Selling Happiness: Flaws in Marketing Wellness

Before bookstores became dinosaurs I worshipped within their walls. The Strand in New York, Chapters in Toronto, Barnes & Noble in Chicago, and Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa. Now bookstores sell more tchotchkes than actual books (but that is another story). One section that never drew me in was “Self Help” books. That category was always expanding and encroaching on my beloved literary fiction and history sections.

From The Power of Positive Thinking to Chicken Soup for the Soul to Awaken the Giant Within the shelves were stuffed with how-to’s to become a happier and healthier winner. What screamed out at me was, “Snake-oil!” That is my active skeptic (and I love him) though I conceded there must be a few things of value in so many books and so many pages.

Mostly though the content is all derived from the same few pieces of common sense wisdom. Then it is repackaged and regurgitated resulting in a nauseous cycle of vacuous repetition. Of course the writing, publishing and selling of these magic panaceas continues. In fact, Amazon has 660,249 Self Help books available online.

In the last decade we have seen the definition and explosion of a broader industry. This is wellness. It encompasses so many businesses that it is losing specificity. The Global Wellness Institute has proclaimed that the industry is now worth $3.7 trillion. That is more three times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry.

In one sense that is a victory for humanity. Simply speaking we are seeking solutions beyond doctor-written prescriptions but we are medicating in new ways. That is because marketers would have us believe we are facing new problems. Stress, anxiety and depression are more widely accepted and talked about. That is fine as long as it is never absolutely normalized. We are close to having normalized divorce even though it is incredibly destructive within the family unit and society overall.

Drugs are still an issue and may be worsening given the opiate crisis. Alcoholism is a perennial problem and I predict will be as long as there is alcohol. Just a few years ago obesity was decried as a ballooning problem (all pun intended) now we hear little about it even when we see ourselves and neighbors expanding at alarming rates.

What all of this proves is we have issues (and always will) and that we will seek ever-new miracle solutions (and always will). Imagine the lineups if we ever do invent a ‘fat pill’. The problem is we are lazy and do not want to do the real work. Enter the wellness industry. A colossal business ready and willing to sell you a better you.

Enter the wellness industry. A colossal business ready and willing to sell you a better you.

According to the World Health Organization wellness is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” That nirvana definition covers a great deal of ground but if you breakdown the multi trillion dollar industry it is comprised of ten sub-categories led in size by “beauty and anti-aging”. The smallest but still incredibly large category is called “workplace wellness” accounting for $43 billion. Wellness is good business or so it would seem.

It is also an industry promoting outright falsehoods, mixing subtle lies with profound truths, and exudes deep layers of manipulation masked by heroic stories, abrasive assertiveness, and oily charisma. The marketing of wellness is a new gold rush. We have to remember that such money-grabs attract healthy doses of charlatans, fraudsters and fakers.

Wellness marketing is absolutely no different than cigarette advertising in the 1950’s.

Yet, there is something larger going on here. Wellness marketing is absolutely no different than cigarette advertising in the 1950’s or the marketing of colas and cars. Fictional ad man Don Draper captured this truism when he said, “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing it’s okay. You are okay.”

Everyone it seems these days wants to be okay. This has been going on a long time and marketing has helped it along. After all, the 1969 aptly-titled book, I’m OK-You’re OK, has sold over 15 million copies. In a similar vein the most visited blog on my website is called, The Tao of Motivational Posters. In it’s content I poke around the fringes of what is covered here more substantively and that is the fact that in our search for feeling okay we grasp at straws.

Those old motivational posters including “Hang in There Baby” led the way for billions of social media posts across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. These employ inspirational quotes and images to make us feel like we are making the right choices and that we are happy. That we are truly okay.

Instagram is a puzzling photo stream of seemingly happy travelers and fine diners who look great in bathing suits. It grows puzzling and contradictory when the other half of all photos showcases potent cocktails and deep-fried food. The website, WellToDo, has referred to Instagram as “rocket fuel” for the wellness industry. It makes us covet that other person’s life. I have called social media “a thief of joy” because it is carefully curated highlight reels versus the strains and pains people encounter in real life.

And that is the main point I wish to make. Wellness marketing is selling an ideal. An unattainable ideal. Most wellness marketing and advertising suggests perfection over balance. We all know of the controversy concerning Protein World when its billboards posed the question “Are you beach body ready?”. The company was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority but this marketing failure netted 5,000 new customers in four days. People were grasping for that fat pill.

This ideal does not just apply to supplements. If you scour the industry you will find acupuncturists, massage therapists, running clubs, meditation instructors, pilates studios, painting classes, and nutritionists all shouting their own benefits that directly compete with other wellness offers. These businesses are all trying to create tribes of loyal followers. All of their marketing and promotion is of an elitist variety. The advertising implies, ‘do this and you will be superior’.

Wellness bloggers and life coaches are a wellness cottage industry and a huge cautionary tale. These fitness and spiritual ‘leaders’ espouse unsubstantiated wisdom and subjective advice while crying themselves to sleep at night in their parent’s basement. Traditional medicine and mental health treatment is not perfect but at least you know you are getting it from someone with generally accepted credentials. Bloggers and coaches seem to be in the business to make themselves feel good rather than truly helping others.

Wellness is influencing everything including the way individuals work, dress, socialize and travel. We have seen the rise of the ‘wellness hotel’ and the move beyond ‘just spa offerings’ into more supposed transformational experiences. People wear athleisure garments in transit and check into fitness bootcamps and retreats. The Westin’s ‘Well-being Movement’ is a global initiative with the goal of inspiring guests to discover new approaches to wellbeing. The campaign cost $15 million to launch indicates how much hoteliers are investing to serve the new wellness-oriented tourist.

If you are still not convinced of the cash to be made in wellness then consider Catterton, a leading US consumer-focused private equity firm. It expanded its existing wellness portfolio, which already included Sweaty Betty, Pure Barre and Core Power Yoga, by investing $75 million in SoulCycle-rival, Peloton. The at-home fitness provider of live instructor-led spinning classes plans to use the funding to expand the brand globally.

Franchising is a popular expansion strategy among boutique fitness brands Barry’s Bootcamp has expanded in London, Xtend Barre opened its U.K. flagship, and U.S. market leader Pure Barre launched into the Canadian market.

Books are still big in wellness including healthy cookbooks. First time authors like Tara Stiles, Joe Wicks and Ella Woodward have risen to fame with their New York Times best-sellers and secured second, third (and in some cases fourth) book deals. Woodward’s debut recipe book Deliciously Ella made history in the U.K. as the fastest selling debut cookbook of all time.

We have also seen the explosion of an entirely new category. Experts believe adult colouring books are indicative of the rise of stress and the wider acceptance of mindfulness as a proven technique to combat it. In June, half of Amazon’s top 10 titles were adult colouring-in books, as were six of Brazil’s top 10 non-fiction books. According to The Guardian, last year in France, the sale of coloring-in books totaled 3.5 million.

We are a generation addicted to smartphones so wellness apps are big. These tackle the mental health stigma, help us find a yoga studio, provide fitness and nutritional guides, and birthed wellness and beauty concierges such as GlamSquad, Vaniday and Wahanda. You can even find a fitness date with the SWEATT app. Fitbit remains the leader in the wearables market but is facing competition from Apple watch and Xiaomi’s low-cost Mi band. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), sales of such wearable devices are expected to rise to 135 million units by 2019.

Some pundits have joked that this is going too far and that the very notion of wellness could run to fad. Headlines and critiques talk of wellness as the “new black” and that brands are milking naïve and desperate people so their companies become more “wellthy”.

Consumers are to blame as well. Wellness is now a status symbol. Sit back and listen at the next dinner or cocktail party. You will hear boasts about how many pilates classes people attend and the weight they push in cross-fit. This will expand to previously uncomfortable areas. I have been dazzled by the public admittances of good friends and new acquaintances when it comes to therapy and prescription drug use. The most mentioned yet once taboo activity among my over 50-age group is the use of marijuana.

Wellness is now a status symbol.

The increase in wellness market size and its expanding definition has brands adopting what some call “health creep”, or consumerization of health. The website, Women’s Marketing, has said, “Consumers aspire to own hundred-dollar leggings, dine on the “cleanest” and most nutritious foods, and work out at boutique fitness centers. From beauty-enhancing supplements to eco-tourism, wellness is the new luxury. Although those with a wellness mindset tend to be focused on transformational experiences, this segment is still very acquisition-minded.”

What that means is clear. The wellness industry can theoretically be built on trying to help people achieve “complete physical, mental, and social well-being” but they are really driving transactions. The wellness sell is transparent and open yet shady and shadowy. It holds the danger of not only hiding a few hucksters in its midst but of completely degrading the very notion of wellness. This hits on the necessity of authenticity in wellness marketing. A requisite that is sorely lacking.

I am quite confident that yoga gurus experience aches and pains. That nutritionists visit fast food drive-thrus. That life coaches are thrice divorced. Yet these so-called experts and the larger wellness industry still preach versus converse. In order to feel superior and differentiate they have first convinced themselves that they have the secret sauce. So all of their communications ends up broadcasting sermons to the flock.

A further criticism is more concerning. Advertising Age pointed out that the wellness industry is too focused on end-goals, “For the everyday consumer, achieving a feeling of balance and better health isn’t a game you win or lose, it’s a series of choices and actions that must be worked on day by day. And yet, so much of the marketing we see around health and fitness products seems to draw from the competitive world of sports. The journey toward better health shouldn’t feel like an all-or-nothing game — or worse, a competition.”

That is why wellness marketing is all about the ideal ‘you’ being the goal. That is horrifically flawed. No one is okay or happy all the time.

If it is a competition that means there is a finish line. That is why wellness marketing is all about the ideal ‘you’ being the goal. That is horrifically flawed. Such an ideal cannot be the goal. No one is okay or happy all the time.

Yet we need and want to be okay. We are so desperate that we slip on our Lululemon pants, program our iWatches, and take a barre class. Then we grab a nutritious shake and post to Instagram. Yet something real and substantive is missing. We know what it is but avoid confronting it so then we smoke pot, see a life coach and hookup online. That pushes reality away again.

The point being deep down we all know what is best for us but we are afraid to do it. The source of our happiness is not a perfected ideal it comes from within. It is not found in the marketing promise of any aspect of the wellness industry. They simplistically address symptoms not root causes and promise an ideal that does not exist.

The ideal is the challenging journey of self-discovery, personal betterment, and those wonderfully fleeting and fulfilling moments when not only do we feel okay but we know we are okay. Those moments propel us to the next one. They are not transactions or purchases they are own highly personal accomplishments and epiphanies.

So beware false prophets and the vast extent of wellness marketing. Snake oil is out there in large supply because we allow its manufacture. That is why the last line must go to Don Draper from Mad Men. It crystallizes the fact that we are our own worst enemies. Don asks, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”


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