Marketers Bolster Their Efforts to Support Mental Health

Health care-related brands expect new counseling services spurred by COVID-19 to outlast the pandemic

By Chris Warren

"What's Strong with You," a new ad from consumer electronics company Fitbit, shows several examples of personal endurance and its link to mental health. With COVID-related fatigue widespread, other brands such as CVS and Walgreens are also starting to put mental health at the forefront of their messaging with an aim to reduce the stigma that's often tied to people asking for help. Fitbit/YouTube

IIt was like déjà vu all over again. In January the U.S. reported seven consecutive days of record daily COVID-19 cases, with more than one million new infections. Many school districts across the country were forced to go back to remote learning amid the surge. There seems to be no end in sight. Adding insult to injury, the pandemic was supposed to be in the rearview mirror by now. Last summer, President Biden essentially declared victory over COVID-19, but the disease hasn't gone away and people are exhausted, angst-ridden, and depressed.

Even before the Omicron variant started to spread late last year there was ample data chronicling the huge toll the pandemic has taken on people's mental health and wellness.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, more than 30 percent American adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, up from around 10 percent before the outbreak.

The sharp swing in people's mood since the outbreak has led brands to offer new products designed to ease the burden, but also to reassess how they talk about the highly sensitive topic of mental health.

New Counseling Services

In the past year or so several companies have responded proactively to the changes in people's mental health wrought by COVID-19, with CVS Health, Walgreens, and Walmart introducing counseling services either in or near their networks of stores.

CVS started stationing mental health providers, typically a licensed clinical social worker trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, at 13 locations in Houston, Philadelphia, and Tampa, Fla., as a pilot program in early 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The decision was partially a result of observations the company made about the challenges its customers faced but was also driven by a belief that accessing mental health care was onerous, says Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health, which is a subsidiary of ANA member CVS Health.

"Most Americans report a negative impact on their overall stress levels due to the pandemic, but half need help navigating the complex mental health system," McNulty says. "Our customers want, need, and deserve affordable, quality health care, including mental health care that is easily accessible and convenient for their lifestyles."

Reducing the Stigma

The new services are accompanied by significant marketing initiatives that put mental health and well-being at the forefront of the advertising message.

Last spring, for example, the Google-owned consumer electronics company Fitbit, known for tracking and encouraging physical activity, launched an ad campaign that asks: "What's Strong with You?"

The answers provided by Fitbit's ads feature athletic prowess but also highlight the importance of mental health and pushing personal boundaries. The campaign also used social media to solicit consumers for their definitions of "strong."

Other health care-related brands are making major investments to get their message out. CVS Health's $25 million ad campaign, "Healthier Happens Together," which debuted last October, shows how the company has helped customers navigate the pandemic and promotes the brand's wellness products and services.

In one spot, a woman lounges on a yoga mat while watching her iPad. "Excuses happen …" says the voice-over, as the woman turns to a stuffed frog and pleads, "What? She said, 'Go at your own pace.'" In a gently and understanding tone, the voice-over goes on: "… but with a huge selection of wellness-support products for nutrition, sleep, immune system, and energy, CVS can help them happen a little less."

An ad for the CVS "Healthier Happens Together" campaign touches on the need for both physical and mental health. As the pandemic has taken a major toll on people's mental health, brands are emphasizing products and services that help people deal with an extremely stressful period. CVS Pharmacy/YouTube

Healthier Happens Together was also an opportunity to puncture stereotypes that have kept people from seeking mental health care, says Michelle Peluso, EVP and chief customer officer at CVS Health and co-president of CVS Pharmacy.

"Empathy and inspiration were at the very core of the campaign," Peluso says, adding that touting mental health and wellness will be part of the company's marketing messages even after the pandemic ends. "We understand that 'healthier' can not only feel extremely difficult at times but also that it looks different for everyone."

The brand's social media campaigns, for example, create a platform for open conversation on health care-related topics. "We want to promote holistic health, introduce new access points to care, and reduce the stigma often associated with topics such as a prioritizing one's mental health and well-being," Peluso says.

CVS has created awareness guides to help people identify the symptoms of depression and anxiety and connect those in need with screening services at CVS locations.

The CVS Health website, for example, includes downloadable mental health awareness guides catering to young adults, parents, and caregivers, as well as tips for talking with friends and family members about mental health issues.

Personalization Is Vital

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the health care and wellness industries, of course. Aetna's McNulty says one of the most significant changes is the increasing consumer demand for personalized care and service. "We're seeing that people are more inclined to take charge of their health, and they continue to seek more health care personalization, customization, and accessibility," she says.

The growing demand for telemedicine helps to illustrate the importance of providing personalization and convenience to consumers. According to McNulty, 60 percent of Aetna's outpatient mental health visits were digital in 2020, up from 1 percent in 2019.

The trend toward more personalization is changing the nature of marketing in the health care field.

Dentsu's "Health 2030" report highlights the so-called "Amazonification" of health as one of the most profound trends affecting the industry.

"When we think about expectations being set outside of health, it's like when a friend of mine tells me about a book and I go online and buy the book and it shows up the next day," says Kent Groves, EVP and global head of strategy at dentsu health. "The same is now true about health. If I have an ache, I expect to be able to have this evaluated and a solution provided to me and have that solution working at the same speed as when I order something online."

The shift has led brands to offer additional telemedicine and digital options that make it convenient for customers to access care and health products.

For example, dentsu health promoted Ascensia Diabetes Care's blood glucose monitoring system using a combination of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, connected TV, and out-of-home advertising. The campaign, which launched last year, has changed messaging on the fly because of different questions from customers.

To cater to people who would find the ads relevant, dentsu segmented the potential audience using first-party data from Ascensia and third-party research. The result: 80 percent lower cost per impression and 45 percent lower click costs, thanks to keyword optimization, SEO improvements, and continuously updated ad copy.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of personalization for brands in the health and wellness industry, which can take the form of consumer education, customized therapies, and treatments. "Personalization is the way brands can earn trust," Groves says. "Trust is always critical, but it's especially the case for health and wellness brands."



You must be logged in to submit a comment.