Think Happy: the Link Between Happiness, Purchase Intent and Habit Formation

Why does happiness matter for brands and how does it impact future purchase intent?

By Karen Schofield, Managing Director, Join the Dots


Think about the last time you recommended a product to a friend — how did you describe it? Did you say it was great? Amazing? Brilliant? Chances are you would not have bothered recommending it if it was only satisfactory because what would that say about you?


Across the business world, consumer insight focuses on measuring satisfaction, net promoter scores and purchase intent. The problem is that these are rational questions that give us rational — and therefore flawed — answers; they are based on the ways businesses talk and think, not people.


It is largely accepted that while loyal consumers are typically satisfied, satisfaction does not necessarily translate to loyalty. In addition, much of what we often think of as loyalty may not be loyalty at all. Psychology tells us that, as people, our decisions are shaped by our emotions, the context we are making the decision in and our habits, not by a rational analysis of the costs and benefits of every decision we make.


Habits are decisions that we have consciously made at some point in the past, but which we now do not think of at all. They have become automatic responses to cues or shortcuts to previous decisions. Think about the coffee (or kopi) you buy on your way to the office every morning — do you really buy at the same coffee shop out of loyalty, or is it just an automatic response to passing the coffee shop on the way to work, and thus an ingrained part of your routine?


Despite all the talk within businesses about getting closer to consumers and understanding their emotions and experiences, we have forgotten that consumers are humans too. We need to hold up a mirror to their language, their behaviour and how they really feel.


To empathise, we need to understand that, as humans, we are motivated by happiness. There have been many attempts throughout history to explain human motivation. Since ancient times, philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus have argued that people seek a happy and tranquil life without pain — that is, to maximise happiness. The most recent incarnation of this has been influenced by a new branch of thinking called ‘Positive Psychology’ pioneered by Martin Seligman. Colloquially known as the ‘Happiness Theory’, it proposes that the way we choose our life course is to maximise our feelings of happiness and well being. The thinking has attracted the attention of governments around the globe. The United Kingdom, for example, has even made the measurement of happiness a core national statistic.


The theory tells us that happiness clearly matters at an individual and societal level, but could it also work at a brand and consumer level? To find out, we partnered with Manchester University Business School and carried out research with 500 consumers over a four-week period as they bought and used a wide range of regular branded consumer products and services in their day-to-day lives.


We monitored happiness when people bought and used products/services (both new brands and those they had purchased before) and then examined their intention to buy those brands again at an exit survey.


The findings showed that happiness does matter: brands that make people happy at the point of usage — rather than at the point of purchase — are more likely to be anticipated by consumers to be bought again, and this applies to both new brand purchases and those they had purchased before.


So happiness matters when it comes to future purchase intent. Happiness also matters when it comes to habit formation or loyalty. Social Scientist BJ Fogg from Stanford University proposes that to drive habit formation quickly, individuals need to experience a positive emotion when they are undertaking the behaviour they want to become a habit. The positive emotion is a mental hook that tells the brain that this is an experience worth repeating. To quote Fogg directly: emotions create habits.


In summary, happiness matters. It matters to us as people, and it matters to businesses because if brands can make consumers happy at the time they are being experienced, they are more likely to be re-purchased and — more importantly — become habitual purchases. And that being the case, consumer insight should ditch outdated models of consumer loyalty and rational measures of satisfaction. Instead, it should focus on understanding habits and the real context of consumer decision making and start measuring what really matters: consumer happiness.