Marketers of the Year No.6: Calm
When millions of viewers tuned into CNN’s Election Night coverage, they were already anxious and frustrated, knowing full well they would not know the final results that night. Eight-year-old meditation app Calm was there to provide a humorous—if not ironic—reprieve.
The app, which aims to alleviate mental health fatigue and restless sleep through mindfulness exercises and bedtime stories, sponsored CNN’s “Key Race Alerts” and ran a 30-second spot of rain falling on leaves, while also sharing breathing and relaxation exercises on social media. With just the words “Brought to you by Calm” and an app icon appearing next to the bright red, angsty alerts, the app struck a chord with viewers, and that night on Twitter it saw 9,700 mentions (a 248% increase from the previous day) and 56,000 engagements, according to analytics company Talkwalker. Many called it the best product placement of 2020.
The move showed the brand, founded in 2012 by entrepreneurs Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, could not only be bold, but agile. Erin Hassey, director of user acquisition at Calm, says the CNN opportunity came up only a week before Election Night. The app’s 14-person marketing team, particularly its brand and growth teams, had to make a rapid decision whether to participate, and decided to jump on it.
“It’s really about being ready to reprioritize,” says Hassey. “It’s important to be reactive to what we’re seeing in the environment to be able to help people.”
But Calm would not have been as prepared to make such a decision if it wasn’t already leaning heavier into TV, a rising trend among direct-to-consumer brands. For the past year, the brand has been working with TV measurement agency Tatari to launch its first TV campaigns across linear and connected TV. In the month leading up to Election Night, Calm saw nearly 242 million TV ad impressions at an estimated media value of $1.4 million, according to iSpot.tv data. Ads instruct viewers to “Do nothing" for 15 or 30 seconds.
“A lot went into that one night…a lot of testing and a lot of being bold in prior planning,” says Brad Geving, VP of media buying and operations at Tatari. “We find opportunities to do fractional tests and measure that very accurately, and that gives us the confidence to go bold and bigger. All that let us hit the go button on Election Night.”
Since that night, Calm says it has seen a significant uptick in downloads. This year, the app has been downloaded more than 90 million times, up from 80 million in 2019, and more than 3 million people now pay $69.99 for an annual subscription, equating to around $210 million annually.
But even before Election Night, Calm was seeing a boost in users and engagement as the coronavirus pandemic led individuals to look for ways to combat their stress and anxiety.
In April, the top 10 U.S. mental wellness apps—a list led by Calm and followed by competitors Headspace and Reflectly—saw more than 4 million downloads in April, nearly an 18% increase from 3.4 million installs in pre-pandemic January, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.
Stephanie Chan, mobile insights strategist at Sensor Tower, says that while downloads of the top mental wellness apps have returned to pre-coronavirus levels, they’re still seeing record levels of usage. In October, the daily active users of the top five mental wellness apps, still led by Calm, grew by 10% compared to April, according to Sensor Tower data. “As we enter 2021, it's clear that these apps will remain a part of users' daily routines,” says Chan.
Calm's rise wasn't just an accidental consequence of COVID, however. The company saw the pandemic as an opportunity to help soothe anxiety-ridden individuals, says Hassey. As U.S. cities went under lockdown, the app released a resource page and in May partnered with Kaiser Permanente to make the app free for the insurance company’s 12 million members.
A large portion of Calm’s marketing strategy also centers on using celebrities to bring in new audiences. Stars including LeBron James, Matthew McConaughey, Kelly Rowland and Harry Styles read bedtime stories and mindfulness sessions and users can stream exclusive, relaxing songs from Ellie Goulding and Moby. In December 2019, Calm kicked off a three-year partnership with LeBron James to bring in more male users. James starred in the app’s first TV campaign that ran until March 2020 and also included digital and out-of-home components. Before working with James, Calm’s user base was divided at 65% female to 35% male. Today, it’s a 50/50 split.
Looking forward, expect for Calm to lean into more simplistic moments like Election Night to make big impressions. Katie Shill, senior director of marketing at Calm, says the brand took away a lesson in the effectiveness of simplicity.
“As a marketer, you’re often knocking your head against the wall, trying to think about how the brand can really cut through. What was really incredible about the CNN Key Race Alerts is that it was just the name Calm juxtaposed against an incredibly stressful television screen,” she says. “So when looking at next year, and how we try to replicate the success, we’re really trying to get back to first principles and think about what those really simple moments might be where seeing Calm is just enough.”