Chelsea Carrasquillo, Brand Planner & Chris Corrado, Associate Media Director

CP attended this year’s AdAge Next: Health & Wellness conference – getting a glimpse inside what major advertisers are doing in a time of COVID. Brands such as Unilever, Bayer, Planet Fitness, Peloton and Lululemon shared their experiences and how they quickly pivoted operations and messaging to best serve customers in this new world. Below we share some of these key trends and takeaways for marketers…

Takeaway 1: Bringing Mental Health Awareness to the Forefront  

COVID-19’s mental health toll is being called the second pandemic. Healthline has found that levels of anxiety and depression far exceeded normal rates throughout the past year; the driving factor wasn’t necessarily fear of the virus, but rather loneliness. 

Laurie Dewan, VP of Consumer Insights for Healthline Media, and Erin Petersen, Editor-in-Chief of Healthline.com, reminded us that mental health is still a very personal topic, and as such, it’s essential to listen first to the audience and respond to them in a way that acknowledges their comfort level. For younger generations who are more vocal about mental health challenges, brands can respond by mirroring their language and extending beyond empathy to provide tools and drive impact. For older generations, who may face more of a stigma around mental health, the response might be to simply help them give a name to what they’re feeling, to think about mental health in less of a pathologized sense, and more in regards to the daily emotions and the effect they have. 

An unexpected positive to come out of the last year has been the normalization of dialogue surrounding mental health. Shows like HBO’s Euphoria and Netflix’s The Crown, for example, have placed PSA bumpers and doctor commentaries across their programming. 

As we continue to normalize this conversation, consumers are more likely to seek out information around wellness and look to brands to help them make small changes to improve their lives for the better. Healthline reminded us that struggling with mental wellness is not just pain, it’s highs and lows; the message should emphasize building resilience to ride the waves as they come — to appreciate the moments of joy and lean into the moments of happiness.

Takeaway 2: Meeting Customers Where They Are 

A common message across the event was that barriers still exist in the minds of many consumers as they look to the wellness industry. This pointed to a mantra repeated in several sessions: brands need to meet people where they are. 

Jeremy Tucker, CMO of Planet Fitness, pointed out that while historically many people have been intimidated by the fitness industry, and the gym in particular, the transition to digital fitness has allowed them to re-create their judgement-free zone, where people can explore fitness in the comfort of their home. 

Sam Rogoway, Chief Product and Content Officer for Headspace, spoke of the brand’s new Netflix series, The Headspace Guide to Meditation, as a means of introducing people to meditation and mindfulness as a wellness tool. Rogoway said that a major initiative for them has been helping those who may be unfamiliar or unsure about meditation to understand it’s benefits in a way that removes intimidation. 

“Meeting consumers where they are,” is an encompassing trend that includes both the physical media journey and the mental mindset of today’s consumer. That includes ensuring that brands are accessible and their messaging is both informative and reassuring, while avoiding the possibility of coming off as tone-deaf. It demands that brands make themselves more available for their customers, by offering products and services that provide immediate value, or by being a source of truthful and useful information. Brands that are prepared to help solve unique challenges such as work from home parenting hacks, or teleservices, such as telehealth or virtual estimates, are poised to be in a better position for success in the post-covid world. 

Takeaway 3: Deep Human Listening & Action 

Dewan and Peterson of Healthline repeatedly emphasized that empathy alone is not enough, brands need to find a way to provide real service for the communities they engage with. Dara Treseder, Senior VP and Head of Global Marketing and Communications at Peloton, said that their brand has worked hard to establish a “virtuous cycle” in which they take customer feedback and suggestions, and demonstrate the ways they’ve put it into action: “you said, we did.” Planet Fitness brought this to life with their decision to bring personal fitness to the consumer’s home. In response to the pandemic, rather than just putting forth a message of solidarity, Planet Fitness quickly paused membership fees, credited their current members, and made free personal training available online to anyone. Planet Fitness’ CMO, Jeremy Tucker, realized that they could provide their current and future customers with physical and mental wellness tools, free of charge, in a time where Americans needed it most. As Tucker succinctly put it, “doing good is good business.” 

Takeaway 4: Personalized and Inclusive Messaging  

The Ad Council, Publicis Health Media, DeepIntent, Healthline, and Peloton all echoed the importance of personalization in health and wellness marketing. We heard a resounding declaration that empathy is critical. While there’s been an emphasis on data in recent years, it should be viewed as merely a catalyst to understand larger behavioral trends. It is vital that brands go beyond data to understand the “why” behind these human behaviors so that they can tailor their messaging in response to those nuances. Connelly Partners makes this connection between data and human insights by bringing anthropology into the conversation to deliver empathetic advertising that reaches consumers on a deeper level. 

With that said, a major challenge for brands, especially for something as broadly relevant as the COVID-19 vaccine, is establishing a universally-resonant, informative message, without neglecting the distinctions between different communities — whether demographic, ethnic, or socioeconomic. 

Peloton’s Dara Treseder said that a big focus in their marketing strategy has been around increasing access to fitness (and thinking about access in a multidimensional way). For example, in Peloton’s partnerships with celebrities or influencers, they want to ensure diversity and make sure that communities who may have previously felt excluded by the wellness industry are represented, emphasizing that fitness and health is for everyone. 

Headspace’s Rogoway said that contextual messaging was a major focus for them throughout the pandemic; they worked to speak to various points of stress that were affecting consumers and tailored the messaging to present meditation as a helpful tool to combat them. For example, ‘politics without panic’ was created to help address the stress related to the election and political division in the media.

Takeaway 5: Agility is Key

A reality that COVID has made abundantly clear is that agility is essential for survival — this has been true for all of us, as we’ve been forced to adapt to a new way of living, and it’s perhaps even more true for brands. 

Sam McFadden, Head of U.S. Enterprise Marketing for Talkwalker, a social media monitoring platform, saw this represented in the online sentiment and conversations around fitness at the beginning of COVID. What began as frustrations around stay-at-home mandates quickly evolved as people sought out at-home workouts and alternative wellness opportunities. 

Planet Fitness, previously an exclusively brick-and-mortar fitness chain, was forced to quickly pivot to the world of online workouts, and did so in a way that clearly prioritized the well-being of their customers: offering free fitness classes and pausing membership payments. 

Peloton noticed the growing demand for new ways to stay healthy amid the ongoing pandemic. As a result, they quickly expanded their class offerings outside of their spin classes to provide in-home, personalized, full body workout classes.

In addition, Lululemon gained momentum throughout the pandemic by connecting with customers beyond their traditional e-commerce offering with their $500 million purchase of interactive home fitness startup, Mirror. 

Heidi Arthur, Chief Campaign Development Officer at The Ad Council, and Andrea Palmer, President of Publicis Health Media, both shared similar thoughts in that collaboration is key, however it doesn’t have to be at the detriment of efficiency. We can use real time data and research to focus our direction and optimize results on a personal and empathetic level.