When American gymnast Simone Biles, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, and English cricketer Ben Stokes took a pause from their sports and professional engagements, including press conferences, on mental-health grounds, it became a topic of intense discussion.
Immediately after their announcements, sponsor brands like Athleta and Nike came forward to empathise with the sportswomen, showing support of their decision to opt-out for the sake of mental wellbeing. Several other brands including Cartoon Network and Netflix, which have no sponsorship links to the athletes, also showed up online in solidarity.
But what happens after brands chime in with kind words and posts? Is it finally time for marketers to think beyond zero-risk strategies?
Of course, it will make sponsorship deals and collaborations more complex because millions of dollars and long-term commitments are sealed well in advance. The good sign is that these instances of celebrities openly talking about their mental health is also forcing companies to take a stand on the issue and change the narrative.
Still, the key question remains. Although marketers’ hearts are in the right place, are their minds open enough to appropriately address the issue with action and not just ads?
No mind games
According to Praful Akali, founder and managing director of healthcare ad agency Medulla Communications, now is a good time to help dispel fears and myths associated with mental health. “Only brands have the budget to take these conversations to the larger world,” he says. However, Nikhil Taneja, founder of Yuvaa, a purpose-driven youth media, research, and impact organisation, says, “Brands will have to walk the walk, and go beyond symbolic gestures.”
At Yuvaa, Taneja and his team are encouraging young people to speak up about everything from identity to mental health issues, which are otherwise not openly discussed in homes. Through content that addresses homophobia, understanding the transgender community, how to come out to India parents, etc., Yuvaa is creating an inclusive platform for youth. So far, the organization has worked with brands like Amazon Prime Video, Instagram India, IBM, Indian Express, Tinder, Durex and Spotify. Yuvaa has also partnered with non-profit organizations like UNICEF India, Save the Children India, Dasra, Purpose, Change.org, and Breakthrough for various projects.
"Brands are now hyper-aware of the mental health challenges of the youth and want to work on finding ways of making them feel less lonely," Taneja tells Storyboard. This awareness has shot up since the pandemic started, he says. Today, marketers want to speak to young people in a "language and vocabulary that they understand, about issues that are close to their heart or drive them," adds Taneja.
Yuvaa recently collaborated with Titan-owned fashion retailer Fastrack to host virtual farewell parties for over 5,000 students across 30 colleges in India. The activity was designed to help college kids feel a little less isolated when they are socially distanced.
Health and fitness company cult.fit is working on this space too. The brand recently collaborated with actor, comedian, and influencer Mallika Dua to normalise the idea of seeking help when in mental distress. A few months ago, Dua, who lost her mother to Covid-19, opened up and spoke about her struggle on Instagram.
The problem of FOMO
People have increasingly turned to social media platforms to talk about mental health since the pandemic began. According to Twitter, conversations on the platform in 2020-21 were dominated by issues linked to mental health matters, fitness, and well-being. While mental health issues saw a 150% increase compared to 2018-19, conversations around health and fitness grew by 103%. #SelfLove, #LoveYourSelf, #GoodHealth, and #MentalHealthMatters were some of the popular hashtags.
In the past, brands like Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, Prega News, MPower and Miranda, and actor Deepika Padukone’s non-profit organisation Live Love Laugh Foundation, have addressed mental health through ads that received bouquets and brickbats. But what’s missing in all these cases is continuity and intensity of discussions.
Vani Gupta Dandia, founder of consultancy firm CherryPeachPlum, says, “Brands adopting a cause to look like they care has become the new fad. It's also confused with 'purpose marketing'.” Often when a brand takes up a cause that is unrelated to its functional delivery, it lacks credibility. “Money is wasted because the consumer can't be expected to remember the barrage of brands all saying the same thing.”
Akali suggests marketers consult mental health specialists before rolling out a campaign. “It’s a tough space to get it right and you might cause more harm than good by passing on the wrong message,” he says.While Dandia believes showing positive support and normalising conversations around mental health is important, showing conviction through sustained conversations and actions is essential. Her advice to brands is “don't do it out of a sense of FOMO - as a one-off, or make light of the subject with a force fit ad - and then vanish. That’s disrespectful.” If this is how it goes, she adds, “You rather stay respectfully quiet.”