Stigmas associated with mental health have been breaking down over the last few years, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic as stress, anxiety, and depression have risen to alarmingly high levels. While brands have previously either faced backlash for mental health in marketing campaigns or completely shied away from the topic, now consumers value brands that acknowledge and relate to their personal struggles.
The World Health Organization released a report last month that stated “global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%” in 2020. 1 While the pandemic contributed to increased stress levels and health concerns, it also “played a key role in boosting mental-health awareness.” 2 As mental health has become an increasingly important and openly discussed issue, brands have aligned themselves to meet the needs of consumers.
Developing products and creating marketing campaigns requires marketers to understand consumers’ attitudes and perceptions. As the personal values of consumers shift, marketers have to alter their strategies with them because products and services that are consistent with a person’s values are generally more favorable. How a consumer perceives a brand can influence their attitudes towards it and ultimately their purchase behavior.
Even before the pandemic, mental health awareness in marketing strategy was on the rise, but it faced mixed reviews. Nike released the In My Feels Air Max 270 React in 2019, a shoe designed by a therapist with proceeds donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise mental health awareness. 3 The shoes have “a reinterpreted wavy swish logo to reference the peaks and valleys of emotional lives.” 4 Despite doubts about consumers’ reactions, “[t]he sneakers’ success indicated that mental health awareness resonates with customers.” 5
The same year, Peloton’s holiday commercial featured a husband buying his wife a Peloton bike with a virtual trainer. However, “social media skewered the 30-second spot” with some consumers seeing no issue with the ad, even finding it inspiring, and others pointing to misogyny, body image, and other health issues. 6 Peloton trainers have been advocating the benefits of fitness for improving both mental and physical wellness. 7 Unfortunately for Peloton, the ad conveyed the exact opposite to some viewers.
Watch a debate over Peloton’s ad:
In 2019, Mental Health America partnered with Burger King with the hope that a brand not traditionally associated with mental health services “might help destigmatize mental health issues and encourage people to get help earlier in life.” 8 Like Peloton, some consumers approved of the effort, but many others did not; the mood-themed meals obviously poked fun at McDonald’s Happy Meals with names like the Blue Meal and sought to engage younger consumers with pop culture slang like the YAAAS Meal. 9 Not only did consumers feel like Burger King was taking advantage of the campaign to attack their fast-food competitor and downplaying mental health issues to increase sales, but the ads were also viewed as negative. A Syracuse University advertising professor said, “Watching the [Burger King ad], I felt like if I was really feeling down, I don’t know that I’d feel better … And I’m not sure I’d feel better after I eat a Whopper, either!” 10
“Brands have a history of using trending social issues to promote their products — and receiving backlash for trivializing the complexities of those issues.” 11
So, what was the difference? Why did Nike’s In My Feels sneakers strike gold while Burger King’s Real Meals and Peloton’s holiday commercial face controversy? A marketing campaign around mental health can be praised or condemned depending on a consumer’s perception and the brand’s messaging strategy and purpose. Nike sought to raise mental health awareness and donated proceeds while marketing the product with uplifting slogans like “You got this!” and “Mental health matters.” In comparison, Peloton and Burger King may have been well-meaning, but their messaging was misconstrued and poorly executed.
Post-pandemic, consumers are viewing mental health awareness campaigns slightly differently. While companies still fear backlash and “the risk of being seen as taking advantage of soaring stress levels, … consumers appear to be eager for companies to give them health advice.” 12 A 2020 global study revealed “51% of respondents said it is more important for a brand to understand their frustrations than provide them with dreams,” compared to 37% in 2018. 13
Many brands are responding to this shift with new company programs and marketing strategies. For example, Kimpton Hotels offers employees “a yearlong subscription to Talkspace” and “one free virtual therapy session” for guests. 14 This year, “General Motors Co. plans to launch a social-media campaign next month that shows influencers encouraging drivers to get their stress out before getting behind the wheel” out of concern for increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and traffic fatalities. 15
With escalating health and wellness concerns across the world and efforts to destigmatize mental health, consumers now value the brands who connect with them and offer treatment, advice, or uplifting messages.
“The pillar of an effective mental health marketing strategy is high-quality content designed to meet search demand, while also helping consumers understand what they’re experiencing and find the help they need.” 16
Questions marketing managers would consider:
- Is it possible to prevent backlash for marketing campaigns? If yes, how? If no, what can we learn from failures?
- If you were in charge of a marketing campaign to raise mental health awareness, what would you do and why?
- Do you think mental health in marketing campaigns takes advantage of a social issue to promote products, or is raising awareness the best outcome regardless of intentions?
1 Brunier, A. & Drysdale, C. (2 March 2022). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide#:~:text=Wake%2Dup%20call%20to%20all,mental%20health%20services%20and%20support&text=In%20the%20first%20year%20of,Health%20Organization%20(WHO)%20today.
2 Vranica, S. (27 March 2022). From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-gm-to-powerade-brands-pitch-mental-health-11648386000
3 Sawyer, J. (2020). Nike promotes mental health awareness with Air Max 270 React “In My Feels.” Highsnobiety. https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/nike-air-max-270-react-in-my-feels-release-date-price/
4 Gaffney, A. (13 March 2020). Report: What brands need to know about mental health and marketing to Gen Z. Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/companies/report-data-brands-mental-health-and-marketing-to-gen-z
5 Gaffney, A. (13 March 2020). Report: What brands need to know about mental health and marketing to Gen Z. Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/companies/report-data-brands-mental-health-and-marketing-to-gen-z
6 Brodey, D. (4 December 2019). How the Peloton ad radically changes the conversation about mental health and being the boss of your own life. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2019/12/04/how-the-peloton-ad-radically-changes-the-conversation-about-mental-health-and-being-the-boss-of-your-own-life/?sh=7614206262ff
7 Team Peloton. (30 April 2020). Here’s how Peloton instructors build mental strength through workouts. Peloton Interactive, Inc. https://blog.onepeloton.com/build-mental-strength/
8 Siegel, R. (2 May 2019). Burger King’s ‘Real Meals’ are about more than trolling McDonald’s. They’re about mental health. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/05/02/burger-kings-real-meals-are-about-more-than-trolling-mcdonalds-theyre-about-mental-health/
9 Lee, L. (4 May 2019). Burger King launches ‘Real Meals’ and faces backlash on Twitter. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-burger-king-unhappy-meals-mental-health-awareness-20190504-story.html
10 Siegel, R. (2 May 2019). Burger King’s ‘Real Meals’ are about more than trolling McDonald’s. They’re about mental health. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/05/02/burger-kings-real-meals-are-about-more-than-trolling-mcdonalds-theyre-about-mental-health/
11 Lee, L. (4 May 2019). Burger King launches ‘Real Meals’ and faces backlash on Twitter. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-burger-king-unhappy-meals-mental-health-awareness-20190504-story.html
12 Vranica, S. (27 March 2022). From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-gm-to-powerade-brands-pitch-mental-health-11648386000
13 Vranica, S. (27 March 2022). From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-gm-to-powerade-brands-pitch-mental-health-11648386000
14 Vranica, S. (27 March 2022). From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-gm-to-powerade-brands-pitch-mental-health-11648386000
15 Vranica, S. (27 March 2022). From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-gm-to-powerade-brands-pitch-mental-health-11648386000
16 Digital Marketing & Lead Generation. (13 May 2021). How to design a mental health marketing strategy. True North Custom. https://www.truenorthcustom.com/guide/mental-health-marketing#:~:text=The%20pillar%20of%20an%20effective,find%20the%20help%20they%20need.