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I am lucky to lead Allison+Partners’ partnership with The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). When the world shut down in March 2020, everything felt uncertain, including life in PR. Working with AFSP to educate people on mental health and provide them the tools to openly discuss what they were experiencing was one of the things that grounded me. The work is deeply fulfilling because communications and marketing are absolutely essential to the mission of changing culture and behavior around mental health. And everything I’ve learned from working in the mental health space has made me a healthier person and a more compassionate friend and colleague.
As influential drivers of culture, brands now have an opportunity to engage their stakeholders for authentic programs that go beyond mere messaging to impact real change and foster brand affinity. Below are a few guiding principles for marketers to keep in mind when considering mental health-themed programs.
Take an honest look at your internal mental health policies. As with all issues-oriented campaigns, brands must take an honest look at their internal practices before pursing external communications. Do you offer your employees benefits that support their mental health? What is your culture when it comes to discussing mental health in the workplace? Asking these questions as a first step will help ensure any external campaign will feel authentic and shareable not only to your external audience, but also to your employees.
Mental health is a large umbrella for many issues and experiences. Focus on those that most impact your brands’ target audiences: A myriad of related health issues, such as anxiety and depression, sit under the mental health umbrella. The challenges faced vary significantly by individual and by population. For instance, middle-aged white men are statistically most at risk for suicide, yet men are less likely than women to openly discuss mental health. Entrepreneurs face extreme stress and loneliness, but may not have the health benefits that come with working for a large company. And teachers, frontline workers, restaurant workers and parents have all faced unprecedented, unique challenges during the pandemic, adding to the stress and anxiety.
Understanding your target audience’s unique mental health behaviors, beliefs and concerns is essential to develop a campaign that resonates with both media and consumers. For example, Gillette has partnered with The Confess Project to train barbers in communities of color – where stigma regarding mental health is pervasive – to listen actively to their customers and refer them to mental health resources. This campaign is a reminder that while mental health is a universal issue, a highly tailored approach is the only way to have maximum impact.
Language matters. Make sure you’re informed and write intentionally. I am a communications nerd who studied linguistic anthropology. So, it should come as no surprise that one of the things that fascinates me most about the mental health space is the enormous impact the language we use has on our audience’s beliefs and behaviors. An important part of the work with do for AFSP is educating reporters how to write responsibly about suicide.
For example, we say someone “took their life” instead of “committed suicide,” because “committed” implies a crime. And while a lot of our work is about increasing cultural understanding of mental health, we avoid the word “stigma” in our external communications because we don’t want to inadvertently perpetuate the idea that mental health is taboo. When developing campaign messaging and copy, make sure you consult the latest research and mental health experts to ensure your communications are responsible and effective.
Mental health, like physical health, impacts everyone. This creates opportunity for brands to engage consumers authentically.. Those that focus on impact, not just dialogue, will be the ones that break through to capture attention and build brand equity.
Kristen Kmetetz, EVP Client Service + Operations and leads the Boston office at Allison+Partners, where she partners with clients across health and wellness, technology, food, and consumer to build brand awareness and change behavior through storytelling.