Is ‘wellness’ too expensive for the common man?
How businesses hijacked preventive health to make it aspirational, heavy on the wallet, and almost unreachable
If you boil wellness down to its basics, it’s fairly uncomplicated: good health for as long as possible. It’s a journey that takes you through life’s ups and downs, with your body and mind reminding you to rest, eat wholesome food, stay active through the day, and laugh a little with family and friends.
The problem is that we’re mostly out of sync with our bodies and minds because of our lifestyles of sitting and screens, and a disconnection from community and Nature. And where there is emptiness, the devil — let’s call him the marketeer — steps in, with a product for every niggling ‘problem’.
A generation ago, health communication was often centred around fear-mongering, as in the case of anti-tobacco advertising or even cooking oil. It was a ‘give up the cigarette or else…’, or ‘buy this brand of oil or else…’ line. Today, fear-mongering has been turned on its head, says Vijay Raaghavan, Associate Director — Management Consulting, Healthcare, PwC, Bengaluru. “Communication is tuned to assuage fears we already have. So if I see the product is ‘all-natural’, ‘pollutant-free’, and I’m already worried about a polluted city, it’s pandering to it. But it’s always a set of pleasant-sounding words that are used, like ‘healing’,” he says.
What’s changed is the approach to branding and packaging. While companies are spending more on R&D, it’s also true that “they use information from existing health research selectively,” says Dr Senthil Reddi, Additional Professor, Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru. The messaging is usually aligned with the socio-economic class that has the most disposable income.
Out and about
With social-media explosion, peer pressure is at its highest, and now extends through multiple age groups. “Travel to say, Paris and London is passé. It’s got to be to some exotic location,” says Janaki Abraham, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. In the same vein, rice gets substituted with quinoa, or whatever grain a celebrity is eating or a social-media influencer is pushing.
On their part, influencers need to live (and show) the most authentic life possible. Take Jacqueline Fernandez, Pilates poster girl, who has a stake in Raw Pressery. She must not just lead a healthful life, but also prove she does on social media and at events.
“Trust is key, which thanks to a serious trust-deficit in every sphere, is at an all-time low,” says Delhi-based Sanghamitra Chakraborty, who edited Prevention and Women’s Health magazines when they were in the country, and who now edits Reader’s Digest. So, she says, people tend to spend money on big brands with science-backed claims, feeling that they can be trusted. Also, she says we’ve simply outsourced our health, turning to dieticians, life coaches, personal trainers, when we all know what we really need to do.
What is it about the exotic that lures us? The more complex a product sounds, the more aspirational it is. So out goes the face cream and in come day and night creams, among the arsenal of products you’re supposed to use for healthy skin.
Raaghavan cites words that are key: organic, cold-pressed, virgin, gut health, all requiring a great deal of background reading. This makes it exclusive. It signifies you have a certain level of English language comprehension, data access, disposable income. The market calls these better-for-you products. “It’s a licence to charge more,” he says.
Trust me, I’m a doctor Health professionals are being linked to products
Above and beyond
“In some way, the crisis in health had to lead to this,” says Abraham. “Unfortunately, it’s so linked to money and has become another product that can only be consumed by some.”
But that is how it is worldwide. Carol Singh started a cold-pressed juice brand in 2014, called Antidote. At the time, she says people had no awareness around the concept, but they were curious. “Around 2016, there was a bombardment of natural products, beauty products, supplements. Suddenly, brands were jumping on the wellness bandwagon. Now everyone wants to be in this space, know about it, talk about it.”
She and co-founder Nadia Singh, felt the dialogue was getting diluted, so they began what they call Vitality Hours, a day-long event which began as an invite-only affair, and is now a platform where they put urban folk in touch with wellness professionals: yoga ‘gurus’, alternative medicine specialists, nutritionists.
Next weekend, they’ll do their first two-day event. She’s candid about the fact that products and services in the wellness space are exclusive and more expensive, but also says it’ll trickle down.
In a sense, it already has, if we look at the success of Patanjali that Baba Ramdev says will overtake HUL in the next financial year. Whether Patanjali (Saundarya Aloe Vera Gel, Neem Kanti Body Cleanser) or any of HUL’s brands (Dove, Lever Ayush) are actually facilitating wellness is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear there’s a market for them.Daily wellness
- An American Express-commissioned Live Life survey last year, found that more than half the number of Indians surveyed are living ‘hybrid lives’. This means they were no longer looking for work-life balance, but work-life integration. This year, the credit card company that operates in the luxury space, launched Amex Wellness, that looks at mind-body-soul offerings. This looks at various touch-points for the customer through their daily lives.
This spread of wellness into the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) segment is rooted to linking professionals — either doctors or others from the medical fraternity — with products. Take activated charcoal. Before it became popular in everything from burgers to smoothies, beauty brands used it. One product claim says it: “easily absorbs and lifts away the black impurities and pollution particles”, and “reveals your natural pure-looking white skin,” playing into insecurities at many levels.
A recent change
“It’s only over the past decade or so that we’ve learnt what the sun protection factor (SPF) is, or what an ‘active ingredient’ in a beauty product is. Beauty brands began moving into the dermat space,” says Chakraborty.
Dermatologists also spoke on behalf of companies, much like how dieticians spoke on behalf of say, almond or olive-oil brands. Packaging and labelling for beauty products world-over changed, to be minimalistic, almost medicinal — it was not an indulgence anymore; it was a downright necessity.
On the whole though, people don’t see the attention to wellness as bad: it is an awareness, after all. If it makes you happy to wear a hearable rather than a hearing aid, and you can afford to pay for the pop colours, you’ve landed on wellness. For the rest of us, there’s always preventive health.