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What responsibility do brands have towards mental health?

The statistics are quite staggering. Every year one in four people suffers from some form of mental health problem (Mind). Mental health is also the leading cause of sick leave in the UK, costing the average employer £1,035 per employee per year. Yet the stigma attached to mental health issues mean 95% of employees who call in sick with stress citing a different reason (Time to Change).

Fortunately, attitudes are changing and mental health is increasingly in the public eye. The NHS has pledged to transform mental health services by 2020, with an ambition of putting mental health on an equal footing to physical health. Coupled with celebrities and royals alike speaking out about personal experience, mental health is becoming less and less of a taboo subject.

This is particularly important for younger generations who aren’t growing up in the ‘stiff upper lip’ mind set of eras gone by. Celebrities and Royals, from Lady Gaga to Ryan Reynolds to Stephen Fry to Prince Harry, have all spoken out about their personal struggles (whether depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or one of the many associated illnesses), making themselves role models and helping to normalise the subject. This, in conjunction with increased government spend and campaigning, means we are now, finally, living in the real world with respect to mental health, with its full impact starting to be recognised and taken seriously.

The Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week (8th – 14th May) plays a key role in drawing attention to and de-stigmatising the issue, but should brands be getting more involved?

People define themselves as brands, forming a physical and psychological connection. Mac or PC? Nike or Adidas? Premier Inn or Holiday Inn?

Brands rely on people. They directly connect with them through marketing, aiming to build lasting relationships. So surely they have an ethical responsibility to ensure that they are caring for their customers’ physical and emotional health. And like many brands that are embracing a more purpose-focused approach, doing it the right way can actually support and drive their marketing strategies. But where do they start?

The key to a meaningful and genuine brand attitude to mental health (and not getting it wrong) is taking guidance from the experts. Beyonce’s partnership with Topshop to create activewear brand Ivy Park saw her consult with Mind, one of the leading mental health charities in the UK. Collaboratively, they wanted to ensure Ivy Park activewear appealed to those women who wanted to start exercising, but were perhaps too nervous or anxious. Exercise is one of the leading ways to boost your mental health, not just your physical wellbeing, and it was great to see Ivy Park taking this seriously and using their brand as a tool to empower women.

Boots adopted a similar approach by commissioning its Me, My Selfie and I study, which “revealed the views, thoughts and feelings of 1,000 teens and pre-teens from across the nation”. Developed in conjunction with renowned clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, a specialist in child and adolescent mental health, it provided an interesting insight into the wellbeing of 11 to 17-year-olds. It also offered valuable insight on how to market to teenagers, and while Boots must have had sales in mind when commissioning the research, the level of investment and depth of the study showed a genuine ethical sense of responsibility from the brand to get it right.
Mental health and alcohol have a well-documented troubled relationship – a vicious circle where alcohol can lead to poor mental health, and poor mental health can fuel a drink problem. While industry regulations are stringent, with organisations such as Portman Group and Drink Aware, there is debate over whether alcohol brands are doing enough to safeguard their customers’ mental health. Is simply placing a Drink Aware logo at the bottom of an ad really going to stop someone getting blind drunk or seek help for a drink problem?

It would be great to see more brands following AB InBev’s lead and launching campaigns such as “Have a Little Less, Feel A Lot Better”, designed to get men aged 45 to 65 to replace a couple of alcoholic drinks with alcohol-free beer – in this case Beck’s Blue. This campaign was run in conjunction with Drink Aware – again another good example of brands listening to the experts.

Gaming is another sector that has a chequered history with mental health. Studies are ongoing into whether gaming is bad for you (leading to addiction, depression and suicide), or good for you (increasing cognitive function). Whatever the outcomes leading brands like Xbox and PlayStation would do well to err on the side of caution and promote a safe and responsible attitude to gaming, especially among their younger audiences, and heed the advice of the experts.

Outside of their duty to their customers, brands’ responsibility towards mental health should actually start within their own organisation. In fact, it should be at the very heart of every HR policy. Not only does this project a positive brand image to consumers, it also makes business sense by tackling the stigma that has for so long swept mental health problems under the carpet, improving sickness absence rates, wellbeing, productivity and retention. Time to Change has started the Employer Pledge, a scheme that supports employers to get employees talking about mental health, guiding them through creating and implementing action plans. Some 95% of the 483 employers that have signed up to date have reported a positive impact on their organisation, but these are mostly Government departments and local authorities. Only a smattering of well-known brands have taken the pledge, the most notable being Tesco, E-On, Unilever, Diageo, Bupa, P&G, American Express and Mars.

In fact, Unilever has set a great example to employers, winning Bupa’s Wellbeing Award in 2015 for its attitude towards mental health. Following the discovery that a large number of its employees’ sick days were due to mental health issues, the FMCG giant launched a programme to ensure that its people were only a phone call away from support if they needed it. It also launched manager training and awareness initiatives, employee education programmes and tools for individuals and teams to improve their resilience and promote positive mental health.

This responsible attitude clearly translates into their marketing. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign challenged current beauty stereotypes that drive body image problems among both men and women, and have been shown to have a direct correlation with mental health issues ranging from depression to anxiety to eating disorders.

It was also great to see Persil promoting children’s wellbeing with its ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign, working in conjunction with The Wild Network. The charity was formed following a National Trust report, Natural Childhood, which found that children’s declining relationship with the outdoors (due to the rise of technology and poverty) was having a significant impact on their mental and physical health. This is termed Nature Deficit Disorder, which Persil’s campaign aimed to combat.

Brands have a direct impact on people’s lives, bombarding consumers with thousands of marketing messages every day. Rather than simply leaving it to industry standards, codes and practices, brands should feel an ethical and social responsibility towards mental health that goes deeper than a fear of being disciplined for irresponsible marketing. By taking advice from the experts and ensuring that they adopt a genuine care for their employees, brands can show their fans that they have a genuine belief in promoting good mental health. And this can only be good thing for them… and us.

Jess MacGillivray is Account Director at real world marketing agency Sense


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