Buying Happiness

May  10,  2011 / By Taylor Blog

From the Department of Good News: Happiness is breaking out all over.

Marketing has always had a fixation on happiness. In the late 50s, all you needed was a Plymouth, a red hat for the Mrs and a Mike Bradyish ranch in the suburbs. More great print ads of this era are here, showing smiling families, successful women and sophisticated gentlemen, all getting what they want thanks to their choice in cars. In short, selling happiness. The next time you can’t understand your parents, remember, they were raised on this stuff. “Buy this (product), and everything about your life will be perfect.” Imagine their disappointment when you came home from college with a nose ring.


Even a great Creative Director like Don Draper knows the importance of selling happiness. During the famous Lucky Strike pitch, he closes by assuring this client: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is ok. You are OK.” This is classic top-down marketing. Buy our product and you will be congratulated for your choice.

But a much broader conversation about happiness is happening. Last week in the NYT, John Tierney’s article “How Happy Are You? The Census Wants to Know” details the Boston suburb of Somerville attempting to measure happiness, the first such time an American town has undertaken such a study. From the creation of bike lanes to more open spaces to just having officials that care enough to undertake projects like a “Happiness Survey” in the first place, by this account, the people of Somerville seem pretty happy. Maybe all the participants got a pack of Luckys.

On a global scale, Nicholas Kristof wrote last year about “The Happiest People,” which discussed an international ranking of countries based on their overall happiness, instead of using more traditional measures like GDP, average income or the number of times “Saved by the Bell” airs during the average day. According to a Dutch web site that is home to the world database of happiness, Costa Rica is the happiest country. Denmark, shaking off their Hamlet-esque reputation for brooding, came in second. The U.S. came in 20th place, but all this may change once “The Hangover Part II” gets released.

Even the smart folks over at The Economist are on the Happiness Bus. In “The U Bend of Life,” we learn that happiness may be based not on geography, but of age. Not surprisingly, young people are generally happy. And why not? You live on pizza, every night is an invitation to go out, and every brand in the world is marketing to you. Only a little more surprising is that older people are happy, too. They accept fading eyesight and a few aches and pains as the price to get off of life’s treadmill. The mortgage is paid, the kids are gone, worry is replaced by contentment. The best example of this group is my father-in-law, a man who starts every day by reading the obituaries, just to make sure he’s not in them. This ability to laugh at life (and yourself) is a happiness indicator, for sure, which is why the advertising that works best also tends to be funny, smart, or at least thought provoking. There’s one group not laughing too much, however, and that’s folks in their 40s. Happiness apparently dips to its lowest level among people in this decade, and for good reason. The 40 year old is in the middle of the chase, proud owner of major purchases that unfortunately have to be paid for every month, someone who appreciates what they have earned but not enough to stop chasing what’s next. I think the word most people are looking for is “balance,” which is certainly in short supply throughout these years, but I take issue with this point; Americans are famous for their energy and industry, and in throughout our 30s and 40s and into ours 50s, I think happiness as a concept takes a back seat to producing. It doesn’t mean we’re not happy, it’s just that our priorities have elsewhere. (Those in their 40s who are probably the most unhappy are those who, unfortunately, don’t have the opportunity to produce. David Brooks discusses this issue today in “The Missing Fifth.”)

But overall, folks in their 40s probably have a severe lack of balance, so I’ll agree with the article on this broader point. The 20-something simply leaves the office, heads to his local bar, checks in on foursquare, and thanks to the fact he just became mayor, enjoys a few free pints with his buddies. The 60-something may scream at the nightly news, but then heads to the garage to tinker with the lawnmower, because as everyone knows, they are the last generation of people who actually know how to tinker. It’s the folks in the middle of the pack who can’t turn it off and they can’t tune out. They are at the peak of their earning potential, and with that, comes the headache of being at the peak of their earning potential. The good news is, after the age of 46, which appears to the the bottom of the “U Curve,”  it’s all uphill, for as people age they tend to adjust their priorities again. “How pleasant is the day,” the article quotes William James as saying, “when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”

So what does this focus on happiness mean? First, I find all these articles concerning because it’s probably a sign that we’re not very happy, and people who aren’t happy can be tough customers. When people buy a product to make themselves happy, rather than for the product benefit, they are likely to move on to the next product, and the next, and the next, in an unending search for something other than what the product is designed to do. This creates neither consistent sales, nor brand loyalty. A consumer has bought your product, and has moved on. That’s a customer lost. But stepping back a bit, while we can’t singlehandedly create happiness–that’s way too much of an overpromise–certainly our clients’ products can be part of a general trend toward happiness. We can accomplish this by keeping an eye on all this happiness stuff. We can make sure the word “happiness” is in our vocabulary. We can ask ourselves, how happy is our target? How do they define happiness? And perhaps most importantly: what makes them happy? If we start asking those questions, targeted ideas will follow.

The good news is, one thing that always makes people happy is the chance to be heard. And that regard, social media is an answer to many of our questions. Social media, and the mobile technology that keeps us connected at all times, offers the greatest opportunity to create happier customers in the history of marketing. By giving the consumer the chance to join the conversation, from liking a brand’s Facebook page to live tweeting every episode of No Reservations, social media funnels consumer energy into a few dedicated channels, channels that promise access, and that is powerful.

The next benefit of social media is Transparency. Once consumers have joined the conversation and have spent a little time on the outskirts, they’ll hopefully dive in and provide more details about what they love and hate about a brand. By listening and replying honestly, by addressing customer concerns, by being as open about your manufacturing, your ingredients, your corporate culture, and by encouraging more conversations, brands build trust, which drives loyalty, which drives happiness about the brand.

Finally, instead of giving consumers a chance to merely comment or complain, put them at the center of the story, allow them to create the story, and let’s see what happens then. Give a percentage of your marketing over to consumers, create a team of influencers, and ask them to invite their friends (and their friends’ friends) to the party.

All of which, surprisingly, brings us back to the oldest form of marketing ever: word of mouth. People are happiest when they have a voice, and previously, that voice was limited to shouting over your neighbor’s fence, telling the folks at the office, or firing off a letter to the editor. Now, everyone’s word of mouth lives forever; what’s online stays online. The chance to be heard by thousands is powerful, but it’s nothing more than word of mouth. Those of us in marketing can say all we want about products, about what our brand stands for, but no one really believes it until a friend of family member tells them. And that’s what social media is; people giving a chance to be heard, a chance to have their say. Give your customers that, and you’ll have happier customers.

 Photo Credit: Flickr

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