Friday, December 6, 2013
By MATT TOWNSEND/Bloomberg News
NEW YORK — Earlier this month, influential mommy bloggers gathered in a penthouse suite at Manhattan's Royalton Hotel for a brunch of bloody marys, mimosas and a buffet. Their host was Matt Petersen, a Mattel Inc. vice president who runs its North American boys' toys and games division. In town for a toy fair, Petersen had invited the women to discuss one of the great mysteries of modern life: why moms don't know how to play Hot Wheels with their sons.
Hot Wheels kicks off its 40th anniversary with an unveiling of a diamond-encrusted car at the New York Toy Fair in a Feb.15, 2008, file photo. Mattel is looking for ways to reinvigorate big brands like Hot Wheels that generates about 15 percent of its total sales.
2008 File Photo/The Associated Press
For Mattel executives, pondering such questions is far from a trivial marketing exercise. The world's largest toymaker pulls in more than $1 billion a year from sales of its iconic toy car brands, including its Big Three – Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and Tyco R/C products. The more Mattel executives understand the disconnect between moms and their sons when it comes to these tiny vehicles, the better shot they have of bridging that divide and selling more toy cars.
"By talking to Mom, we're extending the conversation to the actual purchaser," Petersen says. "I know it sounds so silly. It's kind of like 'Why didn't you do that forever ago?' "
Understanding boys' play patterns is not a problem mothers have with Mattel's Batman or Buzz Lightyear action figures because those are essentially dolls. Building blocks are easy to understand, too, as a good way to spur a child's creativity. Toy cars? Not so much, especially when boys crash them into each other or hurl them across the room.
Mom "has never played with them," Petersen says. "She doesn't get why cars, engines, and all the shapes and crashing and smashing are so cool."
Sales of Mattel's three big car brands declined 1 percent in the fourth quarter. And Hot Wheels, the company's biggest boys' business, hasn't seen growth in the United States for three years. With growth of traditional toys stalling, especially in the U.S., as more children turn to mobile devices for play, Mattel will have to find ways to reinvigorate big brands like Hot Wheels, which generates about 15 percent of its total sales.
Until recently, toymakers could count on television ads to generate enough "pester power" – kids cajoling parents into buying them a toy – to drive sales. Yet in an age of video game consoles and tablets, the effectiveness of TV commercials has waned, leaving toymakers hustling to find new ways to connect.
Moms, not dads, buy the overwhelming majority of toys, so selling mothers on the benefits of the boy-car connection is key to stopping the slump, according to Petersen.
"Having this conversation could be what takes the brand to the next level," he said.
At the brunch, moms and executives sat at a long table with a Hot Wheels racetrack running down the middle. First, the mothers clipped pictures and words from magazines and made a scrapbook page that reflected their family life and got them talking about their kids. The ensuing discussion ranged from how playing with Hot Wheels can help develop hand-eye coordination to what it would be like to ride in a race car.
Raijean Stroud, a 32-year-old mother from Chicago who attended the breakfast, said she wants to better understand her 4-year-old son's love of cars and why he often bathes with a couple dozen of them.
"I'm a girly girl," Stroud said. "So it's kind of hard to understand how these little plastic machines can be so much fun, versus a Barbie that you can change her clothes, cut her hair and do whatever you want."
Another attendee, Nancy Johnson Horn of Queens, N.Y., said she also doesn't understand a lot of what her two sons do with their toys. But she's willing to learn and would buy more from a company that can help close that gap.
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