Mattel Is Counting on Latina Moms This Holiday

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Born in Vienna in 1909, Peter Drucker had a childhood marked in large part by seriousness and sorrow.

As a boy, he was included in the weekly salons that his father and mother held with writers, musicians, economists, mathematicians and physicians. Playtime this was not. Meanwhile, World War I took a terribly heavy toll. Drucker and his friends “taught ourselves to read by scanning the casualty lists and the obituaries with the big black borders, looking for names we knew, names of people we loved and missed,” he later recalled.

Still, the mirth missing in Drucker’s early years wouldn’t have prevented him from admiring the savvy exhibited by the toy maker Mattel as it tries to boost sales this holiday season for its array of brands, including Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. In a bid to influence Latino families (and, in particular, the Latina moms who tend to make their household’s purchasing decisions), the company has launched an advertising campaign called “Toy Feliz,” or “Toy Happy” in English. It is a clever twist on “Estoy feliz”—Spanish for “I’m happy.”

On one level, the move by Mattel is a simple recognition of demographic reality. The number of U.S. Hispanics, which now stands at about 53 million, swelled by 47.5% between 2000 and 2011, a Pew Research study found, accounting for more than half of the nation’s total increase in population over that period.

Wooing a fast-growing group, especially in an industry where overall sales are mostly flat, makes good sense. Of all the external changes that a manager must consider, “demographics—defined as changes in population, its size, age structure, composition, employment, educational status and income—are the clearest,” Drucker wrote. “They are unambiguous. They have the most predictable consequences. . . . Demographics have major impact on what will be bought, by whom, and in what quantities.”

Despite this, many businesses wake up much too late when it comes to addressing population swings. They know these trends are significant, Drucker observed. They claim to pay attention to them. But they don’t actually factor them into “their day-to-day decisions” out of the mistaken belief that “they occur so slowly and over such long time spans as to be of little concern.”

In today’s world, Drucker added, “it is sheer folly to disregard demographics. The basic assumption for our time must be that populations are inherently unstable and subject to sudden sharp changes—and that they are the first environmental factor that a decision maker . . . analyzes and thinks through.”

Yet poring over statistics, as Drucker noted, is merely “the starting point.” The key is “to go out in the field, to look and to listen.”

It is here that Mattel (with the help of the Axis Agency, a multicultural marketing firm) seems to have gotten the message, at least with “Toy Feliz.” In the past, the company tried to win over Latino customers by using straight-ahead translations of English-language advertising. And surely, language is meaningful. Nearly three-quarters of Latinos ages 5 and older speak Spanish at home, according to Pew, and nearly all U.S. Latinos say they want future generations to speak Spanish. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle.

“Cultural intelligence must replace the misguided notion that simply translating English copy into someone’s native language is all you need to do to reach them,” Glenn Llopis, the founder of the Center for Hispanic Leadership, declared earlier this year in Forbes. “Embracing cultural sensitivity has become critically important to the design of new business models . . . and the relationships that brands earn with their consumers. It is not only ethical and the right thing to do; it’s the ‘must-do’ to be domestically and globally competitive.”

Mattel has stumbled in this regard before, especially with Barbie. Although the company has made strides “towards inclusiveness” by adding dolls of color to its signature line, the images connected with most Barbie accessories “remain whiter than the crowd at a Jon Bon Jovi concert,” the New York Observer opined last April. Mattel’s Mexico Barbie, released as part of the company’s “Dolls of the World” collection, also offended some customers, who said it inflamed cultural stereotypes.

But with “Toy Feliz,” Mattel is showing a newfound appreciation for giving Latinos something that every group values greatly: recognition and respect. The thinking was that by reaching out “more directly, more deliberately and more authentically to Latina moms, we could really elevate the business and drive growth,” Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s senior vice president for marketing in North America, told the New York Times.

Indeed, with its approach, Mattel is attempting to make a subtle—but potentially powerful—shift by communicating to Latino families, “These are your products” instead of “These are our products.”

“What consumerism demands of business is that it . . . start out with the needs, the realities, the values of the customer,” Drucker wrote in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. The way he saw it, this is what “marketing” is all about—proceeding from the outside, with what the customer desires. Companies that “sell,” by contrast, begin from the inside, pushing what they’ve produced.

“Selling and marketing are antithetical rather than synonymous or even complimentary,” Drucker explained. Unless you’re truly marketing, you’re just playing games.