COVID boosts mental health marketing, softens stigma
As the pandemic plods along, behavioral health has gone from a condition that was often left undiscussed to one of the buzziest topics around—and a potent marketing category.
Research firm Global Web Index reported in November that more internet users were concerned about COVID-19’s impact on their mental health (31%) than they were about access to a vaccine to protect against the virus (29%). The virus, moreover, has played a role in further destigmatizing mental health, opening up opportunities for marketers in the space.
“As it’s become less taboo to discuss mental health, there’s less of a line between physical health and mental health—there is one health,” said Jeff Ruby, founder and CEO of Newtopia, a Toronto-based healthcare management platform. “As consumers’ comfort level rises, marketing will get bolder and bolder. The pandemic acts as a catalyst to help this along.”
Interest in both b-to-c and b-to-b marketing in the mental health field has been explosive, encompassing brands, healthcare companies, telehealth services, app makers and streaming services. Direct-to-consumer ads for everything from meditation apps to psychotropic drugs—for years a staple of pharmaceutical advertising—have flourished during the pandemic, while a wellspring of emerging tech platforms centered around mental health have focused on marketing their services to healthcare practitioners and insurance providers.
The Mental Health Marketing Conference, an annual event that went virtual this past year because of the pandemic, reported that its year-over-year attendance grew 300% to 630 registrants. “We’re seeing a general shift from stigma to awareness to action,” said founder Austin Harrison.
Though measured ad spending on healthcare overall was down 6.4% for the first three quarters of 2020, according to an Ad Age Datacenter analysis of Kantar data, spending on mental health medications jumped 12.5% to $333 million.
One lasting effect from COVID, many in the sector say, is the dramatic rise in behavioral telehealth. “COVID has expedited the need for patients to be more connected,” says Kate Cronin, CEO of Ogilvy Health. “Those who have explored telehealth and reaped the benefits are not going back. Patients are more comfortable with it, doctors are more comfortable with it, and it’s here to stay.”
“While the intensity of our collective mental health challenges will likely level off post-COVID, we expect that consumers will be more apt than ever to seek mental healthcare when they need it—particularly with the availability of lower-cost, convenient options like text and video sessions,” says Russell Glass, CEO of Ginger, an on-demand mental health platform. “We’re also seeing consumers gravitate towards preventative mental healthcare like self-care, meditation and coaching, to get ahead of issues before they might escalate into acute care needs,” he adds.
Started by a team of entrepreneurs and data scientists at the MIT Media Lab, Ginger works with corporations like Sephora and Domino’s who offer employees its service. Ginger’s ad creative is produced in-house.
Marketers agree that the demand for mental health services overall will continue even after consumers’ lives have returned to some semblance of normalcy post-pandemic.
“There is this terrible crisis with COVID, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—there are vaccines, there are preventative treatments, and people will get better. But behavioral health is persistent and will need to get tackled on an ongoing basis over time,” said Jaime Prieto, senior VP of marketing at Ontrak, a service that specializes in treating underserved behavioral health patients. Ontrak is launching its first ever integrated national ad campaign this spring, working with a freelance creative team led by George Tannenbaum, a former executive creative director at Ogilvy and R/GA. Ogilvy Health is handling PR for the company. An agreement with a media agency is being finalized now. Ontrak is also working with the b-to-b marketing agency 90octane, based in Denver.
As for creative approaches, tried-and-true tactics, such as using celebrity influencers, remain popular, as pioneered in 2018 by online mental health service Talkspace, which featured Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
Susan Manber, chief patient officer at Publicis Health, predicts more boldfaced names aligning themselves with mental wellness campaigns, along with a more crowded but newly cooperative field of marketers. “Similar to how the pharmaceutical industry worked together to find a vaccine for COVID-19, I believe we need—and will see—a co-opetition model where life-science companies, service providers and healthcare brands will work together to address the mental health crisis in this country,” she says.
Along with celebrity endorsements and the rapid growth of digital, traditional media is still very much in the marketing playbook for behavioral health marketers. One Medical, a primary care practice that offers integrated mental healthcare with coaching and therapy, this month launched a spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners running across cable networks CNN and HGTV and streaming on Hulu and Disney+, with messaging focused on convenience of care, immediacy, medical savings and easy prescription renewals via mobile.
Some consumer brands have focused on the youth market. For example, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month during the pandemic last May, backpack maker JanSport and its agency Haymaker rolled out a campaign called “Lighten the Load,” whose centerpiece was a series of YouTube videos featuring young people talking about their struggles with mental health issues.
Even humor has also been used. TBWA\London and U.K.-based media brand The Book of Man ran a public service campaign including a microsite and outdoor ads aimed at helping consumers maintain their peace of mind with a series of excuses for jumping off those interminable Zoom calls. Some of the more clever suggestions: a helicopter is landing on my house and there’s a cattle stampede.
COVID may have put a sharper focus on mental health services, but industry insiders say it has accelerated a trend that’s here to stay. “There are constant changes, pressures in our environment from work, school, friends and family,” says Doug Sweeny, chief marketing officer of One Medical. “Our minds, like our bodies, need ongoing check-ins. It is not a one and done.”
Hear more from One Medical and other brands at Ad Age Next: Health and Wellness, a virtual event, on Feb. 11. Register for tickets here.