The Corporate Pursuit of Happiness

A Stanford marketing professor is teaching her students -- along with AOL, Facebook, and Adobe -- how to find and export joy.

Marketing professor Jennifer Aaker stands before a blackboard-size mural her Stanford Graduate School of Business students had created. It is a patchwork of 1,300 snapshots of everyday moments: mangoes, pink Converse sneakers, cupcakes, beer pong, clean laundry, a convertible, and Halloween. With its bright yellow border, the mural is titled "This Makes Me Happy." Aaker points to a photo of a latte, its brown and white foam swirled into the shape of a flower. The froth, she tells me, was her happy moment of that day.

Offering a happiness class to future masters of the universe at one of the country's leading business schools does sound a bit touchy-feely. Yet, last fall, 80 of these type-A students signed up for Aaker's graduate-level course called "Designing Happiness" -- with another 100 clamoring to get in.

But Aaker's work is gaining attention not just in academia but also in corporate America: She has worked with AOL, Adobe, and Facebook, among other companies, helping them figure out how to use happiness to increase employees' productivity and woo customers. If her hypotheses are correct, marketing happiness could be one of the few ways businesses can still appeal to people in a manner that feels authentic. "The idea of brands enabling happiness and providing greater meaning in the world is powerful," Aaker says. "People have an aversion to anything that feels overly manufactured."

Aaker, who studied psychology alongside marketing, has spent the past several years researching her subject: how people find happiness, keep it, manipulate it, and use it as a resource. Her research defines happiness as "a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy." In 2006, when Aaker was focusing her area of study, happiness seemed, in many ways, an easier goal to attain. People felt more economically secure. The annual unemployment rate was 4.6%. The government urged Americans to buy homes, and access to credit was easy. Now, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, national morale is low; marketers see the appeal of promising happiness along with their products.

Aaker's students and the executives she speaks to are often surprised by the depth and subtlety behind such fuzzy feelings. Aaker asked her students to develop their own plans for incorporating happiness into a fictional company. She also had them use a custom-built smartphone app to take at least one photo of a happy moment every day for 30 days, and then rate each moment on a scale of 1 to 10 to quantify their feelings. Soon, the class saw patterns.

They learned that the anticipation of a pleasurable experience feels as good as finishing an onerous task (like a marathon or an exam). They discovered that a meaningful experience (acquiring a new skill, volunteering, or spending time with family) often makes people happier than moments of pure pleasure. And they learned that happiness shifts with age. Younger people feel happiest when they are excited, while older people equate happiness with peacefulness.

Recognizing these nuances is key for corporations, which are increasingly trying to appeal to people's emotions at a time when consumer spending remains fickle and frugal.

Now, consumers want something different from simply buying a product, using it, and throwing it out. Marketing happiness expands the idea of what it means to buy something. If companies can use nostalgia or other "safe emotions" to create a feeling of happiness, so be it, says John Kenny of the ad agency DraftFCB. In this way, happiness is another commodity deployed to sell something. "The stakes are a lot higher now with social media," Kenny says. "You want people to have an important experience they can talk about on Twitter or Facebook."

The applications of Aaker's research can be startlingly diverse. Aaker lectured at Adobe about the link between happiness and meaningful moments. The company has started to incorporate these ideas into a project called Adobe Youth Voices, which gives teenagers in poor communities Adobe software and encourages them to tell their stories. (The whole thing feels like the teen, global, and company-sponsored version of public radio's StoryCorps.)

The project financially benefits Adobe by introducing its software to a coveted demographic, while still being philanthropic. "That's becoming an increasingly important factor in how individuals view brands. You can't just do it to be part of the crowd," says Ann Lewnes, Adobe's senior vice president of global marketing.

Coke has also tried to create a link between happiness and its brand. Aaker teaches the case study of Coke's "happiness machine," a vending machine the company installed in the cafeteria at St. John's University during exams. Rather than dispense cans of soda, the happiness machine surprised students by spitting out a box of pizza or a bouquet of flowers. Secret cameras recorded the students' reactions, and when Coke released the videos online, they went viral, scoring more than 2 million views.

Marketers want consumers to share that happy moment and feel as if the product is part of their lives and community. "If you look at what is most influential right now, it's a recommendation from a friend or family," says Kate Sayre, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group.

Aaker herself is quick to recommend happiness tips to her students, past and present, and her close group of friends. Yet, even as she measures and commodifies joy for businesses, she has learned not to spend too much time chasing her own happiness. A day highlighted by a professional triumph can still be marred by the realization that she, well, left her wallet in her car. But that's okay, says Aaker: "The knowledge that happiness shifts doesn't allow you to put a great premium on it."

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13 Comments

  • Alexandra

    I think her class would be extremely interesting!  I feel marketing happiness is pretty ironic though, especially the whole coke thing.  Shouldn't happiness be about self-discovery, your social circle, and learning to have control over your negative thoughts?  It seems that a huge company such as Coke using their product to promote happiness is missing the point.  Am I missing the point here? 

  • Jeremy Porter

    Funny you should mention that "Happiness Machine" campaign in this post - Coke just revamped that campaign in "Happiness Truck": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.... It's already up over 600,000 views, it will be interesting to see how it stacks up to "Happiness Machine". That's awesome that professor Aaker uses it as a case study (disclosure: I used to work for the agency that did it: @definition6).

  • Mick Ukleja

    The definition of happiness has changed over the last 50 years. From the time of the ancients, to the Beatitudes, to Aristotle and Aquinas, to our own constitution, happiness meant "a life well lived." It meant a life of substance...one lived with skill...so that when you were through you could look at the canvas and say, "That is beautiful." Martin Seligman, the guru of happiness, says that there is an epidemic of depression today. 10 times more than 50 years ago (per capita). That constitutes an epidemic. Today happiness means that nice emotional feeling we get from time to time. Nothing wrong with that, but you can't bank on it. Doing the right thing, living with integrity, giving (not until it hurts, but until it feels good), is what brings deep down jpy (real happiness). Happiness is not so much an emotion as it is a realization that you have lived well.

  • John Heinrich

    Dr. Aakers' article was most interesting....there's an emotional component to practically every purchase, but having a solid value proposition behind the emotional content makes the value proposition that much stronger, especially in recessionary times. In our A02 course, on validating ideas, or especially A03, on unique selling propositions, we get into the emotional appear of products and services.
    John Heinrich
    Chief Mentor, American School of Entrepreneurship
    www.theasoe.com
    asechmentor@gmail.com

  • Maria Iancu

    Maybe Aaker, would like to offer snippets of her class online! I would take it! Interesting article.

    Of course people will criticize companies for "exploiting" happiness to sell. If the emotion the product creates is genuine though, people can talk all they want; the revenues will pour in. Deep down, we all want to be sold.

  • VRChari

    Instead all these companies should take up true philanthropy and "give till it hurts" (as said by a very famous philanthropist) , as this is the only way to bring true satisfaction to anyone.

  • VRChari

    Happiness is found inside the human being not outside in these consumer products or services. So beware all the companies that sell you happiness in a bottle/box/gizmo/etc.... they are all useless in the long run as they are totally impermanent. Companies make genuine money from suckering consumers - remember what marketing's motto is - "a sucker is born every minute". Gimmicky spitting out of something does not constitute happiness - True Happiness comes from within not without.

  • Megan Miranda

    Laugh if you must - but the blending of psychology and marketing to understand what motivates people to become brand-loyal (whether it's as an employee or as a consumer) is powerful. Very interesting article; wish I could take the class.

  • Mel Davis

    This great article reminds me of The Joy Project's mission and goals. It's great to see the approach being embraced by business schools - for the last 10 years the field of positive psychology has been preaching this and now the scientific basis proving happiness precedes success is getting out in articles like this - TA DA to you guys! Amanda Gore is a speaker who asks people what the number one thing in life that people want - and the vast majority answer happiness!

    it's fundamental for great leadership and engaged teams....Have a look at www.thejoyproject.com which aims to teach people how to have a work life and home life that is fulfilling and joyful - not sure if you know about it but i think it would help others incorporate ideas to engage employees and teams and make workplaces more joyful!

  • Jennifer

    I'm so glad that corporations are helping me to be happy by selling me Coke, Converse sneakers and convertibles. How very altruistic.

  • Chris Reich

    We live in the safest, most prosperous land in the world at the peak of ease of living. We have luxuries unimagined even a few years ago.

    And who are the people who need to be 'taught' happiness? The poor? The sick? Look at the images chosen to go with this post.

    Only the selfish who have abundance yet see it as not enough 'suffer' unhappiness. Those with too much nonsense in their lives are 'too busy'. Those with too much wealth are lacking.

    Sure, corporations want to tap our selfish neediness for their own gain. Why not. The unhappy are hapless victims.

    Grow up. The party will be over soon enough and then we Americans will learn the joy in simply having work to do.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Jennifer

    W. Wordsworth

    CCLXXVIII. "The world is too much with us"

    THE World is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, 5
    The winds that will be howling at all hours
    And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
    A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,— 10
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

  • Jennifer

    W. Wordsworth

    CCLXXVIII. "The world is too much with us"

    THE World is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, 5
    The winds that will be howling at all hours
    And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
    A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,— 10
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.