Happiness and Brand Marketing with Brandon James

Ellen Whitehead | 10th November 2020

Happiness and humans podcast


In this episode of the podcast, Matt Phelan, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at the Happiness Index, speaks to his friend and fellow happiness and marketing enthusiast Brandon James, Director at BrandON, about linking employee and customer happiness, as well as thinking about how and why global brands are using employee happiness as part of their marketing efforts. We talked about brands who are doing this well, and those who perhaps are not as much.


What makes you happy? – 1:51
What’s your view on the link between employee and customer happiness? – 3:30
Why are brands using their staff in their adverts? – 10:00
Why are global brands using happiness in their marketing? – 17:26

About Brandon

Brandon has delivered digital transformation and strategies for Startups to FTSE 100 companies. From new websites to omnichannel strategies to digital transformations, he has helped companies around the world achieve their goals. Brandon measures his success by how he’s helped others succeed, not just in business but in all areas of life, and claims he has only made it this far because others have done the same for him. Brandon is also just a genuinely nice guy, who has an amazingly diverse skill set from digital marketing to brand development; web design to opera. To find out a bit more about how he got to where he is, you can listen to this fascinating interview Matt did with him in 2019.

Listen on:

Freedom to be happy

This podcast and Brandon’s unique insight inspired sections of the new book, “Freedom to be Happy: The business case for happiness” by Matt Phelan. If you want to understand the association between individual happiness and group performance at work – then click below and get your copy!


NB: This is a Verbatim transcript. Every word on the recording has been transcribed as is, including (most) grammatical errors and false starts. However, extra details like stutters and repetitions are removed.

Matt Phelan: How are you, Brandon? 

Brandon James: Yeah, fantastic. Thanks, Matt. Thanks for having me. 

Matt: Thanks for coming back. You’re my only guest that’s come back. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. 

Brandon: I’m not sure either. But I’m gonna go with it’s probably a good thing. 

Matt: Yeah. So Brandon. Normally I do big intros on our guests. But if you want to know about Brandon’s entire career, which is absolutely fascinating and a learning module in itself, scroll down to Episode Four. The reason I’ve invited Brandon on is because I’m writing this book about happiness, and I want to understand how happiness is used in marketing and branding.

And the person I know that who knows the most about that on a global scale is Brandon. And so not to put you under too much pressure, Brandon, But if you’d like, If you would like to do a quick intro on yourself as well would be really useful for that for our new listeners. 

Brandon: Yeah, sure. My name’s Brandon James. I am a branding expert, and I specialise in online and digital and I work with companies all over the world, helping them figure out and find their voice and how they connect and engage with people on a human level.

I’m currently working with a few companies right now as a consultant, and I have worked in almost every industry except for the gaming industry and gambling and tobacco, because I won’t work in those industries. But the gaming industry I would work in, however. So I’ve taken time to really understand my craft and also to help a lot of people along the way because people have always taken time to help me along the way. 

Matt: Love that, Brandon. Which is absolutely something I love about you Brandon. So first question’s a personal one on the on the human side. What makes you happy Brandon?

Brandon: What makes me happy? There’s lots of things that make me happy. But I would probably say the thing that what makes me happy is making other people happy, and I know it’s going to sound a bit weird, but I’ll qualify that. So like I live to kind of take something that that doesn’t exist or that doesn’t have a place and help it find a place. I was always the guy in school who, I was fortunate to be really talented in sports and music, but I always hung out with kids that were always on the fringes. I never really hung out with the main popular crowd, and it was mostly because, you know, it’s nothing worse to me than seeing, someone who has value kind of sitting off on their own to the side. And I treat treat life like that with with humans, I treat the brands that I work with like that as well, because I think everything does have a place to find in this world. So it really gets me excited to, take something that maybe didn’t feel like it belonged anywhere and then help it completely shine and actually find its feet in the world. 

Matt: Wow, I just realised I’m one of your pet projects aren’t I Brandon?

Brandon: Maybe a little bit. You’ve done pretty well on your own.

Matt: Right, Brandon, let’s get into this. Brandon, I said the marketing of the branding stuff. But the whole book is about the link between happiness and performance from an organisational perspective. And I’ve got a lot of data people coming on up, but put you more into the storytelling philosopher angle of people that I want to bring to this.

So what’s your view on the link between employee and customer happiness? 

Brandon: Ah, yeah. The link between employee and customer happiness is extremely, extremely important. It’s not something you can you can separate really. To give you, you know, a perfect example. If you take someone say maybe they work in I don’t know that maybe they work in a hardware shop and they’re constantly getting having to walk to the back and get tools for people. You know, the big heavy boxes of tools all the time. After a while, the smile they had on their face when they came in at nine in the morning starts to fade by three in the afternoon when they’re kind of doing the same old thing and they’re really not feeling any return for it. And, as a result, the customer experience suffers. The customers can get upset, but then also all the employees around that person get upset as well, so that person is not really giving their best effort. 

I think when you look at that employees as a whole, really happy companies, and I don’t mean to pick on the Happiness Index, as a result. But the happiness index is a company, where every employee is just so happy that there’s a lot of people pushing in the same direction and so that natural positive intent is already assumed, which makes it really special when you come into contact with groups of people like that. And it’s infectious, it makes it easy to find clients. It makes it easy for clients to find you because that kind of happiness spreads out. That’s, Ah, it’s a really natural, beautiful thing when it works. I just wish there was more of it in the world. 

Matt: Just to be the geek and bring the data in , and I’d love you to respond to the data, Brandon.  Alex Edmans, who’s on one of these episodes I can never remember which order we’re in. But he was. So I asked him what the biggest surprise in his 28 year study on this was and he said. Happiness is equal across all industries. So when he first did his research, he thought that maybe, for example, happiness of employees is more important in retail because they’re front line staff compared to maybe like a welding company. But actually, the research says, it’s equal the flow through from employee happiness route business for sport performance equal across all industries. And as a branding expert, does that help you tell you? Tell a story of a brand knowing that, knowing that happiness is equal across all all areas, including including gambling and tobacco. 

Brandon: I mean, yes and no. I guess for me, with the gambling and tobacco as an example. I guess it’s the end result is why I tend not to work in those industries. I’m not disparaging of those industries. It’s for my own personal views of why I don’t work in those industries. But knowing that happiness is the same across the board, I think that it’s a very, very interesting amount of conclusion from that data.

I’d love to explore that a little bit more and find out about it. But, you know, when you say happiness is the same across the board, Do you mean the same exact kind of happiness like it doesn’t matter the product. It doesn’t matter. The industry, the happiness itself? 

Matt: This study we’re talking about shows that employee happiness flows fruit business performance as in the financial results. But some people would speculate that in your first example it’s really obvious because if you’ve got a frontline staff member and you’re nice to them and then they’re nice to your customer, then obviously people will come back.

But actually the flow through to financial performance is equal for someone who is potentially working in a factory and never sees the customer. The happiness of all employees is equal across all industries, oris equally important to the financial results of the company. Is what I meant, right? 

Brandon: Okay. I mean, that makes a bit more sense now. Yes, it does make it easier to tell that story, I guess You know when I look at it from the standpoint of the two industries we mentioned before, I know quite a few people that work in the industry and they don’t really strike me as the happiest people in the world.

But nonetheless,maybe that in those industries that that happiness is a bit more manufactured because that is a repeat level of business that’s, you know, kind of built on our customer needing that kind of dopamine rush that happens in their brain in order to and continue coming back. So maybe that’s a little different, but yeah, I do find it. It does make it easy to tell the story of happiness. It makes it easier to find the story of happiness as well, if you can get internal employees engaged and excited about what it is they’re there to do. 

Matt: I’m straying again off, you know, chucking curve balls in all the time from our list of questions. But, employees, storytelling is something you speak to. It’s something that we believe in at the Happiness Index and our own marketing. Are you starting to see that more? I think Amazon are doing adverts at the moment where the employees talk about how great it is to work there. I’m not sure how authentic those adverts are. But are you seeing that as a trend, or are you seeing that as just like a fad that’s happening? We’re seeing data where people won’t buy from companies where they’re treating their employees badly? Do you think that’s a trend, or do you think that’s a fad? 

Brandon: Ah, that’s a tough one, you put me on the spot. 

Matt: It’s a curveball Brandon just off the top of my head. Do you think it’s authentic or not? I suppose that is the question. 

Brandon: So I, in some instances, I don’t think it’s authentic. So to clarify that I think brands, even the really, really big brands, I think they want to be authentic. I think they really want to be. It’s just unfortunately, it’s the manicured approach that comes to trying to be authentic, which is exactly what kills it in the first place.

I do think it is a long term trend because, you know, people are starting to realise more and more that people buy from people and you know, social media has proven that quite clearly, you know, where companies who who probably wouldn’t see the light of day, in a normal instance, you know, even during this pandemic, have suddenly, gone viral and have a massive turnaround of orders.That’s been really, really fantastic to to see. I think the bigger brands when they start to let go a bit more and they start to really put themselves in the position where the employees really do have a say. And it’s not just, you know, a marketing consultant or a marketing company, or even just the marketing team internally. I think some of these companies will really fly, but it’s pretty easy sometimes to see the approach that some of the bigger brands take. But, I do genuinely believe they’re trying to be authentic from a good place. I don’t think they’re doing it just to say, “Look at me, I’ve got my people in front of me”. 

Matt: So if you’ve got a brand listening now then, Brandon, and and they’re trying to put their people in it and they’re trying to use happiness. You use the word it comes across too “manicured”. How can you avoid that manicured feeling then, because you said you’re saying you believe that they are authentic, but the delivery of it is leading them down? Have you got any advice on how you could make it less manicure? 

Brandon: Yeah, I think. Realistically, we all have a good idea of what a television spot, for instance, looks like and, you know, a TV ad. It comes with a level of polish, and that level of polish requires, even if it’s your own employees, that requires makeup, it record requires them to stand and look a certain kind of way.

There’ll be certain types of employees who may not ever see that camera, but they might be some of your best performers. They might be some of your most influential employees, but they don’t absolutely get the type of look or feel that the company might want. I think, A, good example of companies that are breaking those barriers is like Ugly Features. For instance, you know, they’re doing a great job of reaching out and they’re working with brands and they’re saying it doesn’t matter, you need to get to the story. You need to get to the nub of the story. And don’t worry so much about how people look. 

So the way to overcome that really is to experiment with things like iPhone video, experiment with things that just look a bit more every day and natural show the warts and all approach. I think that’s what a lot of people are seeing, even on social media. Even now,  there’s always a trend of someone not having makeup or someone showing their scars or people who are proud of disabilities that they have, that they’re being brave and not afraid to show them.

Matt: So yeah, the chair of our business, Martin Colenutt was saying recently that he took his son somewhere and he bumped into somebody who had got a huge birthmark on his face. And his son walked up to this guy and just said, “What is that on your face?” And, this guy turned around and it was a really beautiful moment, actually, he just says, I’m really pleased that you asked me because most people just turn away from me. And I thought, Wow, what a great way to educate a child on what’s important in life? 

Brandon: Absolutely. And I mean, I think that’s what we’re becoming as a society as well. You know, we’ve shown, you know, we can see the shift in society now. You know, people are starting to stand up for things that they didn’t stand up for before. And people are asking questions that they were never comfortable asking in the past, and they’re asking them from a good place. That’s a lovely Storey Teo here that I think it’s a great way to, you know, to educate a child that, hey, people were different in this world and that’s okay. We love them, too. It’s not a big deal. 

Matt: I was watching Sky Sports news yesterday. I’m gonna lean on your American sports knowledge here again, Brandon. We’re not even on the script. We’ve gone off the questions. Sorry. There was a guy out. Basically, there was a guy, a sports guy on there, an expert in American sports. And he was, he said his biggest shock through the black lives matter stuff is that NASCAR have changed quicker than the NFL. And what he was saying is that NASCAR has basically realised that to appeal to a younger audience, they have to, they have to do things right more offensively and cleanup on ban things that they’re putting people off. Where is the NFL worried about losing a group of supporters. Whereas NASCAR, I’ve just decided. “Do you know what we’ve been moaning about years about wanting a younger audience we’re just gonna go for it”. And NFL have bean slower on it. I mean NASCAR had Confederate flags displayed until recently and stuff. If you’ve got any thoughts on why a brand like NASCAR might move quicker than a brand like NFL when it comes to understanding human behaviour? 

Brandon: I mean, no, is that the short answer to that. It was the Black Swan to me, seeing NASCAR do what they’ve done with the Confederate flag, and I wholly applaud them for it. You know, the NFL shocked me because that is the league that is 80% black. It’s 80% black, but the owners of all the teams are all white, white male. So it was very interesting to me that that seemed to be driving the agenda. You know, you’re having the millionaires having an argument with billionaires, and that’s basically what it came down to. 

And, it was quite shocking, you know, realistically, NASCAR, they looked at their audience, and I think they started to think, you know, “maybe we we need to broaden our horizons”, if they want to compare themselves to F1. F1 calls itself the pinnacle of motor sport, and NASCAR sees itself as the same. But what at one does it reaches out to a broad audience across, you know, all levels of poverty and wealth and also across races and genders. You have quite a diverse group of people who are interested in that sport.

Whereas NASCAR, they have a very specific demographic, and I think they can see that demographic is really starting to fade away. And they’re “saying, you know what? We need to start doing the right thing here. If we’re gonna do something good, we’re gonna reach out to the right people. And we’re gonna be the kind of brand that the world wants us to be.” 

Matt: Yes. And I’m gonna get back on script. Thank you, Brandon, once again. Now. And I try to make it sound like I’m not reading this out. 

Why are global brands using happiness in their marketing? 

Brandon: Well, I think you and I have laughed a few times on this call. And you know what happiness does is it creates an instant connection. That’s that’s why brands use happiness. Happiness is something that is extremely shareable. It’s easy for people to grab hold of that and then gain a bit of loyalty to it. It sparks more joy, it allows them to feel free. And it’s that thing that connects us as humans.

Some brands will look for things that pull on the heartstrings of it more, sometimes sport relief or, Save the Children, for instance. You know, they’re appealing to a different part of our brains. But if you notice I mean, after you’ve heard that piece of content that might speak to you once you’ve heard it a 3rd and a 4th time, you kind of become a little bit numb to it. But with happiness, that’s the kind of thing where if your friends around that commercial comes on, it’s like, “oh oh, wait a second. You guys have to check this out. Wait, we’ll watch this. I love this.” And that’s what happiness doesn. That’s why that’s why brands are using happiness because it is a real mechanism to connect a brand to other human beings. It’s what makes us human. 

Matt: You said something that I haven’t heard before, Brandon, which is exactly why I invited you on. Which is your first point as well around how shareable it is. I never even considered it from that perspective, because we talk about it being like a contagious thing: if someone’s happy, it puts you in a good mood. Well, I didn’t think about it from a brand perspective, which you can share that story globally. 

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when I look at strategies and you know, I look at ways to try and find that thing that can connect the brand to a person, you know, because I do think brands are living, breathing things, and I think they do need to be human, no matter how much people people might want to dehumanise them.

But the reality is this. You know, when a brand creates something and it reaches out to people, it should create something that says, “Hey, tell your tell your friend about me” “Hey, tell your tell your friends that I’m a good I’m a good brand. That I’m okay.” 

And happiness allows you to do that because it’s quite innocent, you know? And happiness is one of those things you can’t fake really well.  So, you know, when it’s non-authentic, we see things like, I hate to admit it, but it’s like the Pepsi commercial with Kylie Jenner, is a perfect example. It’s fake happiness and people see through it right away. That’s why I think brands will use happiness if they do it well. 

Matt: So that brings me onto my final question, as the Americans say, we’re into overtime, I should say we’re into injury time. What brands are using happiness well?

Brandon: Brands that are using happiness. Well, I’d say right now the brand that has me just like smiling like crazy. I’ll name two: one’s a personal brand, and one is a global brand. 

So the brand is using happiness very well. Globally is McDonald’s their version of Return of the Mac that they decided to use for the return to McDonald’s, which I thought was spot on. 

Matt: I didn’t see that! For those audio listeners, please explain that to us. 

Brandon: So they had a commercial. It starts off the famous song [he sings] “Return of the Mack”, you know that. But it’s really quiet and just starts out with a little guitar riff.And you know what it is when you’re in a song. But it’s people pulling up at the drive through there, smiling at each other, at the window, once they got their burgers. 

It’s just one of those things. You know, I’m not a massive McDonald’s eater, but the joy that that ad brought. It’s a great song that really showed a lot of happiness. And I’m sure there were lots of their customers that were extremely happy that they’d returned. So I just thought they nailed that.

And, you know, something really shareable as well. You know, I shared it to quite a few of my friends. I was like, “This is just pitch perfect right now”. 

A personal brand, I guess that’s doing extremely well. There’s a gentleman, you may have heard of him as well, a gentleman called Michael Spicer who’s on YouTube. And this guy, you know, he’s found his niche in lockdown, and he has just taken this wild, political, crazy world that we’re currently living in, and he’s created this kind of false bubble, if you will, of this guy in a room next door that’s talking to these politicians. He’s just nailing it.

Every time I see it, it just makes me happy because it makes me feel like while the world is in a complete dumpster fire, it’s not, You know, we might make it through if a guy like that can still make this stuff funny. So, yeah, I’d say there’s two brands that are just nailing happiness right now. 

Matt: Well, Brandon and we’re two minutes 43 seconds over, so I’m gonna have to close. I think the main thing that I’ve learned from you today is this shareable aspect of happiness. In a social media world, well, how important is that? So, Brandon, that leaves me to just do one final thing, which is just to say thank you so much for taking the time out for us. 

Brandon: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it’s been great. 

Matt: Cheers Brandon. 

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