by Kirsten Dewar. Understanding why products don’t bring humans lasting happiness is the clue to understanding the future of marketing.

Do you remember the first time you really wanted something and became obsessed with getting that object for yourself? Perhaps it was one of those ultra-cool Polaroid cameras that everyone was talking about — the beautiful pale pastels and the retro allure of great Insta snaps that were oh-so tangible. An instantly printed photo to stick on the fridge, or give to a friend? You lusted after that pastel-coloured Polaroid. Got some cash together. Bought it. But how happy did the purchase make you, and for how long? Were you still excited about that camera a week after you bought it? What about the next year?

What makes us happy

To understand what makes us happy, let’s delve into the world of psychology. “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while,” writes the expert on human happiness, Thomas Gilovich, who is the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology at Cornell University in the US. Gilovich is the author of several bestselling books and has conducted research in social psychology, decision-making, and behavioural economics. “New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them,” Gilovich explains. The bottom line? Consumerism isn’t the path to nirvana.

Gilovich’s social and behavioural economics experiments show that humans become too easily comfortable with new things. This is the science behind why material goods fail to bring us lasting happiness. Gilovich has done four huge studies on human happiness over a number of decades, and the insights revealed by the research always remain the same — happiness is derived from experiences, not things.

James Hamblin explains this so eloquently in an article in The Atlantic entitled “Buy Experiences, Not Things”. In it, he advises that humans should live in anticipation, gathering stories and bedding down experiences in our cerebellum and storing them as memory. “Reasonable people are just more likely to talk about their experiential purchases than their material purchases,” he writes. “It’s a nidus for social connection. (‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘Well! I’m so glad you asked … ‘)” Humans love one thing more than experience — and that’s sharing the stories of their experiences.


Experience lives in the field of co-creation, that place we refer to as the theatre of the mind. When you’ve booked a longed-for break away to Mauritius, you start to dream about it and you fill in the gaps — the bikini you’re going to wear, the cocktail you’ll drink, the beaches you’ll bronze on, and so on.

How important is it for brands to understand the difference between products and experiences, and what this means for the future of marketing? Understanding this helped the inventor of the Dollar Shave Club create a business that he was able to sell to Unilever for a cool US$1bn. Why did Unilever pay so much? Because it wasn’t buying an ecommerce operation; it was buying a business built on relationships off of the back of deep insights.

Writes Bloomberg about the deal two years ago: “Dollar Shave Club hit the jackpot when Unilever agreed to buy the online men’s razor merchant for $1 billion. Other e-commerce startups such as Birchbox and Stitch Fix can’t necessarily expect their own suitor to sweep in with such sweet deals. That’s because the key to Dollar Shave Club’s appeal is not so much its online prowess but the fact that it built a powerful brand in four years.”


The key to this is the experience that Dollar Shave Club has embedded in the ritual of shaving, the way it connects humans through experience, and how it pulls the community together based on common values.

Dollar Shave Club launched because a Los Angeles-based TV producer felt ripped off by the exorbitant prices of replacement razor blades. He certainly had a point: a packet of Gillette PRO blades retails at Clicks for R519. By stark contrast a starter kit comprising a razor, a spare blade and three tubes of shaving butter clocks in at just US$15 [about R230 according to the US dollar/rand exchange rate at the time for writing.]

The heart of Dollar Shave Club’s flywheel is trust — the enviable brand that has been built because the business play was about data, and fully understanding what customers want. Finally, the founders were incredibly smart about creating a club-like experience everybody wanted to be a part of.

The reward for understanding that brands are now about relationships and selling? A cool US$1bn. And the lesson? To truly understand that experience is at the heart of the future of marketing. Knowing how to create shared experiences that matter is the new holy grail of marketing.


Kirsten DewarKirsten Dewar started her career in data and research, before moving into technology, which took her to Platinum Seed; today, she is the managing director of the digital specialist company. She contributes the monthly MarkLives column, Always Learning, which aims to teach marketers more about digital marketing, from how to conquer Facebook’s algorithms to what LinkedIn’s new company pages mean for B2B brands.

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