Is our wellbeing becoming commodified?

January 7, 2019

Gone are the days when having material goods were enough to elevate your social standing, in 2019 you also need to be healthy, happy and in possession of the often elusive ‘wellbeing’.

Wellbeing is not just the absence of illness paired with mentally functioning well enough to hold down a job, it is an active and conscious pursuit of getting oneself to as close to perfection as possible. It is also a million miles away from the pursuit of hedonism that has been the dominant social currency for a few generations.

Particularly interesting is the new generations’ move away from the alcohol and reckless abandon which has been the generally accepted rite of passage you go through before growing up. From the 50s Beat Generation to the 80s idea of power living being able to exist on stimulants and five hours’ sleep, the wasted away aesthetic of Twiggy and the heroin chic and grunge nihilism of the 90s, not looking after yourself has been the bedrock of cool for as long as we can remember.

In 2019, we are encouraged to look after ourselves and the planet; to appreciate our bodies and nurture our minds, whilst recognising that peace of mind goes hand in hand with being sustainable and respectful towards nature.

Slowly but surely our culture is opening up about mental health issues, and not just about clinical maladies, the current climate posits that everyone can benefit from paying attention to their mental health and fostering better wellbeing. Additionally, brands are taking responsibility by talking about issues along with influencers and an audience much more open to social and human issues.

At the agency, Hatched, where I work, we’ve been fortunate enough to recently work with some amazing brands that are truly invested in wellbeing, pioneering what they are doing through their products and communications.

One of these brands is Biobeats, whose conception began with taking a deep dive into what causes stress and how it affects us physically. At one point stress almost cost David Plans, the founder of Biobeats, his life. His action to do something through technology, science and music to change the world and how we deal with mental health issues that can create physical diseases is fascinating, and gave the work Hatched did with Biobeats and Biobase a solid foundation to build an inspiring brand upon. That purpose is an incredible driver, and the love and belief he and his partners and team put into it is remarkable.

Another brand is No.1 Kombucha, a fermented drink full of healthy bacteria, founded by rugby legend, Jonny Wilkinson. He took years to find a product which he believed could educate people about how a living diet can have a huge impact on getting more out of ourselves. His product and the way of life that his brand encourages improves people’s wellbeing from the inside out – if our gut is happier, we are too. His drive to connect and inspire people to get more from themselves is amazing. He’s found a purpose after sport and again it drives the brand.

It’s great how brands are pivoting to think about the bigger picture for the individual, taking on board subjects such as mental health and raising important issues such as their products’ impact on the environment. Yet wellbeing should always be considered in a way that the brand believes in and not just to sell t-shirts or laptops. No one wants to sit down and realise everything on the breakfast table is promising an ephemeral ‘wellbeing’. It has to really mean something and support the individual, if something is over-marketed without meaning it ceases to mean anything. If brands ‘talk the talk’ about wellbeing, but their products have no commitment to meaningfully improving individual’s lives, there is a risk that a maximum saturation is reached and we stop listening. If wellbeing becomes white noise, there’s the danger that it will be pushed back into the dark, where people are uncomfortable talking about it, simply don’t care anymore or start to see it through a cynical lens.

A much-talked about wellbeing rebrand in 2018 was Weight Watchers, who transitioned their entire brand and strategy away from dieting towards ‘wellness’, removing the limiting term ‘weight’ from their name to become ‘WW’ (Wellness that Works) and planning to launch a wellbeing app in partnership with meditation company, Headspace. Speaking of the partnership, WW’s Chief Science Officer, Gary Foster, highlighted that ‘half of the work of doing [a weight loss] journey' is mental, ‘we want to leverage the power of positive psychology.’ Although many have dismissed WW’s transition as jumping on the wellbeing bandwagon, it is interesting that a leading weight-loss company has chosen to focus on mental health.

Not only are brands focusing on the wellbeing their products can bring to their consumers, they are focusing on looking after their own staff. An example is John Lewis who’s 2018 rebrand added the words “& Partners” to their name to draw attention to their employee-owned business model. Pentagram explained, ‘in an age where consumers increasingly expect brands to be principled and good, the partnership’s commitment to John Lewis’ original model is an authentic differentiator that it can be proud of‘.

At Hatched I have been working with UPP over the past three years to create a holistic wellbeing programme focusing primarily on their employees. This follows a movement with brands deciding to look more long-term and invest in their people, as well as to fully own their responsibility to those that work for them. Their three-year programme looks at safety, mental and physical health as well as the environment.

An encouraging theme within the wellbeing trend is taking responsibility, and it’s great to see how brands are not only taking responsibility for their products’ impact on customer’s wellbeing and the environment, they are taking responsibility for their employees. And on an individual level, wellbeing promotes the idea that you can’t be holistically well and content unless you are being responsible to the planet.

However, with anything ‘current’ there’s a danger of brands becoming another ‘us too’ brand, whereby people are fulfilling a hygiene line other than a relevant responsibility for their audience. If this happens too much, there really is a danger that wellbeing ceases to mean anything and becomes another advertising buzzword that we filter out. On the other hand, consumers have never been so savvy, or had information about brands so readily available – and they have never before had more choice. The sense of responsibility is being taken up by the modern consumer who is more likely to expect transparency and clear provenance from brands and products they become loyal to. Without the authenticity, commitment and actions to back up the marketing, a brand cannot succeed in the wellness arena.

Culturally, I hope to see 2019 as a year where the conversations around mental health and wellbeing are made increasingly acceptable and that brands’ promotion of wellbeing helps foster a new culture where it’s aspirational to be open and honest about mental health and to prioritise taking care of ourselves and the planet.

Previous blog