Why brands should be on the front line in the fight for male mental health

Brands such as ITV, Harry’s and Topman are trying to tackle male mental health and promote more progressive images of masculinity.

As the discussion around mental health increases and the taboo around depression begins to thaw, male suicide still remains nothing short of an epidemic.

Some 84 men take their own life each week in the UK, that’s 12 a day or one every 2 hours – in short if you are a man aged 45 or under the most likely thing to kill you is you.

The statistics are as shocking as they are heartbreaking, with the issues affecting men varied and complex. But some brands are starting to lend their support and considerable reach to help tackle the problem, with the likes of Lynx, ITV, Topman and Harry’s all launching campaigns to help end the stigma around male mental health.

At the forefront of this battle to help men is the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) a pressure group dedicated to ending male suicide.

CALM’s helpline currently takes 10,000 calls a month and saves 1.4 lives a day but CEO Simon Gunning says its work with brands is just as crucial when it comes to saving men’s lives.

“In our communications we want to enable men to question the stereotypical acceptance of what masculinity is, reject a miserable life and seek a life that is enjoyable,” he explains.

LISTEN: How brands are tackling the stigma of mental health

CALM’s most recent work has been with ITV, which saw sculptures of men placed at the edge of ITV’s building on London’s Southbank. Dubbed Project 84, each of the statues represented a real male suicide victim with an artist working with bereaved families to create a lifelike figure. The harrowing installation served as a reminder that 84 men commit suicide a week and it gained national media attention.

Gunning says he was overwhelmed by what the project achieved, but that’s not to say he wasn’t ambitious when he set the brief. “With my pitch to adam&eveDDB [the agency behind Project 84] I said to them, ‘do something borderline illegal and win a [Cannes] Lion’,” he says.

We wanted to promote progressive masculinity, it’s about going beyond these stereotypes and helping men break free.

Matt Hiscock, Harry’s

The project reached 256 million people, according to Gunning, with more than 150 million social impressions and over 32,000 uses of the campaign’s hashtag #project84.

ITV also recently ran a male suicide storyline on Coronation Street in a further bid to raise awareness of the issue.

However, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, as Gunning explains that CALM consciously tries to be lighthearted to offset such a serious subject.

“We’re starting to take a ‘hope over horror’ line within CALM because we’re not going to bang on and on about the problem but fail to deliver a solution.”

CALM used this hope over horror approach in its collaboration with Topman. Inspired by research that revealed 84% of men say they bottle up emotions, the fashion store worked with Love Island star Chris Hughes to launch #DontBottleItUp. In the ad, the reality TV star posed in his underwear and is seen crying into an water bottle branded ’Eau de Chris’ as the brand  attempted to bridge the gap between banter and emotion.

READ MORE: How brands are stepping up to improve children’s mental health

The portrayal of men in the media

Just like the work that has been done to combat outdated stereotypes of women, more work must be done to improve the portrayal of men in media. From magazines that encourage the objectification of women to those that promote the perfect body image, the pressure on men is exacerbated by the media they consume.

This is something The Book of Man is trying to combat. Launched last month, the online platform is looking to talk openly about male mental health and tackle what it means to be a man in today’s world.

Mark Sandford, chief revenue officer at The Book of Man, says: “It’s time to start talking about things. In the past if publishers have even discussed mental health it’s been a bit preachy, whereas we want to say there are lots of people out there suffering from issues but we’re all men and let’s forget bottling things up – it’s a thing of the past – and let’s try to move on.”

Since launching, Sandford has seen dozens of male ex-colleagues and friends reach out about how they’ve struggled to express their emotions. “Whether it’s depression or grief, as a man you can go to the pub and see your mate and you both know you’ve got your issues but you completely avoid the subject.”

Sandford argues that brands have a lot to answer for when it comes to toxic masculinity. He explains: “It’s down to publishers and brands to take responsibility. A lot of the insecurities that contribute to poor mental health in men can be manifested by brands, like the way I should look and act.”

He believes representation is another key issue. “Many men look up to brands yet 68% don’t feel that they’re represented by any brand, which is worrying,” he says.

“If you ask most men who they look up to they’ll say their father or James Bond or David Beckham. The options are limited to a well-groomed footballer or a chauvinistic spy. It’s about encouraging men to look beyond what they’ve been given. We need to inspire men to be better.”

Helping men find their magic

Unilever’s Lynx was the first brand to collaborate with CALM on a large scale campaign as it looked to combat toxic masculinity and falling sales.

The brand went from sexist adverts portraying traditional masculinity to embracing the diversity and complexity of men with its ‘Find your magic’ campaign.

This was first and foremost a business decision but it soon became clear there was a desperate societal need as well.

Fernando Desouches, the former senior global brand director for Lynx, spearheaded the campaign. Like The Book of Man’s Sandford, he believes masculinity is very narrow.

“It was the way Lynx said to you, ‘being a man means you need to be tough all the time, you have to have your hair this way, body this way’. This conscious repression to fit into that type of masculinity can cause an unconscious disconnection from your own feelings and emotions.”

As sales began to slow, Desouches says the brand realised that what men wanted was changing.

“We went to the consumer and they said to us, ‘you are talking to me about getting as many women [as possible] but it’s not about conquer anymore it’s about connection’,” he says.

It’s about encouraging men to look beyond what they’ve been given. We need to inspire men to be better.

Mark Sandford, The Book of Man

However, despite this revelation it was clear to Lynx that men were still incredibly insecure and still held back from discussing their emotions. Desouches says: “We realised we needed to tell men that they were attractive and they needed to find the thing that made them stand out and express who they are.”

The ‘Find your magic’ campaign saw men of all shapes, sizes, ethnic backgrounds and sexualities embracing what made them unique. Despite extensive research Desouches admits the brand was “expecting a lot of rejection” when the ad launched at the Superbowl in 2016.

He explains: “We thought people would say, ‘look you’ve shown us how to be a man for 30 years and now you want us to find our magic?’. But it was totally the opposite.”

Men appeared to embrace the shift in brand positioning as sales increased and Lynx stopped being so divisive. Prior to the campaign, men loved the brand, women hated it, but Desouches says 98% of people now like Lynx.

Toxic masculinity and brand purpose

Consumers are becoming more immune than ever to commercial messages and with younger generations actively seeking out brands with purpose CALM’s Gunning says he’s seen a rise in the number of male brands trying to get their message across.

He explains: “I think it’s being increasingly made clear that consumers do value real purpose. If you’re sincere that sincerity comes through. If a customer feels looked after they’re going to like your brand more and buy more of your products.”

Gunning warns it has to be more than “just box ticking” though. He cites shaving subscription startup Harry’s as a good example. Early on this year it launched a campaign aiming to tackle the harmful stereotypes around what it means to be a man.

READ MORE: Shaving startup Harry’s attempts to tackle male stereotypes in new campaign

Matt Hiscock, UK general manager of Harry’s, says: “We wanted to promote progressive masculinity, it’s about going beyond these stereotypes and helping men break free.”

Hiscock agrees any activity like this must be true to the brand. He explains: “We want to start a conversation and get other people talking about this and we think that’s more important than growing sales.”

Gunning says that working on male mental health has also benefited the wellbeing of those within companies. “Everyone working on this stuff talks about how it is really good for the soul and galvanising for teams because without any grandiose exaggeration, we are saving people’s lives.”

The changing face of masculinity

Masculinity is changing. Men are being encouraged to throw off the shackles of traditional masculinity and embrace their emotions. Boys are growing up in a world where gender is less binary and equality is at the heart of discussions, all of which will create a better world.

“In 2018 we want to be as flexible as femininity. We want to be as successful as women have been in defining who they are,” Gunning says.

“When we’re talking about defining our own form of masculinity, I look at my 11-year-old boy and think about what he’s going to be. It’s easy for us to say Harvey Weinstein is a misogynistic bully and you shouldn’t behave that way but we also want to say to men around the country, and women that care about them, you can question your existence, you can question masculinity.”

Desouches echoes this: “I think masculinity is changing from being about the outside to inside.”

Desouches left Lynx to join agency BBD Perfect Storm where he leads New Macho, a division focused solely on marketing to men, which he says is “combining social responsibility and commercial opportunity”.

He elaborates: “There is lots of marketing for women about their problems – for really good reasons – but if we really want to achieve gender equality we need to understand what is effecting men and how to speak to them.

“We are talking about increased violence, anger in men, abuse and male suicide. We are not talking much about what the common denominator of that is, which is that men are under enormous pressure and can’t speak about it.”

The Book of Man is also trying to broaden the representation of masculinity and finds that men are listening. Sandford says: “We are creating content that ultimately says there are loads of different ways to be a man and there’s no such thing as the perfect man.”

Desouches concludes: “Brands were working on a repression before – telling them you are not good enough – but now we need products that empower men.”

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