Is wellness marketing making people more anxious?

Research by Felicity and Ipsos explores the gap between brands' wellness messaging and consumer sentiment.

Spanning personal care, tourism and technology, the global wellness industry has grown by 20% over the last three years. In 2019, it reached US$4.5 trillion – around two-and-a-half times the size of Canada’s GDP – according to Global Wellness Institute figures cited in a report by Toronto agency Felicity that was released earlier this year.

And though the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have accelerated many existing trends, including health and wellness, the agency believes “there are signs that all is not… well in wellness.”

The report, “Is Wellbeing Washed Up?,” was released in March and showed that there’s a significant gap “between how Canadians want to feel in terms of wellbeing marketing and their actual feelings,” says Felicity president Amy Laski.

She says there’s a 20 to 30 point gap between how consumers want to feel about wellness messaging – the most commonly cited words were hopeful, informed, confident and inspired – and how it actually makes them feel: 92% said health and wellness communications make them feel skeptical, overwhelmed, confused, discouraged or anxious.

“Two-thirds of Canadians want [brands] to take positive action in terms of their health and wellness,” says Laski. “Yet when they actually go to do something, it’s completely overwhelming to the point where many terms that brand marketers think would have meaning to Canadians actually don’t.”

For example, the term “all natural” was considered to be “insignificant” or “off-putting” to many Canadians, according to the research, and only 6% of respondents said the label natural/organic held the most meaning to them.

That’s not to say the wellness industry has run its course.

Three-quarters of consumers believed it’s important for brands across all sectors to embrace wellness as part of their mission, and two-thirds believed brands needed a wellness angle to survive in the future, says Laski. “I think that’s probably even increased since COVID-19 hit.”

To succeed in their wellness communications, brands need to unpack wellness claims using simple and conventional language to help consumers understand what makes them stand out. For instance, based on research that showed 80% of consumers don’t know what organic actually means, Felicity client Organic Meadow created an explainer describing the difference between its organic dairy products and those of non-organic brands.

There’s also an opportunity to work with trusted sources on sharing information with consumers. When the research was first conducted, Canadians ranked health professionals and websites (92%), friends and family (87%) and mainstream media (54%) as their most-trusted sources of health and wellness information. So, to position clients in breakfast cereal as a nutritious option for families, Felicity worked with registered dieticians on a multi-market media tour.

“On the one hand, consumers are bombarded with communications directly from brands, so there’s a huge opportunity to explain and give meaning to what a brand is saying,” says Laski. “On the other hand, you look at who consumers trust for their information and at the top of that list are healthcare professionals, friends and family, mainstream media. So while brands can communicate directly with consumers, there’s still a desire [for], or a higher sense of trust in, trusted third-parties.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Laski says there’s been a shift in how consumers rank their claims, as they prioritize products that kill germs and boost immune systems, while attention paid to naturalness and sustainability has gone down. “Over time, that will probably level out or fall back towards where it was pre-COVID.”

As Felicity positions itself more explicitly as an agency for wellness brands, the shop has offered free advice to cash-strapped organizations unsure how to proceed amid COVID-19 or firms that have needed to reconsider how to get their product or service to market. And throughout and leading up to last week’s national Mental Health Week, the agency donated money to the Canadian Mental Health Association for every download of its report.