The war against want: how the concept of 'self' rose up the marketing agenda

What brands should know about the new self-care agenda

Nap York: offers sleep pods for rent by the half-hour (credit Getty Images)
Nap York: offers sleep pods for rent by the half-hour (credit Getty Images)

Every year, several thousand people travel from across the globe to experience the Integratron sound bath, which uses a range of noises to induce a meditative state. The wooden dome, which is 38 feet high and 55 feet wide, is located near California’s Joshua Tree National Park and is perhaps the ultimate temple of the "self-care" era.  

David Frymann, strategy partner at Frontier, describes his experience at Integratron with a quote from the character Alex in the Anthony Burgess book A Clockwork Orange: "Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh." 

He attributes its success to sitting at the sweet spot of two trends: self-care and the experience economy. "Whether you’re a brand owner or looking to attract and retain talent, who wouldn’t want to create a magnetic proposition that gets talked about and lures people in from everywhere? To turn disengaged audiences into avid consumers, it’s a question of listening to what matters and acting on it," he says. 

Listening to what matters is not necessarily an easy feat in the always-on marketing ecosystem. Nonetheless the concept of self-care is no longer the sole preserve of the New Age movement, enlightened ad agency leaders or the Silicon Valley set, who ban screen time for their children, while simultaneously selling their platforms to the masses. 

Historically, brands have perpetuated the myth that men pursue "hobbies" while women have the somewhat empty promise of "me time". Conversely, self-care is emerging as a genderless and fluid marketing platform, which is expanding to encompass a growing range of products and services. 

Even McDonald’s has jumped on the self-care bandwagon with a social-media #selfcare campaign surrounding the act of having a McCafé premium roast coffee. So is "self-care", once considered a niche trend, now becoming mainstream?

Absolutely, according to data from the Pew Research Center, which found that millennials are investing more than twice the amount baby boomers do in self-care products and services such as diet plans, life-coaching and therapy. Meanwhile the growth of apps such as meditation aid Headspace continue to point to the burgeoning role of technology as a solution to the problems of its own creation. 

Hans Howarth, group chief executive and founder of creative transformation company Nomads, argues that self-care is one remedy devised in response to a sense of detachment and powerlessness among consumers.

"Studies show a correlation between anxiety and depression exhibited by teenagers and social-media usage. And the way we do business on these platforms – shouting loud and far – is part of that problem. We’ve brought down the barriers in the name of connectivity and proceeded to drive consumers to the point of feeling disconnected from themselves," he says. 

The result of this sense of disconnectedness has relevance to marketing across the board. In New York, the city that famously never sleeps, Nap York has launched, a facility where you can pay $10 to rent a "nap pod" for 30 minutes. In business circles, meanwhile, the need to cultivate self-care has led to the era of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In being superseded by the wellbeing agenda of Arianna Huffington’s Thrive.

Gracie Page, creative technologist at Y&R London, says the burgeoning of the mindfulness economy over the past five years, coupled with the fatigue brought on by an ultra-fast lifestyle, is causing people to reconsider how they can reclaim their sanity and health. This shift, she argues, is important to every brand, not just those with an obvious right to own a slice of the wellness market.

Conscious dialogue

The rise of this social-media-fuelled self-care agenda means that brands are prioritising experience, self-improvement and the environment above the traditional aesthetics of marketing.

Lily Fletcher, strategy director at design agency Accept & Proceed, which works with Moleskine, Nike and Nasa, believes that self-care is part of a larger awakening about how new ways of living are affecting us. She says: "It is a big opportunity for brands to have a more conscious dialogue with consumers, creating products and services that deliver on a more emotionally aware level."

In the tech sphere, the Time Well Spent movement has driven a renewed focus on operating-system designers taking a stance on the way digital technologies can help, rather than hinder, human health. "We’re officially in the realm of big tech championing quality over quantity," Page says. "This is going to spell the beginning of a new era in content and comms consumption, and it’s our job to understand how to navigate that in a meaningful way for our brands."

Outsourcing consumer anxiety

This has significant implications for user experience, namely placing the needs of the consumers front and centre. Linda Tan, global strategy director at Zenith, says that brands are keen to empower consumers to manage their wellbeing by offering personalised recommendations and coaching.

"By harnessing consumers’ personal data and using artificial intelligence, brands are increasingly able to offer smart tech solutions," she adds. "This is shifting consumers’ mentality from ‘just do it’ to ‘let the brand do it for me’."

So brands and businesses alike must view technology as a means, not an end in itself. Page points to the example of Nike’s recent partnership with Headspace to create a suite of meditations for running as a world-class example of deep user understanding.

By providing athletes with meditative materials and meditators with exercise materials, they’re building not one but two communities as they go. "More and more brands will become savvy to their user-centric approach to comms and NPD, because, simply put, it works," she adds.

Creating space

The growing consumer awareness of the effect technology has on their wellbeing demands that brands think more carefully about the role of their products in people’s lives. Embracing the marketing opportunity afforded by the rise of self-care as a category is more profound than simply adopting a hashtag to promote a cup of coffee.

In an always-connected, digitally driven marketing environment, the volume and tone of marketing messages need to be revisited. For example, brands must ask themselves fundamental questions as to whether they are invading consumers’ precious personal space.

"The insane pace of change in our digital relationships and experiences is having a significant impact on proxemics, the study of human use of space. Our intuitive understanding of what is too close or too invasive in the physical world is not yet mapped out in our digital one," Dagmara Marnauza, senior digital planner at Proximity London, says. 

Marketers, therefore, face a real danger of overstepping the mark, becoming akin to a vague acquaintance who knows a concerning amount about your private life. "We must use personal data with more empathy and consideration, be more ethical overall, or else risk turning consumers off permanently," she adds. 

The world’s most innovative businesses are already putting self-care at the heart of their brands. They are creating space for their consumers by building products and services that fit the needs of their users before their own. Self-care demands previously unseen levels of selflessness for brands – a selflessness that is increasingly vital for long-term brand success. 

Minimalist marketing

Do brands need to create more space for consumers?

Brands often face accusations of overcrowding consumers’ space with content. However, Trefor Thomas, global chief creative officer at Tug, claims we are a long way from hitting "peak content".

He says: "It might look like peak now because the accuracy of targeting isn’t as good as it could be, so it feels flooded. [But] if by ‘minimalism in marketing’, we mean brands should only send out messages to customers when they’re wanted and needed, well, yes, we’re working towards that goal. If brands don’t take that approach, and instead keep talking too much and too loudly, they risk losing their voice."

So are we now moving from the era of social-media-driven brand narcissism to an age of social-media self-control? No, according to Natalie Cummins, chief executive of Zenith UK.

"Brands are just still too excited about content, as they see what it can do for names like Always and Dove," she says. "These brands started with a vision, and content was just the most appropriate way to deliver that message. Too often, we start with the question: ‘What content shall we do?’" 

In the 2018 Southpaw Marketing Decision Makers Survey, 53% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: "Social-media marketing is killing creativity in the marketing industry." 

Ria Campbell, head of social media at Southpaw, argues that the implications of this are serious. "Countless studies have shown the negative impact social media can have," she says. "Brands must exercise self-control, because narcissism isn’t just annoying any more, it’s ethically immoral and in danger of sullying the reputation of the good content marketing that is out there."  

Yet some industry leaders counsel against focusing on the amount of marketing messages. For Tom Sussman, strategy director at Adam & Eve/DDB, "minimalist marketing" is a slick phrase but not a useful one, because it suggests volume is the biggest challenge.

He says: "If this industry is to ever earn back the respect of the big brands that have thus far kept its lights on and kettles boiling, we’re going to have to find it within ourselves to actually answer the scariest and most important question of all: why isn’t more of our product any good?"

Sussman adds that it has nothing to do with too much content, citing the example of Marvel. "Over 10 years it has put out 20 films, occupied the front pages of news and culture websites week in, week out, and released $6bn-worth of licensed collateral, without the slightest signs of ‘backlash’, ‘overload’ or reaching ‘peak’ anything," he says.

"Over-exposure is a myth and there’s only one true recipe for sustained success – make it connect, make it big and keep it coming."