|Mattel's new yearlong campaign involves cartoons and live-action features, Web sites, games and DVDs.
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Mattel Battles Sales Slump With Branded Entertainment Offensive
The El Segundo, Calif.-based toymaker has launched a yearlong marketing effort to promote its line of 2005 Hot Wheels AcceleRacers through entertainment.
As part of a deal with Time Warner's Cartoon Network, the campaign includes a four-part series of one-hour animated movies that will air on the cable channel, as well as 16 Internet short films appearing on the network's Web site, alongside downloadable games and other interactive content.
The four films are a much-expanded follow-up to the Hot Wheels' 2003 World Race movie, which also aired on Cartoon Network. They detail the quest of World Race drivers to save Hot Wheels City from the villainous Gelorum and her Racing Drones. The drama escalates as drivers navigate their Hot Wheels vehicles through the tumultuous driving conditions of 100 different "realms."
Once a film airs on Cartoon Network, a quick distribution on DVD and VHS follows through Warner Home Video weeks later.
Mattel's in-house branded entertainment chief, Steve Ross, calls the plans for Hot Wheels the "most ambitious effort we've done to date on one of our properties."
'Speed, power and performance'
"We wanted to create an entertainment experience that accentuated the brand values: speed, power and performance," said Mr. Ross, senior vice president for entertainment and business development. "That’s the mandate, from the look, feel and style of the animation to the tonality and music we use. We tried to make it pulsate, really fast and edgy."
The key to keeping the attention of the target audience -- boys ages 6 to 11 -- in between films is offering fresh content every week, Mr. Ross
|Downloadable digital games are a major element of the new Mattel branded entertainment offerings.
An AcceleRacers mini Web site, supported by hotwheels.com and cartoonnetwork.com, hosts the 16 one-minute Webisodes, plus online games, background on race teams, characters and cars and downloadable screen savers and wallpapers. Mattel has also added to the AcceleRacers packaging codes, which children can use to unlock additional content within the site.
Decline in Hot Wheels sales
Sales of the 37-year-old Hot Wheels brand have been cooling off in recent years. Mattel has yet to release its 2004 annual report, but in 2003 the company reported domestic sales of Hot Wheels were down 7%. (In 2004, the toy industry as a whole was down 3%, according to NPD FunWorld).
One of Mattel's strategies for staying atop the declining market is to create content around its brands. The company has been doing that for years with its Barbie business, but until now most of the content has materialized online and in DVDs. (Though the marketer has had success airing several Barbie-themed movies on Nickelodeon after their DVD launch.)
This time, TV will be the primary launching pad for Hot Wheels' foray into entertainment. "The immersive nature of TV allowed us to tell a bigger story over a longer amount of time," Mr. Ross said. Plus, "we go to the places that kids are."
Columbia Pictures live action film
A live-action film, based on the Hot Wheels brand, is in development at Sony's Columbia Pictures that Charlie's Angels helmer McG will direct. But that project is separate from what Mattel is currently creating with Cartoon Network.
The Cartoon Network provided the right arena for Hot Wheels, Mr. Ross said, because of its popularity among boys. The AcceleRacers movies premiere just before the network's popular Toonami block, a Saturday night action block targeting boys. "It’s a sweet spot for us as we’re trying to age up Hot Wheels a bit more and be more aspirational," he said.
The deal was a low-risk venture for Cartoon Network. Mattel bore the production cost of the films, which it contracted to animation production shop Mainframe Entertainment, and then sold the licensing rights to the cable network and bartered some of the promotional consideration. Additionally, it provided the network with an opportunity to try out a new format for client-driven programming, which had previously been packaged within a daily or weekly series.
Client-driven programming philosophy
"We wanted to approach client-driven programming in a different way," said Bob Higgins, senior vice president of programming and development for Cartoon Network. "We’ve been trying to figure out how to go about it aside from a daily scripted series. Can we create big tent-pole events?"
Early projections look good. The first film, AcceleRacers: Ignition, which aired on Jan. 8, snared a 4.0 rating for boys 6 to 11, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s a 67% jump from the time slot average. The film airs with multiple repeats. It’s followed by AcceleRacers: The Speed of Silence on March 19 and The Challenge and The Ultimate Race after that.
The key to a successful client-driven series from a programming standpoint is for the show to stand on its own, Mr. Higgins said. Other product-based shows on Cartoon Network include The Transformers, which feature the changeable action figures from Mattel's rival Hasbro, and Dual Masters, based on a trading-card game from Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary.
"The product can be a major draw, but if you’re relying on the idea that kids who like the toy will automatically like the show, it won’t work," Mr. Higgins said.
Mr. Ross views the Cartoon Network deal as a test case for other Mattel brands. The key, he said, is "if Cartoon Network continues to see opportunities and if we continue to see a product response at retail. After all, we are a toy company."