Has mental health become a retail marketing issue?

Source: CHNGE
Dec 15, 2022

This is the third in a series of articles from members of RetailWire’s BrainTrust panel speculating on coming retail trends and developments for 2023.

Mental health oriented messaging is quickly becoming table stakes for retailers that cater to next gen consumers.

Seventy-one percent of Gen Z consumers like when brands make mental health a part of their marketing, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Whether it’s hosting a concert where the proceeds go to mental health awareness or building an entire brand around mental health oriented messaging, retailers will need to find authentic ways to bring attention and funding to mental health awareness.

Interest in mental health advocacy has grown as more Americans have personally struggled with issues since the outset of the pandemic.

An APA survey of psychologists found that:

  • Seventy-nine percent have seen an increase in patients with anxiety disorders;
  • Sixty-six percent saw a jump in the demand for treatment for depression;
  • Forty-seven percent reported higher demand for substance abuse treatment;
  • Sixty-four percent saw increased need for trauma treatment;
  • The severity of symptoms increased in two-thirds of cases.

The pervasiveness of mental health issues has stretched across society and raised awareness for the issue. Members of Gen Z, many of whom were forced into distance learning scenarios away from friends as a result of the pandemic, now see the issue in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and are willing to reward retailers and brands that move beyond lip service to support employees and customers who are struggling.

Publications including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glossy and the Editorialist have all published articles on top mental health oriented brands in the past two years.

The Retail Council of Canada recently released a “Mental Health in Retail Guidebook.”

New brands like CHNGE, which hawk sustainable apparel with messages like “It’s ok to cry,” are emerging every day.

JanSport created a #lightentheload mental wellness initiative, sharing videos of young people candidly discussing their mental health struggles and triumphs on Instagram live episodes and the retailer’s website.

The mental health narrative differs from sustainability or political narratives in a few key ways. Sustainability and politics need to be addressed on a macro level, talking about how the actions of the retailer in question fit into a global narrative. Mental health, on the other hand, is highly personal. The most effective mental health messaging comes from the individuals who experience mental health struggles or professionals who are qualified to speak to them.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Gen Z consumers become more or less interested in positive mental health messaging in the coming years? Will mental health oriented messaging remain exclusive to Gen Z and Millennials, or will brands serving Gen X and Boomers getting in on the action? 

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"This is the natural evolution of 'Do Good' and 'Be Kind' t-shirt messaging that has become increasingly prevalent among a plethora of brands"

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11 Comments on "Has mental health become a retail marketing issue?"

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Zel Bianco

COVID-19 has changed us forever and mental health continues to be a huge issue. When brands are careful and thoughtful with their messaging, it can be helpful to this audience and everyone else.

Shep Hyken

Mental health is a hot topic in the past couple of years. Companies that offer some type of mental health benefit will appeal to some of its employees, candidates, and even customers. Mental health is in the same bucket as sustainability or any other charity that “gives back.” In our research, 45 percent of consumers believe it’s important that a company has a social cause – mental health included.

Lisa Goller

Gen Zers will reward positive mental health messages to replace stigma and shame with compassion and action. The pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns amid a healthcare labor shortage. Yesterday’s news of the entertainer tWitch’s death proves more people are hurting than we realize.

Younger generations’ refreshing openness will inspire more brands serving older adults to discuss mental health. The effects of addiction and mental illness affect all ages. Brands can help consumers feel understood rather than alone.

Jenn McMillen

This is the natural evolution of “Do Good” and “Be Kind” t-shirt messaging that has become increasingly prevalent among a plethora of brands. This generation in particular likes being walking billboards for their beliefs.

Georganne Bender

Gen Z may have started this wave, but I think every generation will embrace positive mental health messaging.

We have been told to be tough, to forge ahead. Go for it. Whatever it takes. It’s only now that we are beginning to look behind what it takes to be an athlete, top performer at work or a super parent. Or run a business. I like that brands are looking at things differently. Self-care and thoughtfulness goes a long way.

Gene Detroyer

In my lifetime, mental health has moved from something one never talked about. If they did, it would be shameful. Gen Z kids are very much the opposite. They are all about mental health. They recognize the challenges in outing themselves and their friends. Seeing a shrink may be something they ask for rather than being told they need it.

There is a message in them through voice, apparel, and the support of friends. They are promoting “It’s OK to cry” loud and clear. Companies with positive mental health messages will resonate with them.

Ryan Mathews
First of all, the deliberate exploitation for profit of mental health issues is rarely “authentic.” While we haven’t quite reached the, “Kiss Me, I’m Bipolar” t-shirts yet, some of the products I’ve seen come frighteningly close. As to the future of positive mental health marketing, one assumes it will remain popular, but as age cohorts move through time their attitudes, passions, and areas of focus change. The only reason Gen Z and Millennials seems to have cornered the mental health market is because nobody seems to pay any attention to pop culture history. Forget the “Lost Generation” and all the emo agita of Fitzgerald, et al. How about those Boomers wandering around with copies of “The Art of Loving”, “I Thou,” “Be Here Now,” and “The Greening of America,” stuffed in their rucksacks as they dropped acid to find their “true self” or the Beats before them spending endless hours and often lifetimes in analysis? Well those spiritual wellness seekers became Yuppies more worried about their IRAs than their I/Thous. And positive mental health branding… Read more »
Doug Garnett

Merchandise with feel-good or respectful mental health-oriented phrases are a good choice. But I’d watch out beyond that. Certainly it is good that more people are getting help. But I do not see it as a smart retail strategy to tie stores to the idea.

Mark Price

The critical normalization of mental health issues is happening now, albeit too slowly. At the moment, Gen Z and Millennials are leading the way, as they often seem to, challenging the stigma of mental health issues. Retailers can capitalize on that trend, but must do so in an authentic way. That authenticity challenge is a real one — the messages must be genuine but the company must also walk the talk with their store associates and their corporate staff as well.

Craig Sundstrom

I’m confused on how this all fits into retailing. If the idea is “messaging,” as in “let’s make mental health the latest ’cause of the week’,” then, please, no. There’s a reason the phrase “practicing (medicine) without a license” is looked upon unfavorably.

Rachelle King

Mental health is a serious issue. Domestic abuse is a serious issue. Which is better served on a t-shirt?

Not everything belongs in retail stores. And, the fine balancing act needed to sift good intentions from marginalizing a serious human and social issue cannot be understated. Yes, there is need and value in destigmatizing mental health. But the risk of retail marketing commercializing a message that everybody (or a larger percentage) is going through something similar may disuede people from getting help (Why bother? Who can I ask if everybody’s dealing with the same stuff?).

This is a space where good intentions meets wrong platform. Yes, let’s talk about mental health. But let’s do it in a manner where mental health professionals are at the core; not just retailers, brand marketers and t-shirts.

"This is the natural evolution of 'Do Good' and 'Be Kind' t-shirt messaging that has become increasingly prevalent among a plethora of brands"

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