From Cabbage Patch To Wii: The 3 Secrets Behind Christmas Crazes

The products that inspire people to stampede down retail aisles have three things in common. Continuum’s Kevin Young reveals what they are.

Close your eyes. Think about the best gift you ever received. The gift that made you involuntarily jump out of your chair and give the gift giver an enormous holiday hug. Chances are, the gift wasn’t something that you asked for or even needed. The best gifts are those that are unexpected and fulfill some unarticulated desire. You might not have even realized you wanted it until you received it.

Creating these kind of moments is the goal of countless companies, who work year-round to create the next holiday hit—the Tickle Me Elmo or Kindle that will fly off the shelves in December. Many try, but few succeed. So how do you do it? How do you come up with exciting new products that are destined to become the icons of the holiday season or even a generation—resulting in both millions of happy people and millions of dollars?

As head of the product design group at the global design and innovation consultancy Continuum, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to design products that make people jump out of their chairs. The key, in my view, is to find the intersection of people’s rational needs and subconscious desires, and unexpected outcomes. Finding this rather elusive sweet spot has the power to create compelling product ideas that are destined to become a consumer success for the holidays. But you must deliver on all three:

1. Rational Needs

We all require products and services that will make our work life and personal life run smoothly. Successful product solutions—and ultimately gifts—address these needs. These are the fundamental, baseline requirements for products to do their job effectively and fit into our lives. For example, think of receiving a car navigation system such as Garmin or a digital camera as a holiday gift. They fulfill the practical and rational need of finding your way when you are lost and recording the moments of your life. However, they don’t deliver on our highly emotional needs and therefore probably won’t have you jumping out of your chair. To create a gift that someone will love, addressing rational needs isn’t enough . . .

2. Subconscious Desires

Thanks to the complexity of our brains, we have hidden needs and desires that we’re often not consciously aware of. These latent desires help create the emotional connection that we have with products. And a well-designed product strategically taps into these needs to elicit the desired response from the consumer. Take the Cabbage Patch doll: All little girls want to be mothers like their moms—and this doll hit on all of those cues. Cabbage Patch Kids come with a story and background—born in a secret cabbage patch, they live in a place called BabyLand General until someone "adopts" them—and even come with a birth certificate! They address the emotional and subconscious needs that little girls inherently have.

Or consider a gift such as the first two-wheeled bicycle that you received as a child. Remember how excited you were? This served the rational need of helping you learn how to ride a bike and later provided short-distance transportation. However, what made it such a thrilling gift was that it tapped into the subconscious desires for independence, freedom, and becoming more grown-up. Product researchers and designers make strategic efforts to mine your subconscious with the goal of achieving this type of strong emotional connection to products.

So we’ve now delivered on rational needs and augmented that by tapping into your subconscious desires. But there’s one last step to ensuring gift-giving success . . .

3. Unexpected Outcomes

This is the X-Factor, the unexpected surprise that can blow away the gift recipient. It goes beyond rational or subconscious needs to offer something that even your subconscious didn’t know existed. This is the trifecta of product creation and gift giving—and it’s honestly very difficult to achieve. Consider a mega-hit like the original Furby in the early ’90s. It fulfilled logical/rational needs of entertainment for a child. It also fulfilled a subconscious desire of wanting to care for a pet. But what made it an enormous hit: It had personality and was like a living being in your home. A stuffed animal that could respond to voice commands and would even learn from you, Furby was an instant hit because it was so unexpected and had never been seen before.

Or think about the first time you used a Wii. You were able to do something that had never been possible—wirelessly interact with a game on your television. You simply used the same motions you would normally use to bowl, hit a tennis ball, or swing a bat and your character was magically on the TV mimicking your actions. It was also incredibly intuitive and easy to use—making it attractive to a wide range of people. The Wii offered an experience that was entirely novel. It was a huge hit upon its release, and six years later it continues to be a popular gift item.

As these holiday hits show, when creating products or services, your goal should be to find ways to leverage all three of these factors. In the world of product design and development, it’s a daunting challenge. But I believe that by deeply understanding consumers and following this approach, companies can dramatically increase their odds on delivering huge, involuntary holiday hugs.

[Image: Ribbon via Shutterstock]

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  • Charles Ranier

    my parents stopped buying me dolls when they kept showing up decapitated. From then on it was Legos, Lincoln Logs and jigsaw puzzles.


  • Kay

    The best holiday gift I ever received was a complete box set of the "Little House on the Prairie" books when I was 5 or 6. Still have them to this day. I got years of pleasue from reading/rereading them.

  • Rachel Nabors

    Wow. I've said it before: gender bias is pernicious in media because of the blind ignorance of designers, brand managers, and copy writers. For every gross generalization, for every boob shot, for every "pink it and shrink it" product, there's a person on the other end just like Kevin who simply isn't thinking about the impact of their decisions... and a company just like Fast Co giving their silent approval.

    Step up, guys. Don't be a part of the problem.

  • Anonymous

    I'm with Hilary. I'm surprised to hear that kind of gross gender generalization from a principal at a design firm. I'm not sure Kevin has any idea of why the Cabbage Patch doll became a huge holiday must-have. This article is just fluff, and not particularly well-researched fluff at that. Too bad. The topic is pretty interesting.

  • Hilary Hayes

    Wow. I was actually really into this article until the "All little girls want to be mothers like their moms" bit. That's too bad, makes you sounds very out of touch. Kevin, Fastco., you really missed the mark with this one. 

  • Jackie

    Huh - I guess I've actually been a man all my life, since "all" girls want dolls.

  • Financial Black Sheep

    HA!  I was just thinking the same thing.  I played with Legos growing up, so I guess that makes me a boy?!???  My parents thought I needed dolls too, until they finally gave in and actually saved a bunch of money.  I am writing about this same thing on my blog.

  • D Vanliere

    The one thing you are missing, especially in the examples you refer to, is the "Peer Pressure" factor..."I want to be like Mike." - or at least, have what Mike has.  That is often the biggest factor in product success - I want it because everyone else wants it - therefore, it must be good!  That trumps Rational Needs and Unexpected Outcomes, and is the King or Queen of Subconcious Desires!