Taking a bite out of influence

By Sam Beer and Phil Borge-Slavnich

We all want to feel good about ourselves, but self-care takes time. And let’s face it, our lives are busy.

It took Buddha 49 days under the Bodhi tree to reach enlightenment. You have to admire the commitment and – as avid Headspace users – we might almost take it as a challenge. But we have clients to meet and karaoke bars to visit.

It’s human nature that we look for quick answers. People are turning to brands and individuals to give them the advice to help shape their lives for the better. As a result, the health and wellbeing sector has transformed itself into a trillion-dollar global industry, composed of a myriad of apps, services, foods, powders, exercise schemes and more.

But with so much noise, and so many contrasting benefits thrown at us by wellbeing companies of every type, who can we trust? Furthermore, how can the brands that have beneficial stories to tell – that can make a real impact on people’s health and mindset – reach us?

Respect and influence

People value advice from those they respect. Whether that’s a doctor, a parent, a close friend, our favourite journalist or a well-loved celebrity. We’ll always listen more when it’s someone we care about, someone with influence, or someone we trust.

As we discussed on our recent podcast, Making the Headlines: The shape we’re in, trust is the currency that the world’s foremost fitness magazine, Men’s Health, trades on—building it the reputation as the go-to men’s lifestyle publication of the last 35 years. “We directly respond and speak to our readers,” said deputy editor, David Morton. “Trends come and go but we try not to jump onto bandwagons. Instead, we observe and respond to them in a way that is responsible.”

Trends do come and go, in large part thanks to the evolution of the ‘influencer. And in an ‘always-on’ society, it’s no surprise that people are turning to those they follow online for help.

But while the power of influencers is apparent – 74 per cent of millennials will trust influencers to guide them in their decisions – the dust is still settling from some notable missteps by well-known ‘health and wellness’ influencers. People will no longer follow so blindly.

There has been a turning of the tide on influencer trust. For many, the term influencer causes a rolling of the eyes, especially as “#wellness” and the pursuit of health has turned into the new status symbol.

The catch-all nature of what constitutes ‘health and wellness’ means there’s a careful line to walk. And a line not to cross.

The backlash to fake content

Charlie Turner, co-founder of Neat Nutrition, expressed his worries to us about the impact of fake content. “There’s definitely a lack of transparency. There’s a huge amount of misinformation out there. People take what they read on a Facebook post as verbatim and that’s very hard to govern.”

One case in point involved Belle Gibson, the Australian faux-wellness blogger who ‘beat cancer’ through self-prescribed treatments.

In 2013, Belle Gibson made $420,000 AUD (approx. £231,000) after building a social media empire and launching The Whole Pantry cookbook and app – all based on claims that she had been able to cure her brain cancer through nutrition and alternative therapies. Gibson encouraged those most vulnerable to reject conventional cancer treatments and instead follow her ‘wellness regime’. In the first month alone, her app received over 200,000 downloads.

It was revealed Gibson never had the disease and in 2015 her book was pulled from shelves. Two years later, a federal court in Melbourne found her guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct and ordered her to pay a hefty penalty fine.

There have been less extreme examples, too. Listerine received a dressing down after the influencer content it had commissioned went viral. The content (and influencer associated with it) was publicly crucified for being completely staged and unrealistic in portrayal.

“People are choosing where to find their information—but not necessarily choosing well,” said Camilla Barnard, co-founder of Rude Health, who joined us on Making the Headlines: The shape we’re in. “When we consider the rise of the influencer, the evidence shows that we’re more drawn to personal stories than we are to facts. We’re terribly personality driven.”

Honesty gains in value

The response? Demand from consumers for influencers and content creators to be more genuine in the content they share. There’s been a marked increase in ‘Instagram vs. reality’ posts, ‘ask me anything’ dialogues, ‘no makeup selfies’, and most notably, sharing of health struggles by influencers.

Freelance journalist Bella Mackie shared her struggles with mental health in her novel, Jog On: How Running Saved my Life. Mackie gained instant popularity with recently signing another two book deals and collecting a social influence of over 40,000 people.

Presenter Fearne Cotton made the Top 10 book charts with her book, HAPPY. It focuses on her own experiences and shares advice from experts on how to work through feeling blue, to finding joy every day. Her podcast series, Happy Place, features interviews from ‘inspiring individuals who have either made a change in their own lives or who help people to find a different way of looking at life’. A summer festival, of the same name, first launched in August earlier this year – in collaboration with skincare brand Rituals. Cotton has amassed over 2.8 million followers online and recently announced a partnership with Boots.

Journalist Elizabeth Day addressed the personal developments that led her to start thinking about failure as the key to starting her podcast, How to Fail. The podcast explores owning failure and using it to self-liberate, with weekly guests questioned on the biggest failures they have or haven’t yet overcome. Now a best-selling author, Day this year released her book of the same name.

These three women are among many others shaping conversation in the health and wellness space. Consumers are noticing. And brands are now noticing, too.

We’re noticing because this isn’t a new fad diet, identifier buzzword or must-have Eastern remedial cure-all. It isn’t yoga-pants-wearing, Chilly-bottle-carrying, plant-based eating, tee-totals.

It’s trust. It’s a demand for honesty. And it’s happening now.

Providing meaningful relationships

Consumers are wising up, demanding accountability and authenticity from those with influence. And so they should.

This renewed focus on honesty, accountability and purpose, gives brands the perfect breeding ground to build trust with their audiences. Especially in an industry such as the health and wellness sector, that so heavily depends on it.

Through authentic and meaningful partnerships with influencers and content creators, through storytelling and content that is honest and transparent, brands allow their audiences to engage with them not because ‘so and so’ said so. But because they’ve done their research and trust what they are saying. And challenge them if they don’t.

But the wellness industry has a long road to run. Brands need to listen before they can be heard. Influencers need to embrace greater transparency to be believed. And both need to earn consumers trust in order to achieve success.

This article is part of the new series, Making the Headlines. To listen to the first episode of the podcast – featuring Neat Nutrition, Rude Health and Men’s Health – click here, download and subscribe on your podcast platform of choice, or listen below.