Our unbearable need to fidget

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 11, 2018



The craze for fidget spinners reveals big marketing opportunities

The fidget spinner has suddenly become the biggest craze of 2017. For the past several weeks, this small hand-held toy has occupied virtually every spot on Amazon’s top 20 bestseller list for toys. After sweeping the US, it has now successfully spun its way into India – some toy stores in Mumbai are now reporting sales of several hundred fidget spinners each day. The mania has taken off so dramatically that factories in China which made cellphones and phone accessories have totally switched over to making these new toys. And it’s not just kids, many adults are using these toys too, to fidget while at work or during their commute.

What is a fidget spinner ?

This is a small toy, of a three-pronged design, with a circular central pad which has a ball bearing within it. You hold the central pad between your thumb and finger, then use the other hand to get the spinner to rotate. This causes the three blades to spin around, very fast. The momentum created by the spinning creates a pleasant sensation. You can also do other tricks, such as balance it on your thumb as it spins.

What is amazing is that the fidget spinner is making millions of people, both children and adults, very happy. Not just happy, but addicted too. And while doing so, it is also making the marketers of these toys equally happy, as they smile all the way to their banks. And so every marketer who wishes to launch a blockbuster product would like to understand – is this just a passing fad, or is the fidget spinner here to stay ? If it is here to stay, has its success been built on the fundamental marketing premise that any successful product or service should serve a consumer need?

The need to fidget

It turns out that the answer to this question is, unsurprisingly, a firm Yes. Yes, this toy does serve a fundamental human need, which is the need to fidget. So many of us keep fidgeting all the time, when we are at office or at home. When we are in meetings, we fidget by clicking our ballpoint pens from time to time. We mindlessly shake one or both of our legs below the table, which is a sort of fidgeting too.

I have seen many senior executives bend and unbend paper clips endlessly, as they ponder over a tough problem or sit through a somewhat boring meeting. Other items that we use to fidget with, in our offices, include pencils (we bite the tips), rubber bands (that we pull wide, or even snap), mobile phones (removing and reinstalling their back covers), and even smooth glass or stone paperweights (that we rotate or even caress). In fact, as you keep observing, you will notice that people develop an affinity for the object they fidget with.

Perhaps this deep human need to fidget has remained somewhat under-served until now, which is why we have used paper clips and ballpoint pens, which are easily available and loosely serve the purpose, but do not delight. Fidget spinners inject great pleasure into meeting this fundamental need, because they are designed for this very purpose. No wonder they have suddenly become so sought after, and so addictive.

The need to fidget is perhaps far more accentuated in children and adults with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or with high levels of anxiety. But for most of us, it is just another simple way of relieving stress, through mindless, repetitive, harmless physical activity. In other situations, fidgeting helps us focus on what we wish to do. Roland Rotz and Sarah Wright, in their excellent book Fidget to Focus: Outwit your boredom, have highlighted how fidgeting “allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating”, while entertaining those parts of our brain that have become bored. In fact, some studies have shown that fidgeting often enhances our productivity and attention span in meetings, for this very reason.

A goldmine of opportunity

The fidget spinner craze has thrown up a goldmine of opportunity for marketers. An earlier example of a blockbuster product which similarly helped relieve stress and became very popular a couple of years ago is adult colouring books. Here are some other opportunities.

Since many of us spend hours together on our computers every single day, can manufacturers of computers consider some small fidget device mounted on each laptop or desktop computer ? Perhaps a small soft item attached to the keyboard or the mouse, that we can mindlessly twirl or play with ? This can help us pleasantly de-stress, when we are getting stuck on a document or presentation that we are working on.

Can cars (or, indeed Uber or Ola cabs) include fidget devices, for passengers to use when they are stuck in very slow moving traffic – and particularly when they are running late to a meeting and therefore stressed out ?

Can the world of technology provide us customised fidget apps on our mobile phones that will help us happily fidget away on screens which are custom-designed to our requirement ?

Can the strolleys and travel bags provide us some fidget device we can use pleasurably, while waiting endlessly at airports or train stations?

Can some bright marketer think of launching a senior executive version of the fidget spinner itself, given that the current designs are not very amenable to a board room environment?

What other toy or accessory can become a stress-buster for adults, and therefore the next big craze?

These are merely a few startup thoughts, which I hope makes many marketers fidget actively.

At a broader level, the fidget spinner craze has brought alive two other very important aspects for modern marketers to consider. First, just like the need to fidget was under-served until the now-famous spinners made their appearance earlier this year, there may be many other fundamental human needs that continue to be under-served. Identifying such needs early enough, and serving them, are a very good route to blockbuster success. Second, fidget spinners are not made by any major company, and neither have they been advertised on television. Their popularity has spread like wildfire primarily through social media, including user-generated YouTube videos, and through rampant online customer advocacy. Clearly, for all marketers, this is the most effective way forward.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons and author of The Curious Marketer. These are his personal views.

Published on June 29, 2017

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