Happiness. Everyone wants it. Everyone's talking about it.
Just the other week "measuring happiness as a way to indicate economic prosperity" was listed as one of 5 top predictions to watch out for in 2010.
I like happiness. And I want to make people happy. Recently, though, it's become fashionable to knock marketing for making people unhappy - for trapping them on the "hedonic treadmill." And that makes me sad. Because that's my job.
Thinking about it, though. I realised that wasn't my job. My job was quite the opposite. The best marketing can and does make people genuinely happy. That's the kind of marketing I want to make and the kind I want you to do too.
So, when I was asked to write an essay about "people and brands" as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma, this is what I wrote. Have a read, let me know what you think and then let's see if we can't make this new year a whole lot happier than the last.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
By Matt Sadler.
Troubling times in the age of happiness
In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded that the purpose of life was happiness (de Chenecey, 2005). It’s taken a couple of thousand years for this idea to take hold in Britain but all of a sudden happiness has become a major issue, championed by psychology, parliament and the media alike (Keegan, 2007). The question on everyone’s lips is why, despite average incomes doubling, our society is no happier than it was 50 years ago (Layard, 2005).
This question strikes at the very heart of consumer society. Dr Sheila Keegan (2007) talks of “a growing acknowledgement that we are finally recognising the price we have paid for consumerism and the desperate race for material gain”. Professor Richard Layard (2005) blames advertising for spreading discontent amongst the population. Marketing is under attack and I believe that it’s time for brands to come out fighting. I believe that great brands can and do make people happier and that there is much more that brands can do to contribute to society’s pursuit of happiness. This paper sets out to explore the properties and causes of happiness with the ultimate aim of discovering what marketing can do to help create truly happy customers.
What is happiness?
Happiness is defined as a state of wellbeing characterised by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy (Hoggard, 2005):
Fig 1. The two dimensions of feeling (Layard, 2005)
In biological terms, happiness is a steering mechanism developed by nature to guide us in the choices we make. We are genetically programmed to seek things out things that make us happy and avoid those that make us sad, as our subconscious mind guides us towards the choices that it believes will help us pass on our genes (Evans, 2001).
In marketing terms, happiness is the ultimate “end benefit.” Whilst happiness is sought for its own sake, every other goal – be it health, beauty, wealth or fame – is valued only because we expect it to bring us happiness (Layard, 2005). In this way, under Levitt’s (1960) dictum that marketing must focus on the needs of the consumer, understanding the causes of happiness is essential for our business.
The secrets of happiness
Layard (2005) states that “happiness comes from without and within.” Whilst our genes and upbringing influence about 50% of the variation in our personal happiness, our circumstances (income and environment) affect only about 10% - with the remaining 40% decided by our outlook and activities, including our relationships, friendships and jobs, our engagement in the community and our involvement in sports or hobbies. Thus, whilst each of us has a fixed base level of happiness, an awful lot can potentially be worked on by brands.
Before we get too carried away, however, it’s worth noting that, generally speaking, material goods do a poor job of making us happy. This is firstly because our in-built habit for social comparison means our norms rise to match those around us and secondly because we are designed to need more and more of a good experience if happiness is to be sustained - hence the fact that our happiness has not increased with our prosperity (Layard, 2005).
So what does make us truly happy? And how can brands contribute? Professor Martin Seligman (2003), who founded the field of “positive psychology”, has identified three distinct components of happiness:
1. The pleasant life (the emotional sensation of feeling good in the here and now through the savouring of sensory experiences)
2. The good life (enjoyment of day-to-day living through engagement with family, friends, work, romance and hobbies plus freedom from pain and anxiety)
3. The meaningful life (a feeling of fulfilment gained through the service of something bigger than yourself, such as politics, religion or community action)
I believe that brands can contribute at all of these levels and in the following section I am going to explore how, applying my thinking to brands that I work on throughout.
1. Treasure the pleasure
Brands are, of course, perfectly placed to provide sensory experiences of many kinds – be it a glass of Jacob’s Creek wine, a stay at a Malmaison hotel, a trip to the Carling Weekend or just a really great ad. The idea that brand owners should see themselves as “experience providers” is well established (Pine & Gilmour, 1999) - and happiness experts agree that experiences make you far happier than mere purchases, because of the way they stimulate the senses and thus our emotions (Hoggard, 2005). In this way, brand owners can also think of themselves as providing “sensory pick-me-ups” – and just thinking about how to excite all five senses can pose some interesting thoughts for brands. Weight Watchers could play relaxing music in meetings to soothe stressed slimmers coming from work. Boxes of Finish dishwasher tablets could be fragranced, so a scent of freshness is released upon opening. Evian bottles could be made even more tactile, using textures and contours.
2. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
Unfortunately, however, the happiness derived from pleasure is short-lived. If brands are to offer longer-term happiness they need to look further up the ladder. The second level of happiness is about helping people to connect with each other, feel engaged with the activities they do and minimising their stress.
Psychologists agree that above all our happiness depends on the quality of our relationships with other people (Layard, 2005; Hoggard, 2005). Thus brands that have a social element to them really do have the power to make people happier. MySpace and YouTube have both shot to success on the back of their ability to develop relationships and build communities. In this way, the real happiness value of the recent Cadbury’s gorilla advert (which states “making you smile” as its raison d’être (Cadbury, 2007)), is not in the pleasure of the film itself but in its status as social currency – being talked about, shared, remixed and spoofed by and between people.
I believe that brand owners can do much to increase the social utility of brands. Weight Watchers could improve the community side of their online service to make it a social networking site for dieters, or encourage debate around the obesity and size zero issues – aiming to give people something to talk about, rather than just telling them about itself. Yakult could produce educational wall charts about the digestive system that parents could use to bond with their children. What it comes back down to for brand owners is thinking in terms of people who care about their communities, rather than consumers who want to purchase products.
When it comes to achieving happiness through our daily activities, brands have long played an important role in helping people to follow their passions – be it Nike for sport lovers, Harley Davidson for motorcycle enthusiasts or Linux for computer programmers. Whilst not all brands can be involved in areas of life that people traditionally think of as “passions”, research shows that feeling truly engaged in any activity has been proven to generate a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction, achieved through a process called “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Flow describes any experience in which you become so absorbed that you “lose yourself.” The great thing about flow is that it can be encouraged by utilising personal strengths and transforming activities into games with goals and rules. This transformation of “work” into “play” was the genius of Weedol’s “no mercy” campaign (Huzzey, 2003).
I believe that there is much that brands can do to improve happiness levels by encouraging flow. The household cleaning products made by our Reckitt Benckiser client, for example, are associated with normally tedious tasks. With a little reframing, however, cleaning the house could be transformed into a game to be enjoyed by the family. Any product with a name like “Cillit Bang” was surely destined to be treated like a toy, after all? Why not give people cleaning challenges on pack, make the packaging more water-pistol-like, or even give away free CDs of “Now that’s what I call great pop songs to clean your house to” and help turn a chore into a chortle?
Brands can minimise stress in a multitude of ways. As reported by Willmott & Nelson (2003), there is much they can do to assist consumers in coping with the complexities of modern living. With the information gathering capabilities of the internet, brands are also better placed than ever to respond to customers in a personal and relevant way (as recommended by Godin (1999)), helping to ensure expectations are met and where possible exceeded.
3. Spread some love
Of the three roads to a happy, satisfied life Seligman (2003) believes that working towards a “meaningful life” brings the most long-term happiness. We humans, it seems, get a natural kick out of being nice to each other. In fact, volunteering in a good cause has been shown to bring as much happiness as doubling our salary (Hoggard, 2005). Furthermore, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2006) suggests that people witnessing good deeds experience an emotion called “elevation”, which encourages them to be more open, considerate and loving towards humanity – so being good creates a virtuous circle (which could perhaps help explain the continuing rise of ethical brands, thinking and TV programmes).
In a similar way, Pringle & Thompson (1999) demonstrate how aligning a brand with a relevant cause can not only bring happiness and pride for consumers and employees, but also generate great value for businesses. I believe that there is a great opportunity for Yakult to raise the profile of gastrointestinal diseases, which receive little press attention despite the fact that bowel cancer kills more people than breast cancer (Cancer Research UK, 2005). Yakult could organise - and dare people to take part in - extreme sponsored events (like abseiling down the Gherkin), under the banner “Have you got the guts?!”. This could help them grab some headlines, bring people together and spread a little love both outside and inside of their organisation.
Happiness should be the output, but not necessarily the input
Having reviewed the ways in which brands can contribute to happiness, I think it’s important to note that many emotional levers can be pulled to get there. After all, happy ads do not necessarily make happy people (see figure 2).
Fig 2. Happiness requires more than just cheerful communications (Smaller, 2001)
Successful brands use the entire gamut of emotion to induce happiness. Yes, Coke’s optimism is infectious (figure 3a) but Nike’s Wayne Rooney poster (figure 3b) also provokes happiness - through confidence, pride and a sense of belonging - whilst many charity ads (like the one in figure 3c) create sadness in order to offer happiness in return for action.
Fig 3. The full range of emotions can be used to create happiness
As a final thought, it feels only right to end on a note of humility. As Lidstone (2005) points out, the actual and perceived ability of brands to change people’s lives is small in most cases. Brands must be careful not to overestimate their benefits and slip into hyperbole. De Botton (2004) makes a similar point when he remarks that advertising often “stays quiet about the weak capacity of all material goods to alter our levels of happiness, as compared with the overwhelming power of emotional events.” Our brands are small compared to people’s lives and relationships, although we can certainly aim to help with the big stuff – and raise a smile whenever we’re around. Creating happiness requires incremental improvements at each of the levels described above, a fact that is reflected by the behaviour of many successful brands. Think Tesco - “every little helps.”
Hope for a happy ending
As society increasingly places a premium on happiness, I believe that brands must do the same – especially since it is so easy to lay the blame for unhappiness at the feet of consumerism. Through the creation of pleasurable experiences, helping people to enjoy day-to-day life more thoroughly and through being engaged in goodwill activities I believe that this is entirely possible. Happiness will always be far bigger than brands, but if marketing can become dedicated to happiness then there’s no reason that the people who work in it shouldn’t be amongst the happiest of all.
Cadbury. (2007). Drumming gorillas, Phil Collins and glass and a half full productions? A glass and a half full productions. Available from World Wide Web:
Cancer Research UK. (2005). UK Cancer mortality statistics. Cancer Research UK.
Available from World Wide Web: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerstats/mortality/
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider & Co.
De Botton, A. (2004). Status anxiety. Pantheon books.
De Chenecey, S. (2005). Grow up: it’s time to play. Young consumers.
Evans, D. (2001). Emotion: a very short introduction. Oxford university press.
Godin, S. (1999). Permission marketing. Simon & Schuster Ltd.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis. William Heinemann.
Hoggard, L. (2005). How to be happy. BBC Books.
Huzzey , A. (2003). Weedol – looking on the bright side of death. APG creative planning awards.
Keegan, S. (2007). The pursuit of happiness – gross national happiness in Bhutan: what can we learn for the UK? Market Research Society annual conference.
Layard, R. (2005). Happiness, lessons from a new science. Penguin.
Levitt, T. (1960). Marketing myopia. Harvard Business Review.
Lidstone, R. (2005). The need for brand humility. Market Research Society annual conference.
Pine, B. & Gilmour, J. (1999). The experience economy. Harvard Business School Press.
Pringle, H. & Thompson, M. (1999). Brand spirit. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Seligman, M. (2003). Authentic happiness. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. In: Hoggard, L. (2005). How to be happy. BBC Books.
Smaller, B. (2001). New Yorker cartoon. The New Yorker.
Willmott, M. & Nelson, L. (2003). Complicated lives. John Wiley & Sons.