During the boom-times in the earlier part of the decade, health and wellness meant many things such as alternative health, gym bodies and organic food. What all of these had in common was a committed group of people, knowledgeable about food, training, and that were focused on the right pomegranate juice or the best abdominal exercises.

As Shelley Balanko, Vice President Ethnographic Research at the Hartman Group explains, at the beginning of the new post-credit crunch decade, awareness of health and wellness issues is at the heart of a growing paradigm shift in attitudes. The Hartman Group has been providing consumer research since 1989 and its recent report on health suggested some significant moves in how consumers are perceiving health and wellness. We asked Shelley Balanko to tease out some of these key issues, and though she is talking from detailed research in the US, the trends are familiar in the rest of the developed world.

The Curve: Shelley, how has the social significance of health and wellness changed over the last 20 years? Sometimes it was easy to characterise people with such concerns as ‘health-freaks’, but that’s no longer the case?

Shelley Balanko: Health and wellness is now a cultural obligation in North America. It’s no longer a niche lifestyle, pretty much everyone is participating at least aspirationally, in a variety of areas, whether that’s food, exercise or spirituality, or social well- being. Because the expectation is that if you are going to be a sound contributing member of society, you need to be cognizant of health and wellness.

It sounds like it’s increasingly a civic duty? There have been many health and wellness issues which have filtered out from the lifestyle sections and supplements of newspapers and become news items, such as issues around obesity for example. It seems health and wellness is not just about buying products, or getting fitter, or eating better. It’s about an evolving belief system, integral to how people see themselves in their everyday lives, their self-image, their perception of themselves, brands and even politics?

I think it has changed from being a segregated way of being and participating, to a more integrated if not harmonious way of participating in health and wellness. I would say that in the distant past, the late 1990s early 2000s it was about how physically active you were. Then as we got into the mid 2000s and later it became much more broad-reaching. In 2010 one of the most interesting things we found is that even consumers who are most peripherally involved in health and wellness, those folks who are largely aspirational about health and wellness and not participating that much, even those folks recognise that health and wellness is beyond just what you eat and how you exercise. There is an awareness that it is about your social relationships, your mental well- being, emotional well-being, and even the well-being of communities and the planet.

So it’s gone from something niche, something you could achieve by doing very systematic things like diet and exercise, to something that encompasses our lives. Where do you think that shift has come from? And what are leading businesses doing to make sense of that?

In the past it was niche and compartmentalized, it was about doing one or two things – except of course for those in the committed core. In our health and wellness report there are basically three types of consumers.

  1. On the periphery there are those who are minimally involved
  2. Mid-level, those folks who are trying to figure things out, they are more intentional in their involvement but are not deeply committed
  3. The deeply committed and highly knowledgeable are the core

The mainstream consumer, the mid-level, grabbed a hold of a nugget of health and wellness sentiment from the core. There has been the explosion of health and wellness products over the last two decades and then that has really enabled a vast majority of consumers to understand it is much more integrated and that it does span all these areas.Even in years past, the core consumer recognized that wellness was something all-encompassing. I think what has shifted the balance is that the committed core has always been evangelist, and what they have done is spread the word.

“Rather than a real ‘hunkering down’ with an abandonment of health and wellness, focussing on the bare essentials, we have seen consumers are actually investing in it”

So there has been an evolution over the last two decades but a lot of things have changed in the last few years, since the crunch. It’s been said that in recession it is rational for people to address very ‘bread-and-butter issues (even the metaphor is a little bit basic and unhealthy!) that people are driven by tackling money issues and not so much the softer issues. How has health and wellness featured post-credit crunch?

Quite the opposite, what we have heard in the last two years doing consumer work around the economy’s impact on things like health and wellness, it appears that consumers appreciate health and wellness more. The attitude is, “I might not have a job, or much as much money as I did, but at least I have got my health, and strong family relationships, and I feel a connection to others.” And a connection to whatever spiritual practice, they are ok.

Rather than a real ‘hunkering down’ with an abandonment of health and wellness, focussing on the bare essentials, we have seen consumers are actually investing in health and wellness. Where they have a priority around quality of life, they are willing to put their dollars. And so while they might buy fewer things, for example discretionary expenses like spa treatments might go by the way-side, it doesn’t mean they are not going to attend to their emotional and spiritual well-being – it’s just choosing to do those things at home. Despite the economy, health and wellness has been a priority for consumers.

One particularly interesting standout about your health research was a headline that included the word ‘balance’. Balance is such a powerful word in our culture, whether talking about lifestyle, morality, or even justice, and in the headline of the report you talk about ‘balance’ being redefined. What were you getting at?

What we have seen in years past is ‘balance’ as something that vacillates between two extremes. On one hand there are consumers who may be involved in very rigid strict, almost ascetic lifestyles, on the other hand there are others almost hedonistic in their pursuit of pleasure. What we are finding now is that it’s not about swinging between extremes it’s about having everything all the time. It’s the true recognition that ‘indulgence’ is a part of health and wellness, restriction and denial is not. Enjoying every moment whether that’s food or exercise, is all about bringing the best of both worlds into those everyday moments.

It sounds like a richer and more negotiated idea of what balance is?

It’s a richer and highly subjective notion. Even the core consumer has become more balanced. They used to be characterized by their extreme adherence to rigidity and sometimes health and wellness regimens based on attitudes of self-denial. It’s different for each level of consumer (Core, Mid-level and Periphery) but they are defining what balance means for themselves, it’s about integrating it more on a day-to-day basis.

Are you suggesting then, in parallel with the leading edge in technological issues around health, there is almost a DIY approach to health, the idea of taking control of your own health?

Yes, another one of the things we had found is that it is a highly personal process. In years past there was much more willingness to follow the health or wellness ‘fad of the day’. And pretty much across the board, Periphery, Mid-level and Core consumers are recognising, “No, it’s about what works for me.” There is really an idiosyncratic approach to diet, to exercise, to spirituality, to what constitutes healthy relationships, to what constitutes a meaningful connection to community of the environment. It is highly personal, whereas years before it was about the trend or fad of the day.

So people are less impressed by the ‘latest thing’ in health and wellness. Would that extend to be more willing to trust yourself rather than rely on experts?

It depends on the consumer segment. But there is a more intuitive approach, it is certainly characteristic of the Core or Mid-level consumers. Periphery folks aren’t quite as knowledgeable enough to start trusting in themselves, it’s usually when you get a little more knowledge which is characteristic of the Mid-level consumer that people feel more comfortable saying, “Yeah, you know what, I understand that’s what they are telling me, but it doesn’t fit with my lifestyle, and so I am going to stick with my intuition and modify it.”

There does seem to be an almost philosophical change in how people are seeing health and wellness, moving away from it as a “to-do” list to something deeper in people’s lives?

It’s a matter of tone. I would say the tone is “Playful”. The research shows that consumers are much more playful in how they eat, in how they exercise, recognising that play and fun adds immeasurably to their lives. It’s a tone shift. From something that’s serious, that health and wellness is something to be ticked off on a list, to something that is playful and full of enjoyment.

The Summary

Health and wellness is no longer a matter for devotees, it is becoming a civic obligation. But people are doing this in their own way. Central to it is the idea of balance which has always been part of the visual language of health and wellness. Balance is now being redefined, as consumers see balance as something inclusive of indulgence rather than denying it.

It’s less regulated, more informal and improvised. And while we will still see hero portraits of individuals exercising or after exercise we will also see a lot more image scenarios that are fun. While people may be less religious about health regimens, they will also be more inclusive of spirituality (in a very broad sense) in their take on wellness. We will see this broader spiritual sense will play out in imagery.

The Takeout

Perhaps surprisingly, post credit-crunch, when people are focussing on the paycheque (or lack of it) heath and wellness is more of an immediate concern. Health and wellness communications will be more playful as advertisers look to adopt the tonality of the consumers. Fads are out, what’s in is intuition as confident consumers mix and match to create a healthy lifestyle.