What are we talking about when we talk about joy?

According to designer and writer Ingrid Fetell Lee, when psychologists describe joy, they mean “a momentary experience of positive emotion.”

It’s not the same as comfort, contentment or satisfaction. It’s different to happiness, which describes something sustained over time. Words like pleasure, bliss and ecstasy come closer, but over-egg it a bit.

Joy is lighter. It’s about smiling, laughing, feeling good in the moment.

The concept of emotion being used as a marketing tool might seem contrived or off-putting – and of course, it can be. But with joy, we’re talking about a very specific feeling. Joyful content prompts emotion…emotional content does not necessarily prompt joy.

Joy as an aesthetic concept

In her TED talk ‘Where joy hides and where to find it’, Fetell Lee discusses the objects that tend to come up when people describe the things that make them feel joyful: “cherry blossoms, bubbles, swimming pools, tree houses, hot air balloons and ice cream cones – especially the ones with sprinkles.”

What do all these things have in common?

Pops of colour, patterns and symmetrical shapes. Feelings of abundance and multiplicity. Weightlessness. A sense of elevation. Nostalgia. It’s easy to see how these things translate into design – in many ways they are its building blocks.

Why so serious?

Joyfulness is easy to dismiss – as a design concept and as a tendency in human beings. Fetell Lee points out that adults who exhibit genuine joy are often viewed as “childish or too feminine, unserious or self-indulgent.”

Unicorns and rainbows aren’t for everyone – but it’s important to recognise that joyful design doesn’t have to be childish. It could be an artfully arranged flatlay on Pinterest, the iconic shell of an iMac G3, or the shining curves of an E-type Jaguar.

Getting it right

In marketing, you’re taking that strong feeling of positive emotion and centring your brand or product at the heart of the conversation. For many brands, the key is creating joyful content that is elegant, considered, modern and understated.

Fetell Lee goes on to describe how designers are taking on large-scale projects and reintroducing the concept of joy into institutions like schools and hospitals. Research shows that bringing colour and joy into the real world boosts productivity and makes people more alert, confident and friendly. According to Publicolor, using bright colours in an environment can pack a significant psychological punch and help create a sense of order and understanding.

When it comes to social video and content campaigns, investing your work with joy can be more straightforward. Every carefully chosen colour palette, every ‘just so’ Instagram shot, every HD video showing off the sleek, boxfresh smoothness of a new smartphone – all of them are leveraging the power of joy.

Amp it up

Of course, leaning into it works too. Over the past decade, Sony has achieved this to extraordinary effect. A big winner at Cannes Lions 2006, ‘Balls’ shows 250,000 brightly-coloured bouncy balls bouncing down the hills of San Francisco. Created to promote its BRAVIA televisions, the two-and-a-half minute ad ran with the tagline ‘Colour like no other’.

One of the best things about the concept was its IRL execution, highlighted in a series of behind-the-scenes videos that did the rounds on social media. Sony constructed a massive cannon device and shook down every funfair dealer in the country for balls – no CGI necessary. Nostalgia – check. Abundance – check. Lightness – check. Sony’s sales and market share went through the roof.

Since then, BRAVIA has seen similar success with hypnotic ads like ‘Paint’ (2008), the magical ‘Glitter Balloons’ (2016), and most recently – the spine-tingling ‘Window into Daytime’ ad promoting BRAVIA OLED (yes, cherry blossom makes an appearance here too).

Elsewhere Barclaycard has taken us on a huge water slide through central London (2008), Three gave us a moonwalking pony (2013) and McVities brought us puppies, kittens and tarsiers climbing out of Digestive packets (2014-16).

A glass and a half

The past couple of years have seen marketing adopt a more conscious tone, with certain branches veering towards the overtly political. There is still a place for joy, but now more than ever, we need it to be meaningful.

Joy experts Cadbury nailed it recently, bringing the concept bang up-to-date with an omnichannel campaign about finding joy in the everyday. ‘Mum’s Birthday’ (2018) tells the touching story of an ordinary little girl using trinkets like buttons and toys to pay for a bar of Dairy Milk for her mum’s birthday. To tie in with the campaign, Cadbury also opened a pop-up ‘newsagent’, where people could exchange their own trinkets for chocolate. The result is a campaign that feels honest and relatable with all the joy of a gorilla lost in an epic drum solo.

Don’t be afraid to catch feels

Anyone can choose an inspirational quote and stick it in a campaign. Make a piece of content light and joyful, and your audience will be compelled to look at it longer. You’re aiming to hit that sweet spot between depth and depthlessness, fact and freedom. Next time you’re looking for inspiration, why not consider working a few joy triggers into your process?