Fidget spinners — a lesson in branding and tribal buying power?

Author: Sarah Bell, Conran Consultancy

Since fidget spinners exploded into the crowded toy market it appears bestselling toys are not necessarily driven by brands with huge promotional budgets and powerful retail connections. Sales of the small, affordable playground obsession started modestly but rocketed through viral video-sharing websites and word-of-mouth.

Market players with quick reactions will be the winners — ­­­no patents have been registered as yet, making the market a ‘free-for-all’. The toys can be bought at a range of price points from pocket money amounts up to deluxe versions — and the margins are high. Brands tend to engender an expectation of quality but even with the absence of a dominant name, the market is soaring.

Imagine if a non-toy brand could gain this kind of traction so quickly? As Colombia Business School marketing professor, Matt Quint points out in a Financial Times article:

‘When there’s consumer demand, it doesn’t really matter who the suppliers are.’

Shop shortages are still an issue, with stockists struggling to meet the soaring demand, while Amazon’s toy bestseller list continues to be dominated by fidget spinners. The market clearly has a long way to go before it reaches saturation point it would seem.

Toys R Us is planning on marketing the spinners as collectables, stocking licensed, comic book-hero-styled spinners. Not content with just one spinner, children can spend their pocket money on an assortment of products such as glow-in-the-dark, metallic and light-up variations.

So why has the toy gained traction so quickly and could demand be driven in part by the threat that it may be banned in schools (and already is in some) for being too distracting or causing disagreements? Do children see using a toy that has been banned in other schools an act of ‘contained’ rebellion?

In his 1984 bestseller, The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr Robert Cialdini outlines scarcity as a driver to purchasing — desire is based on the future unavailability of something, even if we don’t need it. So the fact that they may be hard to come by, combined with the likelihood of a future school ban, drives desirability.

A stronger principle is Cialdini’s consensus theory — if everyone else has one, then so should you. It’s about being socially accepted, belonging to the tribe — having a type of playground currency.

And the spinners are attractive to parents: inexpensive (so parents are unlikely to say no, at least to the first one); and appealing equally to boys and girls and they keep children occupied.

The digital world is key to growing demand, of course. Countless videos have sprung up on YouTube broadcasting fidget spinner reviews, tutorials, tricks and stunts as children compete in the playground to demonstrate their prowess.

And the products are not just aimed at children — adults are seeking to entertain themselves with the latest stress-buster too.

Time will tell if the global brands will squeeze out the smaller players, but for the moment, it’s an example of how the internet age and pester power combine to deliver a market-changing performance.