From GM to Powerade, Brands Pitch Mental Health

To woo consumers, hotel chains typically offer free room upgrades and complimentary breakfast. Kimpton Hotels is trying a new incentive: help with mental health.

In a recent social-media campaign, the boutique-hotel operator said it is offering 1,000 of its guests free access to a video-therapy session from teletherapy company Talkspace Inc.

Kimpton is among a growing list of brands, from car companies to meal-kit makers, putting mental wellness front and center in their marketing. As the issue is destigmatized—with celebrities and athletes openly discussing their own mental health—companies are seeing an opportunity to connect with consumers.

Laura Simpson, chief intelligence officer at ad giant McCann Worldgroup, said the Covid-19 pandemic played a key role in boosting mental-health awareness. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back of finally making us have proper conversations about mental health,” she said.

Coca-Cola Co.

‘s Powerade is currently running a series of TV commercials that tell viewers “pause is power.”

In one spot featuring gymnast Simone Biles, Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte and British diver Tom Daley, Ms. Biles—who withdrew from some competitions during last year’s Tokyo Games because she wasn’t in the right mental place to continue—tells reporters during a press conference that she is taking a break. She is then seen getting a manicure.

At CES earlier this year, GM showed off a self-driving electric concept whose seats feature biometric sensors that monitor a person’s fatigue level.


Photo:

General Motors

Ms. Biles has been one of the highest-profile athletes—a list that also includes tennis star Naomi Osaka and former swimmer Michael Phelps—to open up about mental health in recent years.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stop to be an actual human,” Ms. Biles said in the commercial, as a manicurist paints over images of a goat on her fingernails.

General Motors Co.

plans to launch a social-media campaign next month that shows influencers encouraging drivers to get their stress out before getting behind the wheel. GM said it decided to take a deeper look at the rise in anxiety and stress partly after seeing an alarming rise in traffic fatalities during the pandemic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more people died in motor-vehicle crashes in the first nine months of last year than in any similar period since 2006.

GM said an online poll of nearly 3,000 American drivers conducted by McCann Worldgroup—a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.—found that a majority of respondents said they can remember a time when they hurt in their cars, while a third said they have had to pull over because they felt too emotional to drive.

“High levels of stress and emotions can be a significant cause of distraction for drivers,” said Deborah Wahl, GM’s global chief marketing officer.

Earlier this year, GM showed off a self-driving electric concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, whose seats feature biometric sensors that monitor a person’s fatigue level. The Cadillac-branded car, which doesn’t have a steering wheel, can display soothing colors, play calming sounds and emit relaxing scents, GM said.

Meal-kit pioneer Blue Apron had decided to reposition its brand into a so-called wellness brand just before the pandemic took hold. After the outbreak began, the company said it placed more emphasis on stress relief in its marketing and tried to recast the chore of cooking into a form of therapy and meditation. “We leaned into the emotional and mental benefits that cooking has to offer,” said Dani Simpson, Blue Apron’s marketing chief.

In an email to its customers, Athleta, the activewear brand of Gap Inc.,

Recently promoted a series of online discussions about mental health taking place on AthletaWell, the company’s online community that offers up content about health, fitness, nutrition, and mental and emotional wellness. The series, which included stress-management tips from a licensed therapist, secured the highest participation rates since the site, which was conceived before the pandemic, launched in July, the company said.

Long before Covid-19 hit in 2020, rising stress was identified as one of Americans’ major concerns. Now, two years into the pandemic, consumers’ stress levels have been soaring. Almost a third of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression between March 2 and March 14, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2019, only 11% of Americans reported those symptoms.

Companies that feature mental health in their ad campaigns run the risk of being seen as taking advantage of soaring stress levels, but consumers appear to be eager for companies to give them health advice. A study conducted in spring 2020 by McCann of nearly 12,000 people in 18 countries found that 51% of respondents said it is more important for a brand to understand their frustrations than providing them with dreams, an approach 49% favored. That is a reversal from 2018, when a similar study found 63% preferred brands to provide them with dreams, versus 37% who would rather have brands understand their frustrations.

Burger King, a unit of Restaurant Brands International Inc.,

faced some backlash for a 2019 marketing effort tied to Mental Health Awareness month that included having mood-themed meals—a Blue Meal, Salty Meal, Yaaas Meal and DGAF (Don’t give a F—) Meal, which were available at some select restaurants. While some applauded the fast-food chain for bringing more awareness to the issue of mental health, some people took to social media to criticize the chain for making light of the issue.

Kimpton Hotels, a unit of InterContinental Hotels Group PLC, said it decided to join with Talkspace after seeing how hard it was for its employees to navigate the pandemic. It also found it was difficult to attract and retain employees who were burned out, partly due to having to deal with stressed-out hotel guests. Its 4,000 employees were given a yearlong subscription to Talkspace, and the hotel chain decided to offer its guests access to one free virtual therapy session.

Guests were exhibiting “a high level of impatience, frustration, anger and anxiety,” said Kathleen Reidenbach, Kimpton’s chief commercial officer. “We’ve really tried to be sensitive to the psychological ups and downs of what our guests are experiencing.”

Simone Biles’s withdrawal from competitions at the Tokyo Olympics put renewed focus on mental health in sports. WSJ looks at how the stigma and treatment for athletes’ state of mind has shifted. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

Write to Suzanne Vranica at suzanne.vranica@wsj.com

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