For Brands, 2015 Is Shaping Up to Be the Year of Positivity

Why Dove, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are smiling at millennials

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Can a brand help improve a consumer's state of mind or even dare to make them happier? That's what marketing for brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Dove is attempting in 2015. These big brand marketers are using various campaigns to make the world a kinder, happier place—whether that's combating hate online or making consumers smile with a new love-inspired currency. Though the brands' motives aren't entirely altruistic, the overall happiness goal will help position these brands for better engagement with the much sought-after millennial segment.

According to a recent study by ZenithOptimedia, The Pursuit of Happiness, brands that can help millennials achieve happiness stand the best chance of securing long-lasting and profitable relationships with that consumer group. 

A recent study finds that brands that make millennials happier stand the best chance of a profitable, long-lasting relationship with them. Illustration: Sam Island

"By understanding how millennials find fulfillment in their lives, brands can play a meaningful role to support and enhance their pursuit of happiness," said Linda Tan, strategic insights director for ZenithOptimedia Worldwide.

With that in mind, these brands, which have used myriad positive campaigns for decades, have amplified and personalized that type of messaging. McDonald's used the Super Bowl to kick off a new in-store campaign, Pay With Lovin', where randomly selected consumers would be able to use emotional connection as a currency. The campaign is part of the brand's new push to lean into the love aspect of its "I'm Lovin' It" brand slogan. The in-store campaign lasted two weeks, served over a million people and boosted the brand's perception online from roughly 30 percent positive or neutral brand perception in 2014 to 85 percent positive or neutral, according to McDonald's.

"When you focus on the idea [of happiness], you're a better brand," said McDonald's CMO Deborah Wahl. "It can completely change the way that a brand engages with its customers, and that's why we feel so strongly about [this trend] … it can help drive the right sort of purpose-driven behavior."

Dove and Coca-Cola took their recent happiness-oriented campaigns to Twitter using targeted campaigns to turn online hate into something positive. With branded hashtags #SpeakBeautiful (Dove) and #MakeItHappy (Coke), the brands attempted to use marketing to make the Internet a happier, friendlier place. 

Coke bravely took on online haters with its upbeat #MakeItHappy push. Gawker pounced on it anyway.

With #SpeakBeautiful, which will continue throughout the year, Dove hopes to foster positive self-esteem for women and girls.

"Twitter allows us to send one-on-one responses to women and girls to inspire them to help change the way we talk about beauty on social media," said Jennifer Bremner, director of marketing for Dove. "It only takes one tweet to ignite a positive trend online."

For Coke, #MakeItHappy used Ascii art—which generates images out of lines of text—to target different hateful tweets and turn those words into cheery imagery. According to Coke, its campaign received 95 percent positive and neutral social responses. 

Dove continued its positive focus on women with its #SpeakBeautiful branded hashtag.

ZenithOptimedia's study also found marketers that give millennials a clear understanding of what their brand stands for and tap into that demo's love of good experiences by making their consumer journey enjoyable are well on their way to supporting millennials in their pursuit of happiness.

"If happiness is a core brand attribute or a benefit that is obviously associated with a brand, that's an area they can play in [with their marketing campaigns]," said Stuart Sproule, president of Landor North America. "But my concern [with this trend] is that brands will try to leverage happiness in a hollow way. With millennials there can quickly be a degree of cynicism that will see right through a transparent attempt to suggest that using a brand or experiencing a brand will lead to happiness because it probably doesn't."

Coke experienced this cynicism in early February when writers from Gawker pranked the brand's #MakeItHappy campaign. By taking advantage of the campaign's automated function, Gawker was able to get Coke's Twitter account to inadvertently tweet lines from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, essentially having the soft drink maker send out the very type of hate it was looking to combat.

While Coke ended its Twitter campaign, the prank didn't make it reconsider its brand positioning. During the Oscars, Coke debuted a new spot which showcases its happiness spirit and, according to a spokeswoman, "Happiness will remain at the forefront [of Coke's marketing] in 2015."

"You can't please 100 percent of people all the time," said Wahl. "[Gawker's prank] just shows there's a lot more work to be done and leadership brands need to keep pushing. "

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.