Marketing in the Age of Anxiety

How a bevy of brands are jumping on the wellness trend to help people chill out and live their best lives.

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Sometimes you just want to snuggle a soft, cuddly teddy when things get too much to bear. Photographer Justin Poulsen pulled the “in case of anxiety” card to illustrate the general consensus on the consumer state these days.

Tapping in to a global phenomenon

Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Scan the body from head to toe, pausing to identify what feels comfortable, uncomfortable. It’s OK if the mind wanders. If the day’s stress creeps in, just breathe it out.

So goes one of the five-minute guided meditations on the popular Headspace app. As of 2019, more than 16 million people have downloaded the program, which encourages short bursts of quiet focus throughout the day – five minutes here, 10 minutes there. The app offers a range of free daily sessions, while deeper meditations for specific outcomes (like managing stress, treating insomnia or even stopping an itch), are part of its subscription service.

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Other brands have taken notice of a growing appetite for mindfulness: Tea co. Twinings linked up with the U.K.-based Headspace (an image from its website is shown above) for bite-sized meditations geared at women; Virgin Airlines and Air Canada offer the app’s calming exercises on flights; and, Weight Watchers (now WW) partnered with the app on mindful eating/living sessions.

For WW, the partnership is part of its broader transformational shift towards holistic health, says Kevin O’Brien, president of the brand’s Canadian office. Best known as a dieting company, its weight management program has long appealed to women age 38 to 55. “But, there are 36 million people in Canada, and more than 14 million of them are overweight or obese,” he says. “They certainly aren’t all women 38 to 55.” And, as consumers shun the idea of diets, there’s an even greater opportunity for WW, he says.

“The wellness economy globally is [worth more than] US$4 trillion,” he notes. “In the last year, WW was a less than $1.5 billion business. That’s less than 0.1% [of the market]. There’s a huge opportunity for growth for us.”

These days, “wellness” is still connected to weight, but for consumers it’s all about the mind, body and spirit, according to the Global Wellness Institute. No longer confined to the realm of “alternative medicine,” the new definition is focused on enjoying illness-free, healthy lives – recognizing that all three aspects work together. It’s also evolved from the Goop-loving, relatively elite (and largely white female) acolytes who praise the healing powers of meditation, crystals and jade eggs. Driven in no small part by our growing anxiety over social, mental and physical well-being, wellness has gone mainstream.

There’s no denying that Canadians are increasingly anxious: in its annual health survey, Sun Life Financial found that 90% of young adults are stressed out, while rates of clinical anxiety-related disorders have been on the rise.

There’s a lot of factors causing rising anxiety levels, says Johanna Faigelman, an anthropologist and CEO of Human Branding. Political tensions, economic uncertainty and environmental changes are ever-present. And, at the heart of these concerns, the smartphone and proliferation of social media make those problems seem even closer.

“People can’t escape the 24-hour news cycle,” she says. “It creates a proximity to social crises that feel much closer to the average person today than in the ‘80s or ‘90s. If there’s a shooting in California, it feels like it’s happening next door because it’s on your feed.”

When faced with situations that elicit feelings of impending doom – like climate change or reckless politicians – people tend to turn inwards. “We look for ways to control ourselves as a way of regaining some of that control,” she says.

Beth McGroarty, director of research at L.A.-based The Wellness Institute, concurs, adding that it’s not a surprise that the Gwyneth Paltrow-created Goop (which launched in 2008 as a health-related e-newsletter and has sold consumers on soup cleanses and wearable stickers to allegedly treat ailments) gained popularity alongside the dominance of the smartphone and the decline of the economy. And where there’s consumer demand, there are companies popping up to meet these healthy mind and body needs, McGroarty says.

Just look at the likes of anti-anxiety products, such as the sleep-aid weighted Gravity Blanket, which was engineered to reduce stress and raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter – one of the crowd-funding site’s most successful product campaigns.

Spas, retreats and “wellness tourism” have seen a huge boom recently, growing to become multi-billion-dollar industries. Traditional travel brands have also taken notice: Hyatt bought spa brand Exhale for more than $230 million; while IHG’s Even Hotels (which carries the tagline “Where wellness is built in” and employs “wellness-savvy staff”) unveiled eucalyptus fibre bedding for better sleep.

Organizations like the Well Building Institute have also popped up with a mission to put societal well-being at the forefront of architectural designs (through the use of things like natural materials and softer lighting).

Designing wellness

The trend towards minimalism in design is three-fold, says Sarah Housley, senior editor, lifestyle at WSGN. Natural materials – like birch wood, copper and clay – create a soothing effect, which is why they’re in so many stores.

“Handcrafted surfaces and tactile textures are really important to design at the moment, particularly to add to products that don’t feel as emotional or as human as we might like – such as home electronics,” she says. “And multi-sensory wellness is gaining a lot of importance too – thinking about calming sounds especially, and how to make spaces quieter and less anxiety-inducing.”

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In 2017, for example, U.K. retailer Selfridges (an activation in one of its stores pictured above) launched an in-store wellness space called The Body Studio, with a product selection focused on encouraging women to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies. The store design featured light wood finishes, mannequins in yoga poses, an in-store cycling and yoga studio, as well as panel discussions with the likes of Deepak Chopra and health guru Rhian Stephenson.

Amid the soaring complexity of our digital lives, products and brand design have also taken a decidedly minimalist turn. From the growth of Muji and Uniqlo to upstarts Casper and Quip, brands that have opted for simplicity resonate with the wellness zeitgeist.

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Housley says simplistic packaging, like that of Glossier or Brandless (its tea shown above), helps consumers deal with choice paralysis – providing an easy to understand design that doesn’t overwhelm. “Transparency, both literally and figuratively, has been one of the biggest trends in packaging this year,” she says.

The trend is also the result of merging wellness and aspirational living, says Housley. Wellness has – until very recently – been the purview of the elite, and packaging that’s both clean (in terms of ingredients and design) and beautiful is the result. “There’s a definite connection between clarity, simplicity and well-being,” she says. “Living with less, but in a beautiful way, is a luxury that requires an investment of time or money, or both.”

Feeding the body and the soul

Beyond external pressures, people’s own bodies and lifestyles are also becoming more anxiety-inducing. Stress levels are particularly high among women, who – as caregivers and working moms – often carry more workload than their partners, says Mary Chambers, CSO at McCann. While 82% of adult women are in the labour force, 67% believe they manage the household “mental load” – like planning kids’ schedules or grocery lists. In comparison, only 26% of men feel that mental load, according to McCann’s recent survey of 2,600 Canadian.

As cooking and cleaning services become increasingly commoditized, the trend to offload some of the household stress will grow, Chambers says. Just look at the rise in meal-in-a-box delivery companies. Ready-made meals from grocery stores and fresh delivery services were the fastest growing food segments in the past year, jumping 20% to nab an 8% market share, according to NPD Group. While consumers have, in recent years, begun to shun the centre and frozen aisles, according to Packaged Facts, they’re still looking for a bit of help in the home. In response, grocers like Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro have ramped up ready-to-eat high-quality foods (usually made daily without the long-lead best-before date), paving way for the grocer/restaurant “grocerant” trend.

What’s more, people are also looking for healthier meal alternatives, as the prospect of developing preventable illnesses becomes more terrifying as they age. Among young adults, for example, 34% worry heart disease and stroke is epidemic, and 31% believe diabetes is rampant, according to a the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) study. These aren’t baseless concerns either: Statistics Canada found that for adults age 20 to 39, the risk of an expanding waistline has quadrupled in the past 30 years, with more than 26.1% of that population considered overweight. “People are living longer and longer, but with more and more chronic disease,” says McGroarty.

This body stress isn’t limited to young adults either, says Alyssa Rodrigo, director of insights at Labatt. Nearly half of all Canadians want to live healthier lives, her research has found, and that is manifesting itself in three ways: consumers are taking things out of their diets (like sugars or fats); adding things into their routines (like enriched minerals); or they’re getting into social fitness.

For Labatt, this interest in wellness has led to its low-cal Michelob Ultra line enjoying high double-digit growth last year, doing particularly well among the under-35 set.

Society has also gotten better at focusing on mental health concerns by identifying the drivers. The latest is the loneliness “epidemic.”

A recent U.K. study from the British Cardiovascular Society found that loneliness is not only linked to depression, anxiety and suicide, but it can also cause physical health issues, raising people’s risks of heart attack and stroke. In response, the government appointed its first-ever Minister of Loneliness. Here, in Canada, at least one in five people suffer from social isolation, according to research from Simon Fraser University.

Building on the depressing modern-day insight, Loblaws-owned President’s Choice found that two out of three Canadians eat meals alone, even though 93% believe that eating meals as a family will lead to children growing up happier and healthier. In short, Canadians want to eat with other people – they just aren’t.

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In response, the brand launched the “Eat Together” campaign in 2017, encouraging Canadians to get together for meals more often – as depicted in an ad above. Last year, the company promoted eating together during the workday lunch hour in a bid to banish the dreaded #saddesklunch. And, this New Year’s Eve, PC unveiled its latest “Eat Together” iteration, this time focusing on helping Canadians make New Year resolutions to share more meals in 2019. The campaign from John St. is living on TV, in stores and online, and encourages people to reflect on their meal partners for the year ahead, says Cheryl Grishkewich, VP marketing, President’s Choice.

“Eat Together” isn’t a traditional marketing ploy, she says, rather it’s an attempt to start a movement to address the issue of loneliness. And while the campaign itself isn’t specifically a “wellness” initiative, she says the trend towards more holistic health is having a profound effect on the brand’s overarching product selection.

While it’s always offered a robust line of organic foods, for example, hundreds of new SKUs will be unveiled next year, Grishkewich adds. It’s part of the growing demand consumers have for foods that are free from pesticides or antibiotics, she says (PC is also rolling out more “free-from” foods, typically meats raised without antibiotics, as well as more vegan and gluten-free lines.).

The end goal, however, isn’t to push a “wellness” philosophy onto consumers. “We don’t want to be in a position to tell Canadians what’s best for them,” says Grishkewich. “We want to give them the choices so they can make the decision.”
Indeed, any push into wellness needs to come with a warning label, says Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy, as well as the host of Netflix’s A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.

As people become more rigorous at tracking their mental and physical health, and as more companies sell wellness products, people can actually become, well, stressed out. “[Our society has an] obsession with always trying to improve and ‘live your best life,’” he says. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on people. The movement really puts the emphasis on the individual.”

We’re a time-starved population, and since “living your best life” is a very personal thing, people often look for shortcuts, he adds. They want a magical cure, and the wellness industry has done an excellent job at selling things people believe are solutions.

However, just because consumers are turning to wellness to help alleviate their anxieties, it doesn’t mean brands need to go full-tilt on all things holistic, says McCann’s Chambers. Consumers who are stressed out want to know how, and why, a product will make their lives easier or better – make that a bigger priority, she says.
So, sit back, breathe, and think through your health and wellness strategy, top to bottom. What feels comfortable, uncomfortable? There’s no need to stress about injecting some wellness into your brand.

Selling wellness

Being fit is easy especially with yogaWellness real estate:
The construction of residential and commercial properties that incorporate wellness – think offices with spas and sleep spaces, or condos with yoga rooms. A new commercial centre, Paradise Walk in Niagara Falls, Ont., for example, will have an oxygen bar (companies have long claimed that high O2 offers health benefits) and gardens, all designed to help improve visitors’ health.
> US$2.3 billion*

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Workplace wellness:
Programs from employers that tap into wellness. But they’re more than just gym memberships and soothing office designs: Toronto-based Vibrant Marketing and InnoveLab recently launched ETA (shown at left), a set of cards that are meant to challenge employees to think through their mental health. Cards encourage players to be positive and “Surprise your colleagues,” by contributing to well-being in the office, or “Get grounded” through a meditation technique.
> $1.8 billion*

Wellness tourism:
Getaways that focus specifically on living well through spiritual retreats or spa weekends. There are even companies like Renew, which help women recover from heartbreak. Launched by Vancouverite Amy Chan, the three-day New York retreat pulls in the broken-hearted for a weekend of fine cuisine, heart-healing yoga and even soothing llamas.
> $15.7 billion*

Spas:
Canada has more than 4,000 spas spread across the country. Want to get your brand in on the trend? Learn from Hershey: at its Chocolate Spa at Hotel Hershey, patrons can get a chocolate fondue wrap, cocoa facial treatments, or even a chocolate exfoliating manicure.
> $2 billion*

Fitness:
This includes social workouts, like CrossFit or SoulCycle, but they’re not limited to the body. Launched in September 2018, the Brain Gym offers EEG headsets to measure alpha waves that help clients meditate better. The Muse headset, from Toronto’s InterAxon, can sense when people’s mindfulness is drifting and prompts them to get back on their meditation track.
>$3 billion**

*Global Wellness Institute **Ibis Worldwide

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct valuation of Weight Watcher’s business. It previously stated that it was worth $500 million, when in fact it is valued at $1.5 billion.