For the past 25 years, parents have known Learning Resources as the company that makes those toy cash registers. And in today’s work-at-home world, parents may know it as one of the companies helping to keep the family sane. But Learning Resources says that above all, its mission is simple: to help parents help kids love to learn.
And that mission has never been more relevant. The COVID-19 crisis has sent parents home from work and kids home from school, presenting potential tension for the family and creating an opportunity for the company. The firm’s mix of high-touch learning and educational materials and toys, which target kids ranging from toddlers through pre-school age, has won a solid following among teachers, homeschoolers and parents for 35 years.
In addition to selling through its website, Learning Resources is one of the top educational brands on Amazon. But as it became evident that the COVID-19 crisis would change the world, the company crafted a decidedly unpredictable strategy. It could have focused on blowing its products into every home in America through massive spending, but instead, it took a more subtle course. Content, as much as product, is near and dear to the brand’s heart – and that is where it put its focus during the crisis.
The company’s blog explains its approach, which is advisory rather than promotional. For example, they posted this activity for Financial Literacy Month: “The road to financial literacy begins with the basics: money recognition! For this lesson, gather as many different examples of your chosen currency as you can find around the house and set it out on the table. With your kids, identify each coin and bill by name, as well as monetary value. If you’re in the mood for history, you can even explain the stories behind the people and landmarks that appear on your money!”
It’s that advisory approach that led CMO Marie LaPlante to take an unconventional approach to the crisis: She stopped all her marketing efforts, and instead put all of the marketing staff on content development. She took the product teams off product development and had them start developing bonus content. The result was more than 2,500 activities for parents and teachers related to the company’s skill sets, from coloring to numbers worksheets to mini-science experiments. All of them were made available for free on the company’s website.
“We’re very inspired by the whole Montessori school approach, in which you learn by doing, so we’re just bringing that hand-to-mind kind of connection to the learning space,” she said. “Young kids learn best that way – by doing it themselves and not just swiping mindlessly through a screen or having an electronic toy talk to them. Those other activities may have merit, but it’s not active learning, it’s passive learning, and they just don’t learn as well that way.”
Learning Resources’ sales have risen substantially during the crisis, though LaPlante wouldn’t share specific numbers. The company has also added a charity component. Along with its two sister companies, Educational Insights and hand2mind, it has partnered with the Kids In Need Foundation, donating $350,000 worth of educational toys and resources to support its mission of helping underserved children.
Like any CMO, LaPlante is happy that sales are up, but she also wants to plan for the rest of the year – and she realizes that planning during a pandemic may be impossible.
“You make lots of plans, and they’re all contingencies so far,” she noted. “Right now, we have a set of plans if schools stay closed, and a set of plans if they open. If schools go back in the fall, we’re going to do a big back-to-school campaign, and if they don’t, we’re going to lean more into content. We’re pulling some of our money forward right now while people are still buying. We’re just trying to be as flexible as possible.”
LaPlante does see parents changing as a result of the crisis.
“I feel like parents going through this will understand that you have to put some thought into how you’re spending your money,” she says. “What kinds of toys are you buying? Why wouldn’t you buy something that can teach your children while entertaining them? Why not buy from a company that’s going to help you continue to use that same toy instead of just pushing another one on you? We always have an activity guide in every single product, with lots of different ways to use the toy.”