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 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.
For Mattel executives, pondering such questions is far from a trivial marketing exercise. The company, 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 are extending out 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 U.S. for three years. Until recently, television ads could be counted on to generate enough “pester power”—kids cajoling parents into buying them a toy—to drive sales. Yet in this 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. Explains Petersen: “Having this conversation could be what takes the brand to the next level.”
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. A discussion ensued that ranged from how playing with Hot Wheels can help develop hand-eye coordination to what it would be like to ride in an actual race car. Now Raijean Stroud, a 32-year-old mother from Chicago who attended the breakfast, says 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 says. “So it’s kind of hard to understand how these little plastic machines can be so much fun, vs. 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., says 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. “If a mom understands how a toy works and what the benefits are, she’s going to go for that brand over a brand that isn’t doing that,” she says.
Lawrence Balter, a child psychologist who writes parenting books, says Mattel might be onto something. “There’s always a little puzzlement on the part of mothers about what their sons find so interesting in some of the toys they choose,” says Balter. Then again, moms might also think the whole idea is absurd, Petersen says, and that wouldn’t be such a bad outcome either. “If a debate breaks out around the value of this toy, that is really good for Mattel and very good for Hot Wheels,” he says.
Besides reaching out to mothers through bloggers and social media, Mattel is planning to dedicate part of the Hot Wheels website to them. Content may include the benefits of vehicles, tips on playing with cars and using them to teach science and math, and a forum for moms of sons. Traditional advertising may eventually include messages to mothers. The toymaker plans to make shopping for Hot Wheels easier at retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart Stores, where signs and posters will explain categories within the brand organized by themes such as stunt, showroom, and city. Mattel is also creating a mobile shopping app that can track which Hot Wheel a kid already owns and offer mothers recommendations for new ones.
Petersen says a mom campaign worked last year with a hit Mattel toy called Brawlin’ Buddies—a stuffed animal that talks trash when wrestled with. The toy is sold under a license from World Wrestling Entertainment, a brand many moms dislike for its violence. But when Mattel started selling Brawlin’ Buddies as a way for boys to expend energy rather than taking it out on a younger sibling, moms saw an opportunity, and sales surged.