Headspace is a mobile health platform that uses science, technology and creativity to make mindfulness available to the masses.
Mindful Living, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond, points to consumers developing a quasi-Zen desire to experience things in a more present, conscious way—that is, more mindfully. As part of our research, we interviewed Richard Pierson, co-founder of Headspace, a 4-year-old digital health platform that focuses on “meditation for modern life.” He talked to us about why more people are becoming interested in meditation and mindfulness, how brands can reach this cohort and what’s next for the mindfulness movement.
Could you tell me about Headspace, and what led to its founding?
Headspace is a mobile health platform that uses science, technology and creativity to make mindfulness available to the masses. We talk about it as a gym membership for your mind, a kind of bite-size lifestyle approach for keeping your mind healthy. We think there’s a huge opportunity to reframe what it means to keep your mind healthy. When people think of mental health, they think more on the serious end of it—and that’s obviously a very important part of society—but our product is very much around prevention and has more of a lifestyle application to it. So people might want to get a bit more sleep, might be suffering from a bit of anxiety, or they want to be more creative at work or get more focus at work—we provide the content that can help people get to that.
Andy, my business partner, used to be a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk, and I used to be a creative in an advertising agency. We met because I was stressed at work and he taught me meditation, and I gave him some ideas for his clinic—he was teaching at a clinic in London, teaching politicians and sports people and moms and all sorts of people how to meditate.
When you talk about mindfulness, what exactly does that mean, and how does one become a mindful person?
There are two different themes. There are important distinctions between mindfulness or being mindful and the practice of meditation. And meditation is a skill and a practice—it creates the best environment for you to become mindful. And being mindful is just being absolutely present in the here and now with no distractions. Sometimes those two phrases get used in conjunction. Mindfulness is a phrase that people probably feel a bit more comfortable with. Meditation is a practice that allows people to become more mindful.
Why do you think so many people are turning to mindfulness today, especially?
Modern life is way more stressful than it ever was. More and more people are struggling with the barrage of information that often technologies advance a hell of a lot. And we use technology to distribute our product—it’s got great use, but it still has some selective impacts. The impact of constantly being connected 24 hours a day—I think it’s rewired our brains a lot. And our attention spans are shorter. We feel stress a lot more than we ever used to. Holidays are no longer holidays, because you can be contacted from anywhere in the world. You can’t escape it.
Also people are maybe re-evaluating what it is that they deem a success in life. I think the old capitalist manifesto is being questioned, which is useful. That’s led to people thinking maybe there’s more to life, and that’s encouraged people to seek out some of these techniques to help them.
Are you seeing any shared characteristics of the people who are drawn to mindfulness?
We’ve got just under a million users, and if I look at our demographics split, we’re seeing it split from under 18 all the way up to over 65, but we’ve got a slight bump between 25 and 45, and know that those guys are professionals, and pretty much an equal split between men and women. And we’re in 150 countries, and that demographic profile is pretty much the same. And that’s playing to what I was saying, people that are in those professional jobs in city centers are looking for a bit of relief. And I think it is people that are fairly well educated; they have got disposable income. They’re looking for ways to make their lives a bit smoother…. Sixty-one percent of our total data base use it every one to three days. So fairly consistent use, mainly on the mobile.
The concept of mindfulness in Western countries seems to create a buzz occasionally and then recedes from the mainstream before it can really permeate. Do you feel the momentum is stronger this time around? Because the studies on mindfulness that are out now do show the science behind it, which is important for the Western perspective.
Yes, I think it’s really important. We use a lot of science, as you’ll see if you go to our science page. We’ve got full-time chief medical officer, Dr. David Cox, who’s a qualified consultant from the NHS in the U.K., and there’s also a consultant for the health section, and his whole remit is looking after research projects and grants that we get involved with. We are involved in a workplace study with a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company and a Fortune 50 technology company. We had a study with 200 employees in each workplace, and we got scientifically significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, reductions in workplace stress, increase in sleep and an increase in perceived job control.
We have our own research to show how our product works in a workplace environment—as well as there being over 3,000 papers in the last six years to do with mindfulness and meditation. And that’s increasing every single year—everything from psoriasis to anxiety to blood pressure to cancer treatment, you name it, there’s a paper for it. And I think you’re right, that gives people a lot of faith that this is something that isn’t just hocus-pocus.
Over the past few years, quite a few companies have implemented mindfulness programs for their employees. Which ones are doing it well?
I can’t talk about some of the ones we’re doing now. But ones that are out in the press—Google do a really good job of permeating mindfulness throughout their culture. There’s also General Mills; they’ve done a lot in the space. Nike, I know they’ve got a mindfulness program there. We’ve got a corporate list of about 100 clients at the moment that we’re essentially working with, from 500 subscriptions up to 100,000 subscriptions. It’s one of the biggest growth areas we’ve seen, around the corporate stuff.
Around a year ago, Headspace partnered with Selfridges for its No Noise initiative. How did that come about, and why do you think they felt the need to offer something like that?
The brief was really interesting, which was, “We’ve got the busiest, noisiest place in London during our January sales, with the biggest footfall in our shop. And it’s an extremely stressful period for our staff, for our customers that come in, and we want to flip that on its head a bit and think about how we could break that and create calm in a moment of madness.
They’re a very progressive company, and they were a brilliant creative partner. We created pods throughout the store; we had mindful technologies in women’s changing rooms where they could do a self-esteem exercise; we had content in the kids section; we had a sleep program in the bed section; we had a food program in the food hall and a fragrance exercise on the fragrance floors; and we had an interactive window on Oxford Street where people could interact with our blue sky animation, as well as putting on an event and creating all their digital content. They were very progressive and very creative and up for doing interesting things. The response we got from the public and, to touch on your point about how it really hit the mainstream, wasn’t so much, “This is weird. I don’t know what it is.” It’s more, “This is exciting; can I try it?” And that’s the step change that I see.
When a person is mindful, how does that affect their approach to consumption or consumerism?
Just because you become mindful, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want things that help you in your life, but I do think you probably make better choices around things. You probably don’t make wasteful choices. You probably make choices that are better for you in your life, and that can ultimately make you a happier person. Maybe you think back on, “Should I be eating that seventh ice cream bar now?” You probably think about things before you do them a bit more.
It gives you that moment to pause before you make a rash decision that can ultimately lead to you feeling bad about yourself. I don’t think just because you’re mindful you’re not engaged in consumerism, but you probably make better choices for yourself around it.
How should a marketer approach a mindful person? A lot of advertising lends itself toward mindless consumption, pushing for that impulsive purchase.
Mindful consumers are going to be looking to come to you and go, “OK, so what are you giving back? What’s your purpose on this planet, other than to sell products and make money?” You’ll have to have a point of view in that way. As we become more aware or mindful as a society, those things become things we’re all expecting have to happen.
Something like Coke—what’s a sugary, unhealthy drink got to do with happiness? But they’ve created a whole brand initiative around happiness. They’ve done a really, really good job with it. There’s an opportunity to frame a brand no matter how you market or what your product is.
What other marketing campaigns do a great job of addressing or catering to a mindful consumer?
Well, I think brands that have got that at their core—obviously, that’s the most logical way. Something like Westin, who’ve got health positioning all around their hotel brand, where you can get New Balance trainers in the reception to go for a run. They’ve got healthy options on their in-room food menu. They’re starting to do smoothies in the bar. That’s a smart way—travelers want to be healthy. Often, it’s really unhealthy when you travel.
It’s kind of obvious, but someone like Whole Foods, who stands for organic and non-GMO. It’s expensive, but it does stand for something bigger than just the food that they put on their shelves. Anything that’s got intrinsic values at the core do a better job than some of the ones that are just based around the brand positionings.
I also think just how brave the brand wants to be. We do a lot of brand partnership work. We’ve got a channel over on Virgin Atlantic planes. Partnerships are so smart for brands to get involved with in a space that they don’t necessarily have permission to play in. Brands that aren’t necessarily health and wellness can partner with health and wellness brands to get a foothold in that territory. That’s the smartest way for a lot of brands to get into it without it feeling not right.
Let’s talk about the Virgin Atlantic partnership. What was that like?
When people travel is now the most stressful experience for people; the security, the fear, everything that’s around flying has made what used to be a very enjoyable experience something that’s not anymore. We wanted to create a channel with their in-flight entertainment systems, where people could use our bite-sized content. So it touches on how to deal with the fear of flying, how to get to sleep, and our basic “Take 10” 10-minute exercises. We created some kids animations as well, as well as those science facts that are being turned into interesting animations to show it works.
It’s just a way of going, “Look, we’ve got a lot of downtime on longer flights especially, and people don’t always want to be watching film after film after film. That’s when a user can learn a skill and do something useful.” That was the pitch to them. They created a channel, and we did some stuff in their lounges later in the year with some Headspace pods—every year we do more and more with those guys. They’ve been a fantastic partner to us.
In which corners of society is mindfulness really making an impact? Where are you seeing mindfulness really take hold?
We’ve seen the young professional market as a real hotbed for activity and sharing. I think that moms, she’s stretched for time. Often their lives have changed overnight and that’s quite a shock to the system. Helping parents become more mindful is a really worthwhile place for content like ours to be.
I think students; they’re a huge at-risk group, and we’ve seen quite a lot of uptake from that part. I also think the medical professions, so doctors, surgeons, nurses. We’re seeing mindfulness in the Army. Our largest group of corporate clients is from financial services. Banking is a huge area of growth for us from a corporate side. It’s groups that suffer from high amounts of stress, and I think that’s pretty broad.
What’s next for the mindfulness movement? How do you see this playing out as it becomes more widespread?
The same way that yoga 10 years ago was very strange for a lot of people—now it’s in every single gym and every single golf club all over the world. I think mindfulness will be exactly the same. The idea of training your mind to be healthier and stronger and better equipped to deal with modern life will just become a hygiene factor for people. Our vision is to spread it out to this world, and we feel that that mission will be achieved when people see that, you know, take 10 minutes out to look after their mind every day in the same way that they look at brushing their teeth, having a shower.
I really think it will get there. How quickly it will get there? I don’t know. It’s different to yoga in that it’s available on instant platforms, so it will probably get there quicker than yoga, but I think it’s got a very similar trajectory to yoga.