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In ancient times—say, March 2020—this was a trite, passing nicety.
Today, with kids going back to school and the virus still raging out of control, it is a real question, and your response has real consequences. Are you healthy enough to hug? Do you do the elbow bump? (Could those be any more awkward?) Are you handed PPE and asked to sit no less than six feet away? Or, yikes, are you uninvited altogether, out of fear that you may make me or my family sick?
Brands are no different.
Today, before we invite them in, we want to know if they will make us sick or help us stay healthy.
We’re not just talking about brands like Listerine, Fitbit, and Peloton.
We’re talking about every brand.
The sooner a brand starts thinking like a health and wellness brand, the sooner it will find a pulse in our slowly opening economy.
What it means to be a health and wellness brand
Health and wellness brands have long understood that customers will drive farther, spend more, or consequently skip purchases altogether, if their spider sense kicks in or a little voice in their head so much as whispers, “Danger, Will Robinson!”
Before putting messaging, product development, brand experiences, or brand actions through the new lens of the health and wellness zeitgeist, it helps to start by understanding what makes health and wellness brands unique.
Do a CT scan and you’ll see that health and wellness brands hold a special role in our lives (and brains). Taking the right pill, choosing the right hospital, or picking the right device is literally a life-and-death decision. Our trust in them isn’t built on puffery, faith, or unquantifiable platitudes—it is built on facts, clinical studies, and true breakthroughs and innovations. We might be bummed out if our mascara smudges or a fabric softener leaves our shirts a little scratchy, but our expectations for our heart medicine or glucose monitor are unforgiving. These are brands we quantifiably trust to keep us safe and protect our health.
Yet for all their undeniable function, health and wellness brands aren’t cold taskmasters. Thus, don’t be fooled into thinking that a mask or hand sanitizer will magically unlock sales. These are (at best) table stakes. Health and wellness brands don’t build trust through appropriation; they build it through genuine empathy. Sure, they may use celebrity endorsers and influencers or indulge in the occasional de rigueur collab, but they do it to augment their inherent trust and empathy, not hide behind them.
Nike is one of the best examples. They blend functional reasons to get their products invited in—while also adding emotional reasons to unlock brand love. Throughout the pandemic, Nike has gotten it right. Its recent “You Can’t Stop Us” campaign is the latest example of work that began on March 21, 2020, with a global rallying cry to “Play Inside, Play for the World.” Its tonally perfect response to the Black Lives Matter movement, “For Once, Don’t Do It,” was a beacon for thousands of brands that followed their lead. At the same time, Nike continues to push function in its products, apps, and the majority of the content in its brand ecosystem.
Tylenol is another health and wellness brand that consistently gets it right. Its trust is built on decades of putting consumers, caregivers, and medical professionals first. Tylenol’s response to a tampering incident in 1982 literally wrote the book on crisis response, and its tamperproof innovations changed how medicine is sold around the world. Today, the commitment continues with the blend of content, brand acts, and product innovations that balance efficacy and empathy. During COVID-19, Tylenol’s “Stay Home for Them” campaign was the first work to celebrate the tireless efforts of frontline workers—including direct support for the American Nurses Foundation and free product rushed to communities and hospitals in need.
As the world slowly reopens, some brands are learning these lessons the hard way, and some are seeing the fruits of behaving like health and wellness brands.
Consider the calculus for buying an airline ticket. We used to ask, “Which airline will I fly?” That choice was based on price, schedule, and, for the select few, frequent-flier status. Today, the thinking part of our brain kicks in and the question becomes, “What will it take for me to fly?”
So what can airlines do? United Airlines went the route of appropriating health and wellness by partnering with Cleveland Clinic and Clorox. Similarly, Hilton Hotels is partnering with Mayo Clinic and Lysol. For United, it was little more than a veneer—and completely lacking in empathy. Customers saw through it and looked to Delta. Delta promised to keep the seat next to you open and was the first to remove passengers for refusing to mask up. Even without a Clorox endorsement, Delta seems to be winning because the airline put people, not profits, first. (Textbook health and wellness move.)
Trust and empathy, working together, to reignite travel.
Four ways to run health into wealth
Those innovating like health and wellness brands are seeing growth. Walmart has changed its advertising and store experience and completely rethought its digital platforms for the COVID and post-COVID era. Carvana is changing the automotive shopping experience—moving it from the showroom to your driveway. UPS, for instance, isn’t just giving drivers PPE; it’s partnering with CVS to offer “touchless” drone deliveries of medication to retirement communities. The result: for Walmart, 20% growth in store sales and a 190% increase in app installs. For UPS, a 13.4% increase in its second-quarter earnings.
If you’re wondering where your brand can start, here is our simple playbook most health and wellness brands follow:
Actions speak louder than words. What you do will always be more impactful than what you say. Make meaningful change in your products and services to support health and wellness, then advertise the hell out of that. We’ve all seen enough “We’re all in this together” ads. Now is the time to act.
Appeal to the head and the heart. In February, it was okay to be a purely functional brand. Think Kroger, JCPenney, and Southwest Airlines. Or, conversely, a brand focused purely on image, such as Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton, or Ritz-Carlton.
Today, success requires the correct calibration of both. Health and wellness brands do this naturally because they intrinsically offer functional transformation for something that is deeply meaningful: our health. This balance can work for every brand.
Intercept at the right moment. Throw out the traditional media-targeting playbook. We start our relationships with health and wellness brands during a moment of need—often an urgent one. When something hurts, you run to Dr. Google. Now, we do the same when we’re looking for a safe retailer, restaurant, or exterminator. Marketing in the COVID era isn’t just about demographics; it’s about delivering the right content, service, or product at the right moment.
Design for the future. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Who are your competitors of the future, not the past? Don’t just make your brand a healthier version of what it was in February. This is an opportunity to reinvent it for the world of 2021 and beyond.
There are endless examples of brands making smart, short-term changes: limiting patrons to promote social distancing, converting production lines to make hand sanitizer, adding the option of curbside pickup, designing masks, and adding new e-commerce options. Some of these changes will be lasting, but most will be fleeting.
The brands making big changes, however, are the ones most likely to see explosive growth as the economy finds its groove again.
These brands are reinventing themselves for the future—and health and wellness are now at their core.
Eric Weisberg, global chief creative officer at Doner, is a storyteller, dyslexic copywriter, tinkerer, tea drinker, and winner of over 100 awards for innovation and creativity.