On its 50th birthday, Hot Wheels helps kids embrace challenges through play

A Q+A with Chris Down, Hot Wheels senior vice president and global brand general manager

Chris Down remembers being a kid and packing up his Hot Wheels cars, taking them to the playground and spending hours on the ground racing them with his friends. Together, he and his cars were invincible, crashing through obstacles and navigating complex curves. And when one trick didn’t work, he’d try a different approach.

Now, as the brand lead for Hot Wheels, Down’s mission — and the brand’s reinvigorated approach for helping kids develop life skills — is to remind parents that the little car is more than just a toy.

Down is a true believer in the benefits of navigating challenges and how those moments can help shape young children into confident, problem-solving adults. As a parent, he sees value in the way playing with toy cars promotes imagination while at the same time teaching kids to take on anything.

During this banner year, he reflects on the brand’s 50th birthday, the “Hot Wheels Legends Tour,” and why those cars inspire children of all genders to push the limits of possibility.

Q: Hot Wheels is having a historic anniversary. What does this mean for the brand?

A: We’re 50 years old and it could be perceived as a negative. People may say, “It’s an old brand, what have you done lately?” But we’ve leveraged the fact that we are a heritage brand, showing the kind of freshness and newness of our product portfolio, and establishing why play is in fact beneficial to kids. It’s resulted in 2018 as the most successful in our 50-year history. It’s currently the .

But more than that, it’s been an opportunity for us to benefit from the multigenerational appeal of the brand. People like me and you grew up with it and have fond memories. There’s a connection point between parents and children. So, we’ve been staging multigenerational events, like the “Hot Wheels Legends Tour,” a life-sized car show across 15 cities in the United States. It was an extravaganza that drew more than 45,000 people – families, men, women, kids. It was like showing up to Disneyland. It was a moment for us to engage the authentic automotive enthusiast world, as well as the enthusiasts of Hot Wheels. We encouraged people to bring their custom builds to this car show, and ultimately we chose one to be made into a Hot Wheels toy for 2019.

The more that we encourage our kids to embrace the growth mindset, embrace challenge, the better off they are in life, not just play. – Chris Down

Q: How did you arrive on the idea that inspiring kids to embrace challenges could be a Hot Wheels “brand purpose”?

A: If you think of the origin story, even the very beginning of Hot Wheels, it was a toy that was designed to perform. And wherever you have performance, you have challenge. It’s like, try, try again. You set up your track and the first time it’s almost guaranteed not to work. But you make adjustments and do some fine tuning. You experiment a little bit and you try again. And maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work. But when it does work, you move on to the next challenge.

So, the idea that we’re a challenger brand came naturally. Challenge is a play value that’s not defined by gender. Challenge is something that is open to everyone – everybody experiences it. And frankly, the more that we encourage our kids to embrace the growth mindset, embrace challenge, the better off they are in life, not just play.

Q: How else is Hot Wheels expressing the idea of purpose and especially embracing the challenger spirit?

A: We’re representing it across the entire brand at every touch point from marketing to public relations to packaging. We kicked off a commercial about a year ago and have played it throughout 2018. We aired it on network television after “American Ninja Warrior” and similar shows, which are challenge-oriented programs, because we know there’s co-viewing going on with parents and kids. Our packaging contains messages that directly tie play patterns to certain benefits from each product – like sportsmanship or boosting confidence or creativity or problem solving. We’re decoding those benefits directly for mom. And we’ve also connected the dots all the way through to our website.

Q: What’s the goal of the commercial and how are people receiving it?

A: You see a mom and son taking on a series of challenges in a real car. We wanted to create connections between kids and parents. This is a growth-mindset brand. We’re going into the imagination of the child’s head as they’re driving on the real street. But obviously, it was all anchored in a real play experience on the floor.

Also, as much as there’s a natural connection between dads and sons, we also love that Mom knows about Hot Wheels and she understands play. Putting her on the floor with her son in a play situation is not necessarily an everyday occurrence, but it’s establishing this shared experience between a young boy and his mom. And then, putting her in the driver’s seat of an imagination-directed experience where that son is empowered as a guide, that kind of unexpectedness also allows us to talk about challenge.

Q: What has it been like to be a part of this brand and leading the charge on its latest evolution?

A: It’s been a huge thrill and absolutely an honor for me. I even still have some of my old cars. It’s the reason that I got into cars, and now I’m a car guy. It is a legacy brand, and now I’m handing that down to my two young daughters, who are also Hot Wheels girls. It means a lot. I also love that in our 50th year, we are underscoring the purposeful value of playing with these toys. It creates an even deeper meaning for both parents and kids.

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