Why do people consume? This question has no simple answer. But at the bottom of any rationale lies people's hope that what they spend their money on will make their lives better and ultimately make them happier.
Over the last 20 years, the maturing field of positive psychology has made remarkable progress towards elucidating one of the greatest philosophical questions of all time: what is happiness?
Conclusions from this rapidly growing branch of behaviour science have pin pointed three components that contribute to what psychologists call an authentically happy life:
1. Happiness through pleasure - this refers to the experience of positive emotion in the moment. Enjoying a tasty meal, listening to music or watching a sunset are just some examples of ways to experience pleasure in the moment. These feelings can be amplified and stretched over time through conscious savouring - something psychologists refer to as mindfulness.
2. Happiness through flow - this refers to the joy resulting from using and building our skills. Most people have a desire to grow and develop as individuals but, in order for optimal growth to occur, clear goals and feedback are necessary. When goals are clear, feedback is immediate, and we reach a point where our skills match the requirements necessary to achieve the goal - and people enter a state of total absorption with the task which results in a loss of self-consciousness and the sense of time. This experience is perceived as extremely pleasurable following its completion.
3. Happiness through meaning - this refers to the joy experienced from using our skills and strengths to belong to, and in service of, something greater than ourselves. Whether it is through raising a family, our jobs, volunteering for our community, or contributing to society in some other way, working towards meaningful goals improves people's quality of life and creates the feeling of a life worth living.
The interesting finding about these three components to happiness is that, while people can be happy with their life without much experience of pleasure, the pursuit of pleasure alone has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. It is the pursuit of goals and in particular the pursuits of meaning that make up genuine life satisfaction - that which psychologists call authentic happiness. However, pleasure can add an additional level of joy to life; when people's lives consist of building skills and regularly using these in service of something beyond themselves, pleasure acts as the cherry on top of the ice cream.
So how is this relevant for brands?
The psychological research on happiness has been trickling down into mainstream thinking and influencing everything from business to government policy for several years, but it was the economic downturn of 2008 that resulted in a radical shift in the focus of mainstream consumers. The sudden cut in many household budgets forced a large number of people to reflect on the values that really mattered to them and carefully evaluate what they were going to spend their limited budget on. Interestingly, people's conclusions about what mattered were very much in keeping with scientific discoveries on happiness. People wanted to spend their money on products and services which would help them grow and connect with others and the world around them.
It is therefore not surprising that the beginning of the current decade saw the most successful brands applying the psychological discoveries on happiness to their business strategy. Take for example Nike's shift in focus with the release of Nike+. With its launch, Nike made a successful move from selling sporting equipment to offering people a toolkit which would contribute to all three components of authentic happiness. Nike+ helps people to achieve flow by helping them to set goals and providing immediate feedback on their progress. It fosters greater pleasure in sport through its link to the IPod and music. Finally, it helps to connect people to an entire community of friends and strangers with whom they can share their achievements and successes making them more meaningful.
In his book 'How does it make you feel? Why emotion wins the battle of brands', Daryl Travis notes that following an $85 million loss in market cap (dropping down to about $146 billion), the CEO of Procter and Gamble asked Jim Stengel to join the company as global marketing officer. Stengel's solution was to help P&G to refocus on what is most important to their customers by devising five brand ideals:
Stengel's brand ideals are effective because they are in line with what makes people genuinely happy. This shift in focus has made such a positive impact on the business that P&G is currently worth $250 billion.
So what should brands be doing?
In order to align business strategy to this shift, brands looking towards the future should be asking themselves the following questions, drawing from psychology:
1. Pleasure - Can our brand/product/service increase people's experience of pleasure? How can we encourage them to savor this pleasure and experience it more mindfully?
2. Flow - Can our brand/product/service offer new experiences and build people's skills? Can it help them to set and achieve goals? How can we offer feedback on how they are doing?
3. Meaning - Can our brand/product/service help people to make their lives more meaningful? Can it help them to connect to other people, communities and the world around them?
As people continue to scrutinise the value of the products and services they spend their money on, the brands that will come out on top will be those that can make meaningful emotional connections to their customers. Learning from psychology, those brands that can offer consumers a genuine chance to improve their happiness and well-being will have the best chance of making and fostering lasting emotional connections.