How brands are helping to remove the stigma of mental illness

Given a quarter of people in the UK experience mental health problems each year, brands need to take a more active approach to help remove the stigma and stresses associated with mental illness to better serve customers and employees.

Bipolar diversity

One in four people in the UK experience mental health problems every year, according to the charity Mind, yet brands are failing to engage with these people in their marketing and advertising.

Marketing Week’s diversity survey, published last year, found that only 8% of consumers think that mental health issues are well represented in British advertising. A parallel survey of marketers also found that of all the diversity issues under consideration – including gender, ethnicity and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights – mental health is the area in which the profession feels it has made the least amount of progress over the past decade.

Mental health charities are leading efforts to force a change of approach from brands. Last year the anti-stigma organisation Time to Change ran a campaign aimed at encouraging newspapers and websites to use less clichéd stock imagery to depict mental health. It describes one such stock image as the ‘head-clutcher’ pose, where a person is shown holding their head as a catch-all illustration of mental health conditions.

The charity, which is run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has set up a site where media outlets can download free images that aim to portray mental health problems with a greater level of nuance, including the different experiences and reactions they provoke. Time to Change is also working with 400 employers to encourage greater understanding of mental illness in the workplace.

These internal challenges came under scrutiny during a panel discussion about mental health in the marketing profession at Advertising Week Europe last month. NABS, a non-profit organisation that promotes well-being in the advertising and media industries, reported a 67% increase in calls to its advice line last year from people looking for emotional support. CEO Diana Tickell believes many people in the profession are fearful of raising the issue of stress at work.

“From some of the surveys that we’ve done, we know that people wouldn’t even talk to their line managers about feeling pressure and stress because of the potential stigma of what that means,” she said.

Jonathan Harman, managing director of the Royal Mail’s direct marketing service MarketReach, which hosted the panel, said: “Our world is only going to get faster and the pressure on us all is only going to get greater, so it’s important that we act now on work-related stress.”

“By doing the simple things you start to raise awareness of the spectrum of [mental health] issues and what you can do about them“

Matt Atkinson, Saga

Improving understanding

Certain brands are partnering with charities to help guide their approach to mental health issues. New activewear brand Ivy Park launched in the UK last month following consultations with Mind about how best to communicate with its female target market. The brand is seeking to grab attention by putting its founder, pop star Beyoncé, at the heart of its advertising and by using social platforms to build its following, but it is also taking a thoughtful approach to theviews and concerns of potential customers.

READ MORE: Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign inspires 2.8 million women to get active

This involved working with Mind to better understand how to communicate the benefits of the brand in an empowering way. Hayley Jarvis, community programmes manager for sport at Mind, explains: “We know that women currently exercise less often than men, often citing a lack of confidence and self-esteem as the main reason. We gave advice [to Ivy Park] on how to reach and appeal to women who want to get active but may be feeling scared or anxious about how to get started.

“Exercise is obviously good for your physical health but can be a fantastic boost for your mental health too. It was great that the makers of Ivy Park recognised and shared this view.”

Health and beauty retailer Boots also recently took steps to better understand the psyche of one of its core customer groups. In January the brand launched a long-term campaign to engage with UK teenagers and identify how it can better support their health and well-being. This involved working with clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron to survey more than 1,000 people aged 12 to 17 about various aspects of their lives.

According to the early findings reported by Boots, the majority of teens want more access to advice about how to improve their self-confidence.

Boots director of customer strategy and communications Helen Jeremiah explains that the research is an open-ended project from which the retailer will develop new products and marketing messages, depending on the findings. Boots is also partnering with a range of social influencers to communicate with teenagers, including beauty vlogger xAmeliax, whose interest in make-up began when she wore it as a way to cover her acne.

“We know the teenage life-stage is a particularly challenging one – it’s a time when being healthy, feeling good and looking good are intrinsically linked and, therefore, where our expertise could and should help,” says Jeremiah.

Lynx and CALM ran a campaign to raise awareness of male suicide

Changing perceptions

Businesses that are more attuned to the mental health problems of their customer base can also help to change perceptions of their brand values. In November last year, deodorant brand Lynx ran an outdoor advertising campaign in partnership with the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), to raise awareness about male suicide. The campaign was part of an ongoing move by the brand away from its ‘jokey’ and ‘laddish’ image and towards a more serious tone that speaks to the bigger issues affecting its male customers.

READ MORE: Lynx is moving away from its ‘1990s lads mag’ branding, here’s why

However, if brands wish to speak authentically about mental health issues, they must also examine their internal company culture. Saga CMO Matt Atkinson suggested at Advertising Week Europe that marketing leaders have a responsibility to create a more open workplace culture in which people feel comfortable discussing their problems.

He revealed that he had taken a range of steps within Saga, and during his previous role as CMO at Tesco, to improve internal understanding around mental illness, such as enrolling staff on a ‘mental health first aid course’. “By doing the simple things you start to raise awareness of the spectrum of [mental health] issues, what you can do about them, and how you can have slightly more open conversations about things that people don’t necessarily want to talk about,” he said.

Katherine Crawshaw, head of social marketing at Time to Change, believes it is important for brands to talk “honestly and openly” about mental health, both internally and when speaking to customers. She adds that brands can avoid the usual clichés by providing a platform for people to talk freely about the issues affecting them.

“We find that what resonates for us on social media is people sharing their real stories and real experiences,” says Crawshaw. “Our audience on social is very much people who want to join us and help us end stigma and discrimination, so when we combine experiences that resonate with people with direct calls to action, we get a very good response.”

Time to Change embraces this open approach on its social media channels by linking to other blogs and sources of information besides its own website. Ultimately the charity aims to remove the stigma around mental health by sharing experiences that people can relate to and that convey the widespread nature of the problem.

“With Time to Change we’ve been consistently trying to show that mental health affects everyone,” notes Crawshaw. “If you look at the stories and the people in our films and advertising, they [represent a] total range of people from different backgrounds, ages and experiences.”