Fresh Paint: Wanna Sell Me Something? Make Me Happy.

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The Most Powerful Marketing Aims at the Heart

Let’s say you’ve got a few bucks left in the marketing budget—just enough to fund one last burst of something-or-other prior to the end of the quarter. What do you spend it on? Do you throw it into your ongoing brand-building campaign? Or create some kind of last-minute sales blitz? If you’re down to your very last interaction with consumers, what kind of interaction should you invest in? Glad you asked. In Canvas’s proprietary research study, “Rethinking the Roadmaps of Decision-Making,” we identified the single, most powerful kind of marketing encounter of all, one that affects both brand affinity and purchase propensity. In every vertical we studied, it out-performed every other encounter we measured. And (because we love you) we’re about to share this magical marketing insight with you.

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Happiness Is a Marketing Superpower

Maybe marketers can't help themselves. When hyping products and services, they tend to give into a primal instinct to focus on features and benefits, which, OK, fine. But consumers have told us that whether you’re trying to sell cars or quarter pounders, the most powerful marketing “makes me happy and reminds me of what I like.” It's as if our prospects are saying: "Quit trying to talk me into it. Make me feel good instead."

But don’t just take our word for it. A review of prevailing academic work on the subject suggests that “brands that make customers happy will have a competitive advantage that may result in brand preference, brand loyalty, and ultimately in brand equity.” And of course you want all of those things. Don’t you?" 

Make Me Happy"? What Are We Talking About Here?

You might not be surprised to know that marketing nerds have been studying this happiness effect for years, to the point that they have done studies on the studies. And the clear conclusion is that there is no clear, universal definition of happiness. As the University of Porto’s Belem Barbosa put it, “Happiness is malleable, shifting both moment-to-moment and over the course of one’s life. When one is more focused on the future, happiness is more strongly associated with feeling excited; whereas when one is more focused on the present moment, happiness is more strongly associated with feeling calm.” That contrast might lead you to conclude that age is a key predictor of where you fall on that happiness split, which multiple studies have confirmed. But income, it turns out, is an even better predictor.

Of greater importance to marketers is the fact that your current sense of happiness directly affects the choices you make. The happiest people are those who make purchases that align with their personality type, for instance. In addition, happier customers are more likely to believe advertisements and find it easier to make purchase decisions. In essence, when a marketing encounter generates positive emotions in consumers, it affects their feelings about both the advertisement and the brand that sponsored it. So if you can make your prospective customers feel good, your sales should go up, which will make you feel good in return. 

What This Looks Like in Practice 

This finding has led many to focus on what is sometimes referred to as “feel-good marketing”—the sort of promotional campaign explicitly designed to generate positive emotions which consumers will then associate with the sponsoring brand. Two brands that have been successful for years at just this sort of marketing communication are Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. 

For example, if you come from a world focused on feature-benefit advertising, you may find it surprising to note how little time and attention is dedicated to the product or its features in this spot from Coke. It was part of a broader campaign that encouraged consumers to share their happy moments and experiences throughout the summer of 2015.

Similarly, this spot from McDonald’s UK doesn’t make a single reference to any specific item on the menu. (We dare you to keep from smiling as you watch it.) According to Colin Mitchell, director of global brand for McDonald’s at the time this campaign debuted: “Our idea is that every point of interaction around the brand, however mundane . . . can be a moment of delight—and, in doing that, can kind of become the equivalent for the brand and the product itself.”

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How To "Make Me Happy"

There is no single formula for making prospective customers happy through your marketing. But there are several truths about consumers that can point you in the right direction.

  • Experience > Things – Not to go all Marie Kondo on you here, but look around your own family room and identify the things you see there that continue to make you happy. In most cases, you’ll probably realize that it’s what you have done with those things that continues to imbue them with lasting value. This is consistent with the academic research which finds that experiences create a lot more happiness than stuff ever could. In part that’s because, as a rule, people reflect on experiences as a more accurate representation of their true selves than the things they may have accumulated over time. In the words of Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, "Experiences seem to be more deeply connected to our sense of self." So, which experiences should you focus on in your marketing? If you’re going after a younger audience, studies have shown that they gain more happiness from unusual experiences, whereas an older audience is more likely to respond to the familiar. It’s further evidence that young consumers tend to derive happiness from excitement while older consumers are more likely to prefer a sense of calm.
  • We > Me – Another reason experiences trump things is that the best experiences are often enhanced by others. Dunn says, "Experiences often connect us with other people that we care about. So if you're going on a trip or going out for a special meal, usually it's not going to be by yourself and . . . it's going to help to enrich your relationships." Thus, even if your product or service is inherently designed for an individual (pharmaceuticals and financial planning come to mind), marketing messages are likely to score higher on the happiness meter when they reflect collective benefits.
  • Strengths > Weaknesses – It’s tempting to promote a product or service as a solution to a customer’s problems, which (depending on the product category) can unintentionally serve to reinforce your customers’ insecurities. Positive psychology tells us that elevating your prospects’ strengths is more likely to lead to positive emotions, which in turn builds engagement and long-term goodwill for the brand. For instance, you might sell a few SUVs by promoting your third row as a way to separate fed-up parents from their whiny children, but the research implies that you may sell more if you show that back row enabling great parents to take excited kids on the adventure of a lifetime.(Even better yet, maybe: Do both.)
When in Doubt, "Make Me Laugh"

We should acknowledge that “laughter” is not the same thing as “happiness,” but the two concepts are closely enough related to compel us to share some data that speaks to the power of humor in marketing—especially in this post-Covid world (are we truly post-Covid?) where consumers are likely searching for happiness boosters. A recent Oracle study showed that nearly half of us “have not felt true happiness for more than two years,” and 25% say they either don’t know or can’t remember what it feels like to be truly happy.

In light of that, consider the implications of these other data points from the study:

  • 88% of people are looking for new experiences to make them smile and laugh. 
  • 48% don’t believe they have a relationship with a brand unless it makes them smile or laugh.
  • 63% will spend more with a brand that uses humor.
  • 80% are more likely to buy again from a brand that uses humor; 80% would recommend that brand to family and friends; and 72% would choose that brand over the competition.

In a broader sense, these data should serve as a reminder that, as we strive to gain the attention of distractable consumers with short attention spans, as we spend millions to get them to watch and react and even share our brilliant content, we have to get them to feel something. Making a connection between the brand and the positive emotion will also affect the mood during that quarterly sales review, by the way.


We know it’s complicated. As we’ve said, “happiness” does not mean the same thing to all people, and what makes you happy one day may not make you happy the next. Nevertheless, it’s like anything else in marketing: The better you know your audience(and, we should add, the more effectively you use that knowledge to make them happy), the more successful your advertising and promotions are going to be. The research on this could not be clearer. 

To emphasize that point, we’ll conclude with one more nugget from Oracle that aligns with our own findings: 78% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for true happiness. Now the question becomes: What are you going to do about it?