Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Liam Brennan: fads, trends and fidget spinners

Liam Brennan, Global Director of Innovation, MediaCom is one of our industry’s preeminent thinkers in innovation and NDA’s monthly columnist.

We should all still be playing with fidget spinners.

Three years ago, these cheap yet addictive plastic toys were being spun by children around the world, handed out as promotional material at conferences and were the subject of thousands of pieces of YouTube content as creators showed off their new tricks.

And then, almost as quickly as they appeared, fidget spinners were out of people’s fidgety hands, and off the shelves of high street retailers.

If one was to observe the ‘Summer of Spinners’ as an isolated moment in time, you may well have believed that that fidget spinners would be the next big thing. Surely a new product with such astronomical growth over a short period would become the must have gadget of the future?

But of course, they didn’t. Like hoverboards, POGs and pet rocks before them, fidget spinners were a fad and a very short lived one at that.

Fads are very different from trends, where new or breakout interests and behaviours grow over the long term, often creating permanent change. Trends tend to take shape over many months or years and are seen across a wider group of the populous. Fads are typically short lived and the result of collective behaviour that develops within a group.

There’s a real danger in mistaking a fad for a trend. Investing financially or strategically into fads rarely pays off and focusing on short term ‘spikes’ of change means you miss the bigger picture. This can lead to both errors in short-term business focus as well as not being able to observe larger ongoing changes happening with both audience and the category.

This is happening right now to brands that are overcorrecting due to observed behavioural change during the COVID outbreak. Many COVID ‘trends’ are just fads, and these new interests and behaviours are often temporary. 

Online shopping is not necessarily growing in popularity because people believe it’s a better experience than going to a store, but rather because people can’t go to these stores.

Audiences are increasingly partaking or watching eSports not because it’s superior to watching or playing sports, it’s because they are not able to do so.

Subscriptions to streaming services such as Netflix and Disney Plus not because of a new love for watching on demand TV. They just want more content.

Consumers are pivoting to ‘digitalised’ versions of existing behaviours largely out of necessity. Whilst it may be tempting for brands to pivot their media, messaging and commerce strategies for the future accordingly, the reality is that the ‘new’ normal may well look a lot like the ‘old’ normal.

We talk a lot about big data, but not enough about long data. Looking at a real time dashboard doesn’t give you the bigger picture view a longer-term case study or tracker does.

Both are methods of observation are important, but placing greater importance on big data over long data can cause you to misread a situation where a brand is growing in a declining category, a stock is rallying with the market rather than off its own merits, or indeed that a COVID breakout behaviour is an indication of something more long term or permanent.

The most effective COVID ‘pivots’ did not necessarily come from brands that allocated the highest proportion of budget to digital media, drove the most transactions through eCommerce, nor those with the most advanced data strategies.

Rather it was the brands that went beyond tactics, new opportunities and channels, and instead had the strongest understanding of the longer-term impact of digitalisation on consumer behaviour and their category ahead of time and pivoted as consumers ‘digitalised’ their day to day activities.

These brands are also the ones that will know just how much to pivot back as we enter the ‘new normal’.

Brands should focus on the things that change, but also things that don’t. Having that balanced viewpoint helps differentiate a fad from a trend, and a fidget spinner movement from a fleeting moment in time.