Hot Wheels at Mattel: Reinventing the Wheel
In 2017, Chris Down, Global Brand General Manager for Hot Wheels, and his team from the Advanced Play Group within Mattel, Inc., were considering which innovation path to pursue in order to "future proof" the Hot Wheels franchise going forward. Hot Wheels was the number one selling toy in the world (by unit volume), however, play patterns among children were rapidly changing and children were moving on from physical toys to digital play at a younger and younger age. Hot Wheels needed to determine how to respond. One option considered was the development of a new "mixed-play" product that blended physical and digital play. While the mixed play idea was still at an early conceptual stage, it would likely involve embedding a chip into the Hot Wheels die-cast car, turning it into a "smart car" with its own unique identification. Users could play with the smart car in the physical world and on an app, thus offering an opportunity to also appeal to Hot Wheels consumers who were intrigued by digital play. Hot Wheels had made a number of forays into the digital space over the years, through licensing the brand to app and game developers and developing toys with some digital elements. The licensing strategy was low risk, low reward, and Mattel's own digital development had produced varied results, creating a culture hesitant to take big risks in the digital space. Down knew that a mixed play innovation would require a significant investment in time and resources. However, Hot Wheels parent company, Mattel Inc. had seen revenues and operating income drop for the past three years. It was unclear if Mattel's new CEO, Margo Georgiadis, would be supportive of the mixed play direction as the cornerstone of Hot Wheels' growth plan. With Hot Wheels' 50th anniversary coming up in 2018, Down had to decide whether his team should push for an out-of-the-norm investment in this new mixed play idea or should Hot Wheels focus its time and resources on physical toys, developing a special collection of die-cast cars for the 50th anniversary? Alternatively, should Hot Wheels meet the age compression challenge head on by considerably expanding its pure digital initiatives?