Cheap Thrills

by Nancy Zwiers | 23 Mar 2023

The Bloom Report

Cheap Thrills

By Nancy Zwiers

In my first year in the toy industry—over 30 years ago(!)—I marveled to a friend: “Making a great toy is easy.  Making a great toy at the right price is really hard.  We literally count pennies!”


If you’re involved in product in the toy business, you are no stranger to cost reduction meetings.  Getting cost-of-goods down to achieve a target gross margin at a strategic price point (e.g. $4.99, $7.99, $9.99, etc.) is half the game. 


Working on Barbie and churning out dozens of advertised skus every year, we developed some solid conventional thinking on how to achieve what we called “cheap thrills.”  Before I talk about these specific cheap thrills, however, I want to go on record with the following contention:  Great design is one of the lowest cost ways to add value to your product—and especially with toys targeted primarily to girls.  You only pay for great design once—it doesn’t show up in COGs so it adds nothing to this key metric.  Bottom-line, never skimp on the quality of designers you work with—in product or packaging. 


Beyond the “great designer” truism, we discovered some predictable ways to enhance product appeal without breaking the bank.  Some are more applicable to girls and some are gender neutral.  Here are a few:


  • You can never have too much sparkle and shine.
    • Glitter, foil, vacuum metallized, et al. are guaranteed to boost appeal. Even when used in small doses, girls will feel attracted.  I remember in focus groups one time, we used concept boards with plenty of glitter on them.  When the moderator left the room for a back room consult, we were flabbergasted to see that all the girls ended up on their hands and knees, picking little specks of glitter out of the carpet.  Point made.  Even a little bit of sparkle can turbocharge appeal--where and how can you add some?


  • Secrets and surprises pack a punch.
    • Including things in the product that can be discovered is universally appealing. In fact, “Exploration & Discovery” is the original, most foundational play pattern.  Why not leverage this to the hilt.  Some of our most successful brands were/are grounded in surprise in large part.  The phrase “Secrets and surprises” was part of Polly Pocket’s reason for being statement.  The Hatchimals product and entire marketing campaign was grounded in “anticipation and surprise.”  LOL launched with great momentum under the tagline “7 Layers of Surprise.”  How can you add the thrill of discovery into your product?


  • Fiddle Factor makes it more fun.
    • Moving parts on a product instantly engages the kid…its almost like an invitation that says, “Play with me!” Fidget toys are a defined segment of the toy category on Amazon for good reason. These toys, like spinners, pop-its, et al. deliver the inherent satisfaction of hands-on manipulation. Part of the massive appeal in the original Polly Pocket products was the liberal use of mechanical hinges that invited satisfying hands-on play.  Makers of male action figures fully leverage the power of articulation.  And let’s face it:  adding even one movable part can add fantastic fiddle factor—try it!


  • A soft touch turbo-charges tactile pleasure.
    • Young children and girls of all ages crave a soft touch. I’ll never forget when Bratz first burst upon the scene in the early 2000’s: MGA added a soft maribou handle to their doll package…it just screamed “Pick me up!”  Most toys outside of plush are plastic and there is nothing inherently appealing about the touch of plastic.  On Barbie playsets, we leveraged this insight to add a whisp of soft goods to the hard plastic toy.  I’ll never forget during holiday gift exchanges with fellow adult women how, when someone opened a gift made of a noticeably soft fabric, everyone insisted those gifts got passed around to give each person the pleasure of touching it…of note, no other gift type warranted the “pass-it-around” treatment. How can you add a twist of tactile pleasure?


Great design and cheap thrills are your friends in the quest for the right toy at the right price!


Nancy Zwiers, former senior executive at Mattel and Spin Master, now serves as a business advisor and executive coach through CMO Coaches. 

Nancy writes a bi-weekly column for the Bloom Report covering topics related to play, professional success, and personal growth.  Check out her other pithy thought-provoking columns of the past two years on her People of Play blog.

Follow Nancy on LinkedIn  or reach out to her at




#toydesign #Barbie #PollyPocket #toyindustry

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!