Skip to main content
In depth
Legoland-Florida

Merlin’s Ash Tailor on finding new talent and listening to the kids

Tailor talks to blooloop about creating brand experiences around the iconic brick, as well as Merlin’s new XCalibre Rising programme

Ash Tailor Legoland

Ash Tailor is responsible for global marketing and brand development for LEGOLAND Parks and Resorts, with oversight of brand strategy, product development and global advertising. Tailor is also the principal Merlin relationship partner with LEGO Group.

He joined Merlin Entertainments with a wealth of experience in FMCG and retail marketing, having worked with high-profile brands including Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Vodafone. Before coming to Merlin, Ash led the development and performance of the Kids’ Category at Britvic as global category director.

Since joining LEGOLAND in 2019, Tailor has introduced several imaginative initiatives and LEGO brand experiences. He took researching his role to a new level and, once established, put kids – as the builders of tomorrow – at the heart of a recruitment process.

Most recently, he has been supportive in the inception of XCalibre Rising. This is an exciting – and democratising – innovation spearheaded by inclusion and diversity executive Fiona Eastwood, COO of Merlin’s Midway attractions.

Early marketing experience

Speaking with blooloop about LEGOLAND, his methodology and insights, and the exciting innovation that is XCalibre Rising, Tailor outlined the pathway that brought him to the role:

“As I started my career, I entered that vicious circle of ‘to get a job, you need experience; to gain experience, you need to get a job’” he begins. “I feel sorry for the students of today; it’s even more competitive now. So, back in the day, to get that first experience, I worked for free for Coventry City Council. I was in the press and PR office, then I got my first job in local government.”

“That was an amazing experience. It was marketing, though the word was never used.  My biggest campaign in those days was telling people that their council tax was going to increase, but with a positive message. There was no marketing spend to publicise it in any shape or form. They just used the power of media. This gave me my first step into the world of brand marketing communications.

“I cherish those days because it was about how you tell people about a message; how you convince people about a particular kind of story or a launch, without any money.”

Working with big brands

Tailor enjoyed his role for a couple of years and also completed a postgraduate degree. It was there he met some people from Unilever, and had his eyes opened:

“They were telling me that they had large budgets to spend on brand and marketing campaigns. I thought, ‘Heck: I’m definitely in the wrong industry here.’ I was trying to do things on a shoestring; they had large budgets and some lavish agency lunches!”

He made the move to Unilever and worked predominantly on two major brands, Persil and Lynx.

lego discovery centre brussels

“That’s where I got exposed to brand experience,” he says of his pre-LEGO days. “How do I reward my most loyal consumers around my brand? We organised a party in the Arctic circle and hired private planes that would take consumers from around the world to Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden where they would kick sled over a frozen lake. We had a 24-hour dance party, linking back to the brand and its core compelling proposition.”

He reflects:

“Did I love the world of FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods)? Most definitely. Unilever teaches you how to build brands and grasp the importance of consumer insights.”

He went on to work for Coca-Cola, then for kids’ beverages with Britvic.

“I also took some time out in retail with TK Maxx and Vodafone.”

The LEGO years: brand experiences in LBE

When Merlin came along, he points out, he had never worked in location-based entertainment before. However, the principle held true:

“The principle of FMCG marketing is that you’ve always got to think consumer-first and how to make the brand a part of people’s lives. It’s not just about a can of deodorant or a box of detergent. We were always talking about brand experiences and brand events, so it was always part of my DNA even before I worked with Merlin and the LEGO brand. But it’s amplified with a greater level of storytelling in the world of location-based entertainment.”

merlin legoland parks

This, he adds, is why he loves his current role:

“When I worked at Coca-Cola and wanted to speak to my consumers, I’d have to ring up my research agency and organise it through focus groups. Now, I just walk along to a park or go to one of our Discovery Centres. It’s amazing what you can see, what you can feel, what you can hear.”’

Getting hands-on

Having been appointed by Merlin, before he took up his new role working on LEGO brand experiences, he decided to do some undercover surveillance in preparation:

“I said, look, this isn’t Undercover Boss, but before I read all the research reports, I want to go and work at a LEGOLAND Discovery Centre, and I want to go and work at a LEGOLAND park. So, in the summer of 2019, that’s exactly what I did.”

LEGO figures outside LEGOLAND New York hotel

“I was doing housekeeping and cleaning rooms in the LEGOLAND Hotel, I was sweeping the bricks on the floor of the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre, and I was sitting at the welcome desk at LEGOLAND Windsor. It was phenomenal to experience and see.”

One of the chief perks of the job, he contends, is that it’s all about creating enjoyment, laughter, and fun:

“As you walk to LEGOLAND Windsor Resort, even before you get to the park, you can hear the delight. It’s so rewarding – and my job is about identifying how to build that; how to create that; how to extend it.”

Co-creating new LEGO brand experiences

So how is that enjoyment built, created and extended?

“Ogilvy famously extolled the virtues of a ‘tightly defined brief.’ Essentially, I take those principles from the world of advertising and apply them to location-based entertainment. This sounds like the boring bit, but it’s critical: What are the objectives? Who are we looking to target? It’s important to be very clear about that.

“From that point, we do a lot of immersion. We spend time with kids, with parents, walking in the consumer’s shoes.”

lego mythica legoland windsor

“When we launched a new land in LEGOLAND Windsor, we worked with kids from the ages of seven to about 13. We called them the MYTHICA Investigators. We road-tested ideas with them, and they co-created ideas with us. Plus, we then spoke to the parents, finding out what they wanted. We do a great deal of research and a lot of immersion, which goes back to my FMCG days.”

Understanding the consumer

In the world of FMCG there is, arguably, sometimes too much research done, he comments:

“We do a healthy amount within Merlin to understand our customers and our competitors. Why does the consumer go to that attraction versus going to a LEGOLAND park? We also spend time going to those attractions.

“The beauty of working with LEGO experiences is that you have a beautiful master brand. How does the land of LEGO manifest itself through these great play ventures? Part of my job is taking that world from the toy category and bringing it to life in the world of location-based entertainment.”

legoland new york

“Then there is Merlin Magic Making. I’m not a creative in any shape or form; my brain isn’t wired that way, but I am in awe of the innovators, the creatives, who can take a brief, and manifest it in such a creative way. It’s a close relationship.”

The builders of tomorrow

He compares this relationship with his former roles:

“Working with advertising agencies, the client would give the creative agency a brief, and the creative agency would produce something, a bit like a rabbit out of a hat. You would say, ‘No, I don’t like that’, and they would show you something else. It doesn’t work like that within Merlin. It’s so much more integrated.

“I sit opposite the creative director, Paul [Moreton]. I’m going over to the Merlin Magic Making studios tomorrow to spend time with the creative team talking about the briefs, but there’s also an element of wellbeing and fun. We talk a lot about how to have fun because as the creators of fun, we’ve got to have fun ourselves.”

legoland windsor

Tailor and his team have a book club, as an example:

“We share and exchange children’s books with each other. We go to Waterstones or Foyles and look at what’s in the top 10 list of children’s books, then we buy, read and swap them, keeping up with children’s trends. It’s a way that we can always keep in touch with what these little people, these builders of tomorrow, are thinking, reading, and believing. I’m reading The Kid Who Came from Space by Ross Welford now.”

A new type of interviewer

They also download and play children’s most popular games.

“This is another way of walking in our consumers’ shoes,” he says, adding:

“When I had a vacancy in my team, I thought, ‘If I really am the destination for children, then surely children have to play a role in my interview process?’ We got a bunch of children from within Merlin, filmed them, and turned it into a 30-second advert that we sent out on LinkedIn. Then the children interviewed the candidates.”

merlin legoland parks

“It was an open brief. I spoke to them, and said, ‘OK, you are going to interview these candidates. What do you want to ask them?’ Rather than the boring, ‘so what are your strengths and weaknesses’, or ‘where do you want to be in five years?’ we had one little girl, Grace, say, ‘I’m going to ask them if they’re on Santa’s good list or naughty list and why.’ That’s the beauty of these little adults.”

Looking at recruitment differently

It came as a shock to some of the candidates, he adds:

“It caught on like wildfire on LinkedIn. The kids did a piece to camera. It was lovely in two parts. Firstly, we looked at recruitment in a very different way. For me, that went back to the LEGO brand marketing DNA, because it was all about how we make those beautiful memories and experiences for families with kids, so kids played a key role.”

Merlin-Entertainments-LEGOLAND

“Secondly, they were the children of Merlin employees. So, there was an internal motivator, too, in terms of being proud about working for an organisation like Merlin.”

This is something else Tailor loves about his job:

“I get a beautiful license to do things like that. Working on brand marketing for LEGOLAND, I can create these types of initiatives. I’ve got a great team, and we do a lot of team things in the spirit of wellbeing.”

Digital comes to LEGOLAND

When LEGO Mythica: World of Mythical Creatures opened to visitors in May 2021, it brought the digital realm to LEGOLAND for the first time.

The decision to incorporate augmented reality into a LEGO brand experience was not one Tailor had taken lightly. He comments:

“We are clear on the role of digital and the role of the physical. We worked with an agency for at least 12 to 18 months before the launch. My challenge then was, how can we fuse the digital with the physical? I didn’t want it to take over it. I didn’t want people in headsets. People come to LEGOLAND parks for a reason, and sometimes that reason is to get away from screens. It had to be done subtly and appropriately.”

lego mythica legoland windsor

“We spent a lot of time, we spoke to experts in the industry. We spent time with our consumers and got some of the kids who were then co-creating ideas to make sure it complemented the overall experience. That was important for me.”

The whole journey: LEGO brand experiences that begin at home

He isn’t interested in creating purely virtual reality brand experiences; there’s a physical element to LEGO which is part of its DNA:

“That’s something completely different. But when children come to our parks and Discovery Centres, this is a way to entice them beforehand. They can create a portal at home, with this app. They can explore the land with mythical creatures before they get to the park. Then, when they’re at the park, they can create selfies with augmented reality unicorns, and so forth.”

Christie Legoland Windsor Mythica Flight of the Sky Lion Flying Theatre

In the event, MYTHICA, which features the UK’s first-ever flying theatre ride, Flight of The Sky Lion, has been a phenomenal success, winning awards including the blooloop Innovation Award 2021. A new immersive experience, The Magical Forest, was added in April 2022.

Tailor says:

“We really thought about the consumer journey. I think that comes back to brand and marketing skills, really thinking about how to create that ‘wow’ moment as they cross the threshold, about the piece of memory they can take away with them and then share, about how to create that bonding time with families.”

Testing is key

In the world of location-based entertainment, execution is important:

“Something can look pretty on a piece of paper. However, if you haven’t thought about the practical steps – the queuing, the amount of space required, then it won’t work. Going back to our augmented reality, we tested, retested, tested and retested to make sure that, under the most extreme conditions, the augmented reality would work.”

lego mythica windsor legoland

“Families spend a lot of time and money to come to our destinations. If it’s not working, they will leave that experience, and it becomes a detractor. Spending a lot of time looking meticulously at function is one of the beauties of Merlin.”

Introducing XCalibre Rising

XCalibre Rising is a revolutionary recruitment pathway. Explaining it, Tailor refers to his own pathway:

“I’m in a privileged role as the global brand director of brand and marketing for LEGOLAND, working for a fantastic company like Merlin Entertainments. If I think about my journey, which involved working for big brands, a certain amount of luck was involved. That vicious circle of having to work to get experience, and needing experience to get a job, is so much worse today than when I was starting, and it was difficult even then. That’s something that irks me.”

Merlin-XCalibre-Rising

“I’m still building my career; I still want to grow and develop, but there’s also a part of me that wants to focus, too, on the contribution I can give to other people, in terms of kickstarting careers. Diversity and inclusion are important too, as a leader, as it is across Merlin.”

Tailor’s early career in local government was characterised by diversity:

“It was because of the sheer types of different services that you would provide to the local community,” he explains. “Often, in an organisation like that, the local community was reflected in the people that you worked with. It was very different to the corporate worlds that I’ve encountered since, where you would often come across the highly educated from the great universities.”

Passion over privilege

Privilege should not be a prerequisite to securing a great role, he feels. Therefore:

“I am working this new programme within Merlin around how we think about people that want to break into marketing: people that are not from a classic university background. It should be about competence, not about qualifications. It’s more about passion than privilege.

“We are thinking about it in terms of the people within Merlin who might be ride operators, but who might have a passion for creativity and building brands, but don’t know how to get into it.”

Staff at Chessington World of Adventures

“I’m thinking about how we can broaden people’s careers. Not because they have a marketing degree or went to university, but because they’ve got a fresh approach, a different way of thinking. They might be a ride operator, or they might be in our quick-service restaurants, but they might have this passion.”

Accordingly:

“Now we’re opening the opportunity for people to come in and experience what it’s like to work for a global brand in the world of branded marketing, from developing TV campaigns through to building creatives for new, innovative rides for our parks and discovery centres.

“It has been a passion for mine for a while.”

LEGO brand experiences: building memories for people in the real world

In terms of focus, the notion of broadening opportunity beyond privilege has always preoccupied Tailor. He says:

“Pre-COVID, I travelled over to Florida to do a competitive visit, went to the parks, and went over to Disney and Universal. My working-class mum said to me, ‘You catch a plane like I catch a bus.’ It made me smile, and realise how lucky I am.

“But we must never forget, in a privileged role like mine, that it’s not normal.”

staff at SEA LIFE admissions

“Merlin is very gracious in terms of how we travel, in ensuring we stay in good hotels if we’re not staying at the park; that we get taxis to and from the airport. That’s not normal, and we’ve got to remember, when we’re building memories for people in the everyday world, the reality of people’s lives.”

Finding the dream teams of the future

XCalibre Rising launched last week and the cohort will start in September.

“We’re getting to a good place with what I was cooking up,” he comments. “The recruitment process will be different. I shan’t be asking for CVs.”

The programme will allow a range of G-E grade staff (usually made up of guest-facing, frontline staff) to gain experience in different areas of Merlin’s global business. This may not have been possible previously without years of experience.”

team member at SEA LIFE London

“It will offer a range of mentoring sessions and business projects which they will present to Merlin’s Executive team in a Dragons Den style format. There will also be a range of masterclass experiences that will see participants travelling to different attractions across the world, with travel and expenses paid.

A mix of practical work and experiential learning, the programme will enable participants to spend three months in a role which will, hopefully, lead to a permanent position. There will be two main specialist areas to choose from, Marketing or Attraction Management, and subject areas will cover personal impact, critical thinking, influencing, leading self/others, commercial savvy, and marketing.

Inclusion is vital

fiona-eastwood-Merlin

The programme has been developed with inclusion at its core. Fiona Eastwood, executive champion for inclusion and diversity at Merlin Entertainments, said of XCalibre Rising:

“We want people from diverse backgrounds at every level of our business. But we recognised that sometimes our personal circumstances don’t allow us the same opportunities to get formal qualifications or really pursue the career of our dreams, and we end up jumping headfirst into a job just to make ends meet.

“All it takes to create a ‘career-like-no-other’ is the right opportunity, and we hope this programme will do just that.

“We know we have talented individuals across all our businesses, and XCalibre Rising provides a world-class fast-track career development programme. It’s aimed at hard-working, passionate, talented people, who deserve a chance, and who haven’t had the same privileges in life afforded to those on graduate schemes or in other blue-chip organisations.”

Giving people a chance

So many people, for a wide range of reasons, find that university isn’t an atmosphere in which they can thrive. That shouldn’t mean they are condemned not to achieve. This project gives them the chance they deserve.

Tailor says:

“My mum worked at Marks and Spencer for all her career and managed to bring up two children by herself. I was lucky. I had those lucky breaks.

“But luck shouldn’t determine whether someone goes into a particular job. My focus is absolutely on my career and my team, but I want to do more. I want to contribute more. And that’s where our programme comes in.”

lego mythica windsor legoland

The approach will be completely different from the conventional recruitment route:

“We have a list of questions we’ll ask, such as. ‘What’s your passion outside of work? What is it that drives you?’ People might send us a video, rather than writing something. We’re approaching this in a very different way.”

He adds:

“I’m getting a lot of energy from it because it’s not just doing a brand job- though I love doing that. I don’t want to describe it so it sounds macro and a bit cheesy, saying something about ‘giving back to society’, but it is about giving people a chance. That’s what we’re working on. That’s what I want to share.”

Merlin puts its money where its mouth is

What is being proposed is, effectively, a meritocracy. Tailor comments:

“With Merlin, if we say we’re going to do something, we do it. Fish [Mark Fisher, Merlin’s chief development officer] has a lot of energy and heart. There is a saying, which is perhaps more applicable in this world than any other, that the only strategy consumers see is execution. In the world of location-based entertainment, that’s so important.

“That’s where we, as a business, really do put our money where our mouth is.”

Share this

Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

More from this author

Search for something

More from this author

Related content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update