popularity among adults. Globally, adult consumers account for 20 percent, and that number is expected to continue to grow. Throughout the pandemic, the significance of play for adults has been underscored once again. This is seen as a response to the growing number of adults seeking solace through childhood memories. In addition, the consumer market has grown according to the trend of people respecting personal preferences and actively consuming things they love, and more and more parents are enjoying hobbies and building bonds with their children.
"In South Korea, customers in their 30s and 40s, who used to play with LEGO as a child, are our main customer base. In a way, they can also be seen as a generation that's going through a tough time in their lives. There's a lot of stress at work, and LEGO would remind them of the happy times of their childhood. There's also a sense of accomplishment when one completes building the set. In the past, 'play' used to be viewed in a negative light, but now we are living in a time where play has gained importance. This also means that the culture of relaxing and experiencing diversity through LEGO is spreading in Korea. Such a trend can be witnessed simply by looking at the online communities about LEGO that have been created over the years. These are online places for individuals who love LEGO, and one of them even has more than 200,000 members. They are very active as well."
In line with this trend, the company is also steadily releasing products targeting adults. Some of the themes of these products include interiors, plants, cars, architecture, artwork, movies, and fashion. Products for adults feature a significantly larger number of brick pieces, allowing them to express intricate details that closely resemble real life. Once assembled, they also make excellent displays in special places, adding to their high utility.
Jeong, who would occasionally build LEGO at home, cited Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" as her favorite work. The completed set has been framed to be hung on the wall.
"I made it myself, so I feel good every time I see it. There's also the added advantage of being a great interior decoration. I think that's the appeal of adult LEGO products."
A Company That Grants Two Months of Paid Paternity Leave
Thanks to the expansion of the range of customers by launching new products for adults, LEGO Korea continued its growth even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of official LEGO stores in the country increased more than fourfold, from four before 2018 to 18 by the end of last year. Of those, 11 stores have opened since 2020. These are all remarkable achievements Jeong has accomplished since joining as a Marketing Director.
She successfully led the launch of a number of new series in the midst of rapid changes in the domestic and international market environment due to COVID-19 and played a key role in expanding the business online and offline. In recognition of her skills, she was promoted to the position of General Manager in January of this year.
As the first “Korean” General Manager appointed by LEGO Korea, Jeong feels a heavy burden on her shoulders. She is now trying to set a good precedent so that there will be more opportunities for others in the future. Interestingly, the fact that she is the "first female representative of LEGO Korea," which has made headlines in Korea, is not a big topic of discussion within the LEGO Group. This is because the company's atmosphere is open and flexible, with few discriminatory factors, often referred to as the 'glass ceiling'.
As a global company, there is also a well-established system for the fellowship of employees from various backgrounds. LEGO Korea holds a 'Family Day' once every month when employees would only work in the morning and spend the remaining day engaging in leisure activities to strengthen their bonds. In addition, once a year, the entire LEGO Group would host a ‘play day’ when employees would take a break to play. Even now, employees still work from home twice a week, and aside from the maternity leave for female employees, for male employees as well, when their wives give birth to a child, they also receive two months of paid leave. If faced with difficulties taking care of children, they can go to work with their children, and employees at the headquarters in Denmark can be seen frequently taking their children to work.
Changing the Paradigm of Play Culture
The day of the interview happened to be the ‘Family Day’. In midst of the interview, someone called out 'Hee-young Nim*'. After a brief moment of confusion witnessing an employee calling the General Manager by her name, Jeong followed up with the explanation that at LEGO Korea, everyone, regardless of their rank, calls one another by their name.
The smiles on the faces of the employees who prepared the event together for "Family Day" and participated in the activities were bright, and they were seen having active conversations. Within the crowd of employees, 'Hee-young' was also seen casually interacting with others as well. Her humble manner of speech and gestures were truly impressive, making it easy to understand why many young employees see Jeong as a role model.
As the first Korean head of the global company 'LEGO Korea', we asked General Manager Jeong Hee-young about her new dream. Jeong stated that while continuing the growth of LEGO, she aims to focus on promoting the value of "the importance of play" and "learning through play" through LEGO.
"South Korea seems to be too stingy with ‘play’. In Denmark, where LEGO was born, even relatives give toys to children on Christmas. In a child's development, there are things that can only be achieved through play, not study. I want them to know that play is important for the future of society's competitiveness that these children will lead. Through LEGO, we will present a new paradigm of play culture."
*Nim (Hangul: 님) (by itself after a proper noun) is a form of honorific. It is often roughly translated as "Mr." or "Ms./Mrs.". -nim (as an affix) is used as a commonplace honorific for guests, customers, clients, and someone of a higher rank than oneself.