Last month Gwyneth Paltrow delivered a sledgehammer blow to the credibility of the wellness industry. In an in-depth New York Times profile, the actress-turned-tycoon of wellness platform Goop revealed how legitimacy, accuracy and scientifically-proven health claims hold no stock in her business.
Instead, she talked about “monetising” the controversy and hyperbole that encircles her brand every time its in-house “experts” espouse the benefits of vaginal jade eggs, daily “moon juice” smoothies and other questionable self-help remedies.
In doing so, she raised fresh questions and concerns about the meaning of the movement and the legitimacy of its gurus, which could have far-reaching ramifications for everyone and anyone working in the wellness industry.
With that in mind, just how big a threat is a lack of credibility to the wellness sector? And who are the positive forces within the industry working to change this perspective?
Who can you trust?
“All this negative coverage is symptomatic of a growing distrust from the public,” says Sarah Greenidge, an expert in evidence-based wellness content. “Wellness is becoming confusing. There’s so much conflicting advice, especially online, and there’s so little clarity on what to believe.”
To combat this distrust Greenidge has set up WellSpoken, an independent agency pushing for the sector to be self-regulated and held to the same high standards of compliance she was used to when working in pharmaceutical healthcare. “I was shocked at the lack of accountability in consumer healthcare,” she says. “Nobody was policing non-product related claims.”
It’s contributed, she believes, to an alarmingly low “health literacy”, especially in the UK, where members of the public aren’t able to understand or action health information available to them.
As a result, people are being hoodwinked by modern day snake oil salesmen – or Oscar-winning actresses – touting the benefits of vaginal steaming, earthing (aka walking barefoot) and a $30 essential oil said to chase away bad vibes.
“Fad diets and weird and wacky advice existed back in the 1950s but we haven’t seen a sector-wide backlash until now,” says Greenidge, citing the conversation around “fake news” and the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer – which found the public is equally sceptical of government, charities and companies – as further evidence consumer trust is at an all-time low.
“People fall down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience spread by misinformation online,” she said. “With the unchecked rise of wellness brands in tandem with social media, it’s created a worrying increase in cases of orthorexia [a dangerous obsession with “healthy eating” first coined in 1998]– something that didn’t even exist in the past.”
Long term, the dishonesty and mistrust spread by the likes of Goop, Greenidge believes, could lead to a deeper “disconnect between the wellness world and healthcare world”. Proven wellness brands, she fears, won’t be taken seriously by the health sector and efforts to prevent ailments rather than simply treat them will fall on deaf ears.
The wild west of wellness
So is the health and wellness sector heading for a wild west run by self-appointed experts spouting unproven claims? Steven Ward, CEO of ukactive, a not for profit association working towards getting more people active, doesn’t think so. For starters, he says, the law holds individuals and businesses to account.
“Fundamentally, good practice is the law,” says Ward. “Regulatory bodies, such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), come down rather hard on marketeers who make false claims about their products or services. And as the wellness sector becomes more mainstream, companies will come more into their crosshairs.”
Most notably in the US in recent years, sports clothing company New Balance ($2.3 million in settlement) and yoghurt brand Dannon ($45 million) have been stung due to unproven advertising claims. Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull was even reprimanded for their “Red Bull gives you wings” slogan, landing a bill for $13 million and ordered to pay $10 to every US consumer who bought the drink since 2002.
Individuals aren’t exempt either. Just last year disgraced Australian wellness blogger Belle Gibson, who falsely claimed she survived cancer by healing herself naturally and then mislead consumers by lying about her charitable donations, was fined $410,000 under Australian consumer law.
Notable cases like these, according to Ward, mean most companies have “dedicated in-house specialists and spend an awful lot of time, money and energy on their professional compliance because the penalties are so big”.
Then there are not-for-profits and charities, such as ukactive and the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) which are committed to establishing “rules of engagement” across the sector that will have to be met.
“If you’re in any doubt of what your regulatory requirements are for running a facility get in touch with ukactive,” urges Ward. “Access our code of practice. Talk to us about what policies and procedures are in place and network with other operators – that’s really important. Any problem you’re having, you won’t be the first.”
Change from within
Until industry-wide regulation catches up with the healthcare sector, Greenidge is pushing for change via self-regulation and has taken the lead by establishing the wellness industry’s first accreditation scheme.
“Our hope is that wellness will be self-regulated in the same way the pharma industry is regulated in the UK,” she says. “That would lead to a dramatic change in the short term. Brands will need to adhere to codes of conduct or face fines. There will be repercussions. That’s the way it should go. We have a huge opportunity to take the reigns and address the pseudoscience undermining the wellness sector.”
London’s Balance magazine recently completed its WellSpoken accreditation. “Balance has done some amazing work to make sure credibility is at the forefront of good content,” says Greenidge, whose team reviewed the title’s editorial process and ran workshops with its team. “Our aim is to get everyone consistently providing the best information possible.”
Following this lead, health retailer Holland & Barrett, under its new Global Chief Marketing Officer Caroline Hipperson, has made credibility a priority in future marketing campaigns, signalled by a recent advert focused on its supplies of Manuka honey.
The health store chain also ensures all associates undergo a comprehensive training programme through its H&B Natural Health Academy to achieve “qualified to advise” status so they can accurately inform customers on their nutritional supplement requirements.
Speaking to The Drum Hipperson, said: “For us, it’s about being genuine, ethical and true. Our approach is that we will only bring the facts, in an engaging way. We don’t make up stories or attach to fads – that’s our way of cutting through the noise of this ‘fake news’.”
Meanwhile, companies in the wider world of wellness have thrived by positioning credibility and accountability at the forefront of their business. Clean Beauty Co, for example, launched in 2015 to “shine a light on mainstream beauty formulations” and “promote transparency in beauty”. In 2017, it was rewarded by securing £150,000 in funding.
Power to the people
So returning to the topic of jade eggs and moon juice, what does the reaction to Goop tell us about the state of the wellness sector in this time of crisis? “That, ultimately, the power lies with the consumer,” says Ward. “Every outraged reaction to a Goop headline just shows the growing consumer expectation that exists in the wellness industry.”
For every consumer who believes the hype and buys the snake oil, there are far more who expect and demand credibility and responsibility from the brands behind their favourite products. And they’re not afraid to call BS if you don’t meet the standard.
Goop and Paltrow might profit from controversy sparked by outlandish claims, but brands that can embrace credibility, accountability, responsibility and transparency will flourish as consumers become more sceptical and scrupulous over their health and wellbeing.
For those working in the wellness sector, there’s no excuse not to measure up.
The three biggest credibility pitfalls identified by WellSpoken’s Sarah Greenidge
Tone of voice
When it comes to your brand’s tone of voice, avoid talking in absolutes. Allow for uncertainty. Aim to upskill and educate your audience rather than make unqualified statements. For example, instead of saying HIIT burns fat, say HIIT has been shown to contribute to fat loss.
Filling in the gaps
Be careful not to leave gaps or make assumptions about your reader’s knowledge. Write to the lowest common denominator. With HIIT, fully explain the protocol and how it works. If you leave gaps, your audience will make assumptions that lead them to misconstrue the message.
Personal opinion is not proof. Even if your expert is a qualified PT or nutritionist, their personal opinion is not enough. We see this all the time on social media and especially with influencers. People must be free to express an opinion but these views should never be delivered as fact.
The three steps wellness businesses should take to ensure credibility
Make credibility a core stream of your business, just as you would with finance, marketing and operations. Don’t leave it as an afterthought or bolt on. Ensure someone with an objective eye is accountable for credibility across all communications.
Third party partnerships
Fully vet the brands, organisations and individuals you align with your business. Make sure they meet the high standards you set for your team. For example, unless a PT has a recognised nutrition qualification they shouldn’t be writing meal plans but that’s often the case with established supplement brands.
Seek external accountability from organisations such as WellSpoken or ukactive. To ensure complete credibility, you need your practices to be reviewed and audited by someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in your business.
Want more information on how the wellness industry can change perspectives through credibility? Watch our panel from this year’s Welltodo Summit:
Welltodo Summit presented by Bird & Bird, Financo and MINDBODY and supported by Form and WellSpokenChanging perspectives through credibility – with Sarah Greenidge (Founder, WellSpoken), Steve Ward (CEO, ukactive) and Rahil Vora (CEO, Revital)
Posted by Welltodo on Friday, June 29, 2018