How do you avoid ‘wellness-washing’? Get back to basics

All brands are linked to wellbeing. Felicity's Amy Laski details why COVID-19 means they can't take any consumer need for granted.

By Amy Laski

“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.”

This wisdom comes courtesy of Abraham Maslow – of the hierarchy of needs fame – whose words are particularly poignant when you read them through the lens of a marketer in the wellbeing space, because both safety AND growth are fundamental to human wellbeing.

If you don’t consider yourself a marketer in the wellbeing space, think again. Even in life before COVID, three quarters of consumers believed it was important for brands across all sectors to embrace wellness as part of their core mission, with 62% believing that brands will need a wellness angle to survive in the future.

Wellbeing extends “well” beyond the traditional categories of food, nutrition and health. From workplace wellbeing to the wellbeing of our communities, the outdoor environment to the retail environment, one’s financial wellbeing, mental health and relationship with technology, almost all brands are connected to wellbeing.

That’s where Maslow comes in. Growth – be it personal or brand – needs to be rooted in safety. If you’re going to ascend his hierarchy, you need to begin by making sure you’ve addressed the foundational human needs of food, shelter and sleep, escalating to safety, finances and employment and health. That’s before you even get to our intrinsic need for friendship and connection. This climb culminates in the feeling that you’re fulfilling your own potential.

So what happens when many, if not all, the needs of our society are in jeopardy, as they are right now? How do we get a toe hold, to begin to regain ground?

As wellbeing marketers, we can play a significant role, by asking ourselves how, not if, our brands can enable our audiences to surmount the challenges they’re facing in their daily lives. Our ability to be effective depends on appealing to one of Maslow’s motivational drivers, in a compelling way that resonates with consumers.

Just prior to the pandemic, our team partnered with Ipsos to learn Canadians’ thoughts on wellbeing marketing and communication. The findings were startling: two-thirds of Canadians were interested in health and wellness and/or looking to improve their wellbeing. Canadians wanted wellbeing marketing to make them feel informed, hopeful, confident and inspired. Yet there was a 20- to 30-point gap between these desired feelings and their actual feelings, with 92% of Canadians saying health and wellness communications left them feeling skeptical, overwhelmed, confused, discouraged or anxious.

This revealed that there was a lot of “well-washing” at play, whereby brands were mystifying consumers with both tactics and language that confused and even alienated them. To help keep well-washing in check for all brands, we came up with our own five-step prescription for marketing well:

1. Use meaningful language
2. Rethink what wellness looks like
3. Leverage real influence
4. Offline is the new online
5. Own your conversation

Since the pandemic struck, this is more important than ever, because COVID caused a landslide in terms of where we’re at, collectively, on Maslow’s mountain of wellbeing needs. Previously, we may have assumed that for some audiences, their safety and security, shelter, sleep, and even social connection were pretty assured. Now, as marketers, we need to start at the bottom of the hierarchy, to meet many consumers where they are.

Brands can be a source of comfort, familiarity and trust in uncertain times. Brands give us short cuts to help make decision-making less onerous. In today’s environment, it seems like the need to make decisions, and then re-evaluate those decisions, is overwhelming, something that isn’t helped by the barrage of conflicting and confusing information. This means marketers need to dust off a framework we may have learned in Psychology 101 and start at the very foundation.

Comfort, familiarity, trust and simplicity are what consumers need right now. And brands have an opportunity – and I’d argue, an obligation – to provide this. We talk often about a brand’s reputation being like a bank account that can be filled and depleted. Now is the time for brands to invest wisely in building trust with their audiences by listening to, and delivering on, their needs. And as much as this hierarchy is an uphill climb, all brands need to keep on building.

Amy Laski is founder and president of Felicity, a communications and content agency focused on the wellbeing space.