Waking up to the marketing potential of a good night's sleep

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Sleep sells. The idea of a good night's sleep is now crucial to a wide range of marketing scenarios, from pharmaceuticals and alternative remedies to home furnishings to airlines. It's used to drive luxury purchases and it's sometimes crucial to differentiating a brand.

Having their slumbering preferences catered to has also become a baseline expectation for many consumers, particularly business travelers-a bit of backlash against the ever imbalanced work-life balance.

"A lot of people are selling a good night's sleep as their [unique selling point]," said Marian Salzman, a trend-spotter at WPP Group's JWT, New York. "People are talking about sleep with the same reverence they use to speak about sex."

While it's nearly impossible to tote up the billions and billions spent on sleep aids and masks and pills, there's clearly a big business here: U.S. mattress and foundation shipments alone last year hit $5.6 billion.

It only goes to figure that sleep would become so popular as a sales pitch. For decades, health officials have been cautioning Americans against sleep loss, which, as pretty much everyone agrees, has increased over the years. The most recent annual poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that Americans get an average of 6.8 hours of shut-eye on weekdays, short of the seven to nine hours recommended by most experts.


Against that backdrop, health officials are detecting more and more potential health repercussions from lack of sleep. Most recently, obesity was added to a list that included drowsiness and fatigue and as exacerbated age-related ailments high blood pressure and diabetes.

Much as the quest for a svelte body has propelled any number of diets, fad or otherwise, those sleep-related health concerns have translated into almost fanatical concern over things like coil count, thread count, the geographic origin of fabrics that make up linens, and all other manner of bedding nitty-gritty. National Sleep Foundation spokeswoman Marcia Stein said she regularly fields calls from people wondering what kind of mattress or linens yield the best sleep, not a topic that the foundation cares to advise on. "I tell them I get my sheets at Kmart," Ms. Stein said.

In response to the increasing demand for knowledge about the accoutrements of sleep, mattress manufacturer Serta partnered in 2003 with a New York University sleep expert to create Sleep Comfort U, a feature on the company Web site where potential customers can ask questions about sleep and sleep-related topics as well as read surveys.

Serta spokeswoman Kally Reynolds said that the public's concern about everything from sleep illnesses to dreams led to the creation of the resource. "The research has become more sophisticated, but the goal of it is to help people make a rather important decision," she said.

One boon of the mounting interest in sleep for Serta and its competitors has been better sales for their higher-end products. In 2004, nearly a quarter of bed sets produced for retail was in the $1,000 and up categories, according to research from the International Sleep Products Association. That's up from 19.8% in 2003 and 15.5% in 2000.

Marketers of all stripes have taken advantage of the media's enormous appetite for sleep-related research, long evinced by the number of surveys and polls released by universities and other research centers.

Westin was one of the first in the hotel industry. It was five years ago that Barry Sternlicht, then chairman-CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, barreled across a Westin ballroom in Stamford, Conn., plopping onto the one of 40 or so mattresses assembled there.

The gesture was meant to implore the Starwood employees looking on to take off the kid gloves as they tested coils and softness and other minutia in their quest to build the best bed in the industry.

The result of all the poking and prodding, as well as subsequent examinations of linens and pillows was a custom-made Simmons mattress tricked out with down blankets, sheets with thread counts in the 180-250 range, a comforter, a duvet and five pillows-enough to make other hotel beds feel like rock slabs.

When the Heavenly Bed was installed in 83 North American locations, rivals laughed at everything from the $30 million price tag to the choice of color-white being long seen as anathema to a stain-weary industry. But as the Heavenly Bed bestowed business rewards, including improved guest satisfaction, higher room rates, better revenue-per-available-room and an avalanche of publicity, the scoffers were forced to get in line and enhance their own beds.

Overall cleanliness scores at Westin immediately shot up, even though as senior VP Sue Brush admitted, "All we did was add the bed." Since their inception, Westin has even begun letting enamored customers get Heavenly Beds of their own, selling more than 7,000. Half of those were sold just last year.

The bed wars, as Westin's PR materials have dubbed them, are still raging: Starwood's Sheraton just this month rolled out the Four Comfort Bed in its locations and Marriott also has an upcoming bed initiative. But more than just changing how hotels chains in every price range now brand themselves, the success of Westin's Heavenly Bed woke marketers up to the power of a subject most take for granted: sleep.

British Airways, which happens to be a sponsor of the National Sleep Foundation, recently released a survey about sleep habits of frequent fliers, reported in a Washington Post business story headlined "Frequent fliers, dreaming of adequate sleep." The airline couldn't ask for a better PR backing for its sleeper seats. Last year, British Airways rolled out an interactive marketing push for its Sleeper Service, designed to provide passengers with an extra hour of sleep on London-bound flights through pre-flight meals and other services.

rat race

Other foreign-based carriers, from Singapore Airlines to Lufthansa, have made sleep comfort a priority, with some airlines making sacrifices in the number of seats in their business class so that those seats can recline. This is a major point of differentiation from American airlines, which with their massive financial troubles are trending toward fewer frills.

Both the hotels and airline examples are yet more lessons in the importance of honing experiences for consumers in a world so frequently marked by pronounced sense of the rat race. Businesspeople are now expected to be able to fly around the world one night, be sharp for a meeting the next day and then fly back home-or perhaps to another meeting in some other far-flung location-right away. With that kind of strain on mind and body, it makes sense that a basic biological function is scrutinized right down to the quality of a thread.

"We live in a society where you don't buy commodity products any more," said Marcus Greinke, managing director of consumer branding at the WPP branding agency Enterprise IG. "You're not buying a night of sleep; you're buying an experience. And the experience leader will get the share of wallet."

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