Helen Edwards: Marketers beware the pursuit of happiness

Helen Edwards on happiness
Helen Edwards on happiness

Happiness is an elastic concept and merely associating a brand with it is not enough to woo consumers, according to research.

Suppose you learned today that your brand had achieved a new high on some significant measure: awareness, say, or market share. Would you be happy?

Sure you would. You'd have every reason to feel that dictionary-definition 'state of wellbeing and contentment'. For a while. Come the next quarterly review, though, if that number remains precisely the same, it will no longer put a smile on your face.

That's the trouble with happiness: it is a moving target. Perhaps that's why the founding fathers of the US went no further than enshrining, as a universal right, its mere pursuit; they knew better than to make any rash pronouncements regarding its lasting possession.

David Cameron appears less wise in his intention to track the UK's reported overall happiness. What is to be gained? Even if a government could contrive to achieve maximum happiness for most people, it would not last beyond a single survey. There is no socio-economic opiate powerful enough to sustain the high.

Brand owners, of course, have long understood the elasticity of happiness, and have used continuous product improvement to stimulate consumers' innate preparedness to crave more.

Once, people were content with single-blade razors, basic cars and 501-line TVs. It didn't last. Today's six-blade razors look like miniature spaceships, a regular family car is a 120-mph supercomputer and anyone swapping their HD smart screen for a 70s set would think they were watching EastEnders through a flannel. It takes more to make us happy.

Since product improvement is costly, and consumers fickle, many brands have sought to crystallise their contribution to our capricious sense of fulfilment in the most direct possible way. Coke says 'Open happiness'; Dunkin' Donuts invites us to down it with 'The happiest sandwich on Earth'. Clinique simply calls its lead fragrance 'Happy'.

Unfortunately for brands, new academic research suggests that this, too, will need to be improved. According to a soon-to-be published report in the Journal of Consumer Research, broad promises of happiness are too unfocused to influence consumer choice.

Building on prior academic research, the authors show that happiness is experienced in two ways: excitement on the one hand, peace and calm on the other. Predictably, youth tends to be more excitement focused, and older people more turned on by calm. There is an interesting geographical nuance, too, with people from Asia more inclined to find happiness on the peaceful side of the spectrum than Europeans and Americans.

The report argues that brands need to be more specific about the kind of happiness they promote, and shows that they can tilt consumer mood toward their natural brand territory by more careful ' temporal priming'.

One experiment showed how a group of energetic young students were induced to shift their happiness bias toward serenity when prompted to focus on the present moment.

If you're not fazed by academic prolixity, the report, 'How happiness affects choice', is worth a look. You can track it down at www.jstor.org.

Who knows, it could help to give your brand an edge, and thereby raise your own sense of professional happiness a notch. For a while.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand

30 SECONDS ON: HAPPY BRANDS

- In 2010, IKEA repositioned itself around the concept of 'Happy inside'. In its launch TV spot, 100 cats were released into its flagship Wembley store at night. The cats explored the store and settled down where they were most content.

- As well as giving it a direct nod in the name of its core children's offering, the Happy Meal, McDonald's pushed the idea of happiness explicitly in its 2011 communications, with one TV ad featuring a touring 'happy box' under the endline 'We do happy'.

- A new brand strategy for 2012 proclaims that 'Happiness is ... Butlins', and this vein runs much deeper than the jovial TV ads: the resort chain has appointed a director of happiness and aims to remove all barriers to family 'happy time' by employing a range of specialists, from life coaches to make-up artists.

- Luxury champagne label Krug claims to have been 'crafting happiness since 1843', and lived this promise in 2011 by asking a range of high-profile figures from the creative arts to donate something embodying happiness to the Krug Happiness Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

- One brand using the concept as its genesis is The Happy Egg Company: it contends that 'happy hens lay tasty eggs', and tasty eggs make for happy mealtimes.

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