Brands trapped like a 'deer in the headlights' over consumer health and well-being agenda

Cannes Lions Health talk: Alexandra von Plato and Jim Stengel
Cannes Lions Health talk: Alexandra von Plato and Jim Stengel

Former Procter & Gamble CMO Jim Stengel and Alexandra von Plato, president and global chief creative officer at Publicis Healthcare Communications, discuss the rising importance of health and well-being to brands of all kinds.

At this week’s Cannes Lions Health, we will be kicking off a two-day festival dedicated to healthcare. There has been a great market response to this. If we are wondering what is driving this increase in brand marketers turning their attention to health and wellness, there are probably three macro trends.

The first is increasing consumer health concerns: people are more informed, more educated and have more access to information than ever before. In the past, what you knew about health was probably what you found out from your doctor or even neighbours. Now we have access to literally the best and some of the worst health information with a key stroke on our phones.

Brand marketers know this has created the need for a level of transparency. Once upon a time, you could get away with making certain kind of claims that were sketchy or not 100% true. We’ve all heard of the term "greenwashing", and we’re seeing the same thing as marketers try to appeal to health-conscious consumers, trying to make everything sound like it has a health benefit.

The second trend is the cost of healthcare. Everyone knows that lifestyle choices have a direct cost in health insurance, or what our governments pay for healthcare, which is creating a pressure on the system. We see that a lot of marketers want to get on the right side of this conversation. Many have been part of the problem and now there is an opportunity for them to be part of the solution.

The third trend is the demographic situation. Look at the cohort of baby boomers coming through; it’s a numbers game. There is not a brand out there which is not somehow dipping its toes into the health and wellness space – automobiles, search engines and soap companies – because it is so top-of-mind with the pure mathematics of the demographics. Both big successes at Cannes last year, ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ and Dove, are intrinsically linked to well-being.

Changing consumers

The idea of aspiration has changed, and the idea of balance is good for you. Look at Arianna Huffington’s new book. The younger generation seems to have a much more holistic view of life quality and what achievement is, and this idea of taking care of yourself and the environment. Healthy is the new green, and young people are creating a very different environment from the one the baby boomers grew up in.

While some companies are leaning in and doing good things, most are a bit of a deer in the headlights on this issue.

The shift you are seeing from brands like Nike and Coca-Cola is being much more about always-on, and available to your customers 24-7. Google is playing in the space in a big way, IBM is laying down some powerful strategies, and Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has set major goals for the company. Yet, while some companies are leaning in and doing good things, most are a bit of a deer in the headlights on this issue and it is going to catch up with them.

A danger of the world we live in for marketers, and one we see all the time, is that they get overwhelmed and highly distracted by all the available things to play with and try out. We get extremely tactical. It comes down to the questions we have to start with: what should your brand stand for? What has the brand stood for in the past? Where do we play in this new world? What kind of people would we attract, and what are the behavioural consequences of that?

Take what Seth Godin's said in a blog, that marketing is about making promises and then keeping those promises. Brands must now keep promises. If they do not, it is going to get found out. You cannot hide. Coca-Cola got sued over Vitaminwater because it overreached by saying healthy thing. It is what it is, so say what it is and stand for that. Otherwise you are going to have to reformulate your product to be able to make that claim.

This isn’t a trend; this is a fundamental shift, and one which is very optimistic. People want to make better, more confident choices when it comes to health and wellbeing, and brands that authentically give people the opportunity and information to make those choices are the ones that are going to win.

Jim Stengel and Alexandra von Plato will be presenting ‘Building an Inspiring Organization’ at the Cannes Lions Heath on Friday 13 June.

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