How brand managers can lean into ‘wellness’ during COVID-19

The pandemic has many organizations looking to craft messaging about health and safety, but what messages are appropriate and relevant for audiences? Here’s some expert guidance.

Wellness sign with wooden cubes and flowers and stones

Is your organization looking to engage your audiences around issues of well-being and health?

It’s an important topic during the current crisis. Whether you’re looking to talk about public health issues or trying to offer guidance for anxious workers during a time of uncertainty and disruption, it’s important to get a handle on what kinds of messages are working for audiences during this pandemic.

We spoke with Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands for Landor, who shared how she and her U.K. marketing and advertising firm are thinking about well-being and wellness for audiences and clients.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers’ attitudes toward wellness were evolving from a point-in-time solution for an injury or chronic illness to a daily, conscious pursuit of better physical, mental and emotional health,” Zalla says. “Especially during the pandemic— when consumer anxiety is at all-time high and economic uncertainty is looming—if a brand has a role to play in helping a person reach his or her wellness goals, that brand should share it.”

However, she cautions against inauthentic messages.

“Brands that stay true to themselves, and keep close to the insights of their consumers, will be able to navigate these waters,” she says.

A huge topic

If the term wellness feels amorphous or vague, Zalla says that’s because the word encompasses a vast area of information, messaging and products.

“Even before COVID-19, the global health and wellness category was estimated to be in excess of $4.2 trillion,” she says. “Consumers today look far beyond healthy food and beverages and vitamins and medications to help them on their wellness journey. Some always have, but more people now have expanded the health and wellness category again to include cleaning products.”

So what makes a wellness product work? Zalla recommends finding a way for your brand to promote calm.

“Products that help consumers calm or de-stress [themselves] are the ones consumers invite into their lives to help them attain their wellness goals,” she says. “Even before the outbreak, consumers needed help reducing stress in their lives and finding ways to slow down.”

In order to really understand how your product can help anxious, health-conscious consumers is to ask.  “Now, more than ever, brand managers need to truly understand their consumers and all that they are going through and determine what role they have to play,” Zalla says. “The most important question all brand managers should be asking themselves is: ‘How can we help?’”

Avoiding opportunism

Zalla warns there is a big risk for brands that miss the mark on authenticity.

“No brand should look like they are exploiting a crisis to drive sales,” she says, “but if your brand can help with a functional or emotional benefit, even if it is a lift through messaging, then by all means help. Brands that lead with deep, personal connections can win the hearts and minds of consumers who need them.”

Some opportunities during this crisis are familiar: isolation, monotonous routines, mental health and self-care.

“We are always hungry for little escapes to capture our imaginations,” Zalla says. “Brands should always seek to be interesting in relevant and authentic ways. Have a personality. Develop a tone of voice. Think about how your brand sounds. This is every bit as important as the visual symbols.”

A chance for everyone

It’s not just health care brands that are succeeding in talking about health and well-being. “Many brands have used the pandemic to reinforce their role in consumer lives through safety, security and resiliency,” says Zalla.

She cites these companies that are doing well on themes of wellness and well-being:

  • Papa John’s has started to tactically talk about some health and safety aspects of their brand, some of which were in place before the crisis—it just wasn’t as relevant to talk about,” Zalla says. “For instance, given that pizza comes out of a 500-degree oven, I’m sure the product was not touched by human hands before, but now this is an important reassurance of safety and worth mentioning.”

“They go a few steps further,” she adds. “You can order online and specify contactless delivery. You prepay, and the order is left on your stoop. A quality seal is applied to the lid of the box, so you know it’s not been opened.”

  • What about serving front line workers? “Zappos and Crocs have come together to create the ‘Free Pair for Healthcare’ project,” Zalla says, “which provides free Crocs to front-line health care workers.”
  • Another company is Gillette, which is donating more than a million razors around the world to health care workers and first responders “following the news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance that encourages shaving when wearing N95 masks to ensure proper fit and protection.”
  • And then there is serving consumers homebound during this crisis. “Lego is giving science lessons to homebound kids,” says Zalla. “They are repurposing their existing #ExplainWithLego content for children being home-schooled with topics ranging from ‘How do volcanos work?’ to ‘Why do we have seasons?’”

Authenticity and the bottom line

The biggest giveaway that your campaign is inauthentic or opportunistic comes down to your stated goals for the effort. If you are taking action to drive sales or even raise brand awareness, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.

“Just as the world around us has changed, so, too, has the idea of campaigns,” says Zalla. “Campaigns that seek short-term financial gains have missed the point. Instead, brands should be using this time to create true and authentic connections and relevance that ties back to their brand purpose and essence.”

However, she says there are still a few things that an organization must do “to be truly vital.” Even in a crisis, some branding lessons won’t change. For example, Zalla exhorts brand managers to show a little “personality.”

“Within health and wellness branding, there is often only one note that gets played, and it is played in the key of ‘E’ or ‘earnest sincerity,’” Zalla says. “People engage with brands that they are drawn to and that leverage identifiable human traits. Authentic brands should employ a captivating identity and visual language that both reinforces key strategic equities and invites consideration.”

Stick to science 

Zalla warns that there is danger in not checking your sources when touting health benefits from your products or services.

“There is major risk in claiming that a brand or aspect of a brand or service is health and wellness oriented when it’s not scientifically proven to be so,” she says. “Brands should never knowingly trade in misinformation.”

However, you might have more room to maneuver than you think. “Consumers are looking far broader and wider when they think of their health and wellness goals and how they can achieve them,” Zalla says. “According to Mintel, 77% of U.S. adults are actively trying to improve their health. There are many ways they are seeking to do this, and brands shouldn’t believe they need to boil the ocean to help their consumers with their goals.”

The future of health

Regardless of the immediate future of our current crisis, Zalla says it is a safe bet that the wellness and health sector will gain ground.

“While we cannot now understand the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know the health and wellness category will continue to grow, and more consumers will develop an interest in it,” she says. “People may more intensely appreciate the essential role many consumer package products play in our lives, and how important the channels are that bring them to us, whether that be our neighborhood grocery store, club store, drug store or online retailer.”

She says brands with an established identity should be leading the charts, despite all the disruption.

“Coming out of COVID-19, tried, true and trusted brands will likely have the edge,” she says. “Yes, due to outages, consumers are rotating new and different brands into their carts, but trusted brands will emerge forward from this pandemic.”

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