The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

How Consumer Psychology Created the Zhu Zhu Hamster Craze

How emotion trumped budgets in the name of the hamster

It may seem like crazy luck but there's a lot of deep psychology behind the funky little techno hamster that's captured the attention and dollars of American shoppers.

Zhu Zhu Pet Hamsters, introduced for $10, are selling for over $30 on Amazon and bidders have been scoring "Mr. Squiggles" and "Num Nums" for four times the list price on eBay. Hamster cars and blankets are also zooming out the door. Cepia LLC, the St. Louis company that created the hamsters, is anticipating $100 million in sales by the end of the year.

So why did the Zhu Zhu Hamster break out this year and not "Lulu My Cuddlin Kitty Cat" or "Hamusuta the Happy Hamster?" Partly because of the nuances of the product itself, but also because the way it has been marketed is perfectly aligned with the psychology of today's consumer. Lastly, there's nothing like a sell out to fuel demand. Here's how psychology came into play.

Endearing and Humanized

Like its toy craze predecessors, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, the Zhu Zhu hamster has mastered that perfect anthropomorphic mix that ignites imagination and creates emotion and connection. The Zhu Zhu hamster clan is represented by humanized cartoon characters on the package that wave and smile. There are four characters each with a different name and "personalty." And their modes of operation aren't described as "still" and "active" but instead "loving" and "explore."

In contrast, Hamusuta looks like - well, simply a hamster. He can run on a wheel, again just like a hamster. Zhu Zhu hamsters live it up with cars and funhouses and make an array of chirping, beeping and even mooing sounds. It wouldn't be much fun to dress up Hamusuta but "Pipsqueek" and the other Zhu Zhu hamsters have inspired custom wardrobe lines from ambitious eBay sellers.

In other words they're humanized with just enough flair to inspire imagination.

Aligned with 2009

A touch of technology makes this relatively simple toy seem modern and more relevant to today's youngsters. A price tag of $10 is in line with bargain hungry shoppers. And the success of a small company with a big idea is a notion that resonates with Americans - today more than ever.

PR and Social Media

In addition to traditional television advertising aimed at kids, Cepia launched an impressive public relations campaign that included events and giveaways at hospitals, zoos and seven major league ballgames. They sponsored 300 in-home hamster parties where "influential mommy bloggers" received hamsters, habitrails, games and a "hamster crunch" recipe. They had a Twitter party that generated more than 9,000 tweets. And they inspired bloggers - thousands of them. The home-grown, personal communication of bloggers is like a grown-up version of word-of-mouth - it feels like a trustworthy recommendation and inspires action in a way that advertising can't. Advertising certainly created interest, especially in kids; and recognition and credibility in their parents, but social media drove desire. Personal recommendations are more powerful than corporate messages as consumers increasingly trust each other more than businesses.

The Ultimate Inspiration

It's easy to see why kids would want Zhu Zhu Hamster. It's safe to say they would have been a hot item no matter what. But not this hot. Sell-outs are responsible for much of their success. First of all because they inspire media attention, which means whole new audiences of potential admirers and constant reminders of their allure. But also because sell outs tap into deep psychological needs.

Sell-outs and scarcity fuel desire and motivate consumers in three ways. The product itself is elevated by the fact that "everyone" seems to want one - shoppers are assured of its value through the supposed wisdom of the crowds. Secondly, competitive spirits are aroused and scoring a hot item feels more like winning than spending. And then there's the pack mentality fueled by the fear of missing out. In each scenario emotions are more prominent than a rational desire for the object itself.

The Zhu Zhu Hamster is this year's Christmas trifecta - an emotion-inspiring product, pitch perfect communication and a sell-out inspired frenzy. They won't be next year's though - look for a backlash when the mist clears.

 

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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