Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The new holistic: health and wellbeing in a digital age

By Philip Koh, head of strategy, strategic brand design studio Without

When it comes to the role of technology in fitness and wellbeing, debate about compatibility has raged since the advent of the first smart gadget. We’re not talking about how easily Strava syncs with Technogym, rather, the more fundamental question of whether technology is the antithesis of physical and mental wellness. (In this respect perhaps the debate goes back further, to the launch of Jane Fonda’s very first Betamax video).

With UK adults averaging 3 hours and 23 minutes a day looking at their smartphone screens and a further 3 hours a day watching their TV screens, it comes as no surprise that for a large number of consumers, the digital detox is a core benefit of their workouts. It is a chance to reconnect with their physical environment, to focus inward, to clear their minds. There’s also the human and social aspect, with the benefits of live instruction from trainers and the motivation that comes from a room of likeminded people trumping anything delivered by technology. As Colin Waggett, CEO of Third Space commented, “Anyone can work out in their front room. But members still come to our clubs because they want to be inspired, to improve and to excel.”

On the other hand, it’s undeniable that technology has become embedded in consumers’ lives. The wearables market alone is forecast to be worth $67b worldwide by 2024. A study last year by UKActive revealed that while the majority of consumers did not feel an explicit need for technology to get active, 79% of them used technology to support their health and well-being. 

But wherever you stood on this debate at the start of the year, the pandemic has completely shaken things up. Overnight, technology has gone from dispensable (and in some cases undesirable), to essential.

A virtual lifeline

When gyms, cycle boutiques, yoga studios, et al, shut down in March, consumers were quick to turn to technology for their fitness and wellness needs. Peloton doubled their subscribers during lockdown, Joe Wicks gained 1.2m new subscribers on his YouTube channel, and downloads of the top ten mental wellness apps surged by 2 million in April alone.   

For their part, physical brands were also quick to leverage technology to reach customers. Blok launched BLOKtv to offer live and on-demand sessions online. Equinox launched a new app platform Variis, streaming classes from their instructors as well as those of SoulCycle and Pure Yoga. And Barry’s broadcast free Instagram classes five times a day.

Luxury health club group Third Space has always traded on its second-to-none venues and best-in-class service. But over the course of the lockdown, they’ve quietly extended their brand experience through technology, with online workouts, virtual services and branded content.

Initially, many of these initiatives were less about building revenue streams, more about goodwill and loyalty. It maintained the relationship between brands and their customers, when physical interaction proved impossible. But as new habits have formed, it’s become clear that this fuller, deeper, and more pervasive interaction is here to stay. 

This forced adoption is now an opportunity to examine how we reconcile the tech-enabled experience with the physical one. And as lockdown is gradually lifted, it poses interesting questions for both brands and their consumers – which aspects of this new behaviour is now essential and desirable? How can technology enhance and complement the real-world experience? And how does it reconcile with the primal, human, physical nature of fitness and wellbeing? 

3600 and 24/7 

Technology, for better or worse, is now integrated into every part of our lives. It’s in our living rooms, beside our beds, against our skin. A presence so encompassing, it can almost be described as intimate. As consumers, it has made us accessible, wherever and whenever. At Without, these observations have led us to be mindful of three principles when working on brand strategy and design in the health and fitness sector.

First, access is a privilege that comes with responsibility. An invitation into the personal space of the customer is not an invitation to hog that space. When studies show that screen time can be detrimental to sleep and relaxation, every opportunity to interact should be balanced with a desire to get out of the way. The brand’s intent should be essential, and no more. 

Next, focus on the activity. Technology is secondary, while it enables (streaming content, tracking performance, prompting action), it should be seamless and habit-forming to the point of invisibility. While this raises interesting challenges in creating ownable experiences with the lightest of touches, the brand shouldn’t have to be noticed in order to be sensed.   

And finally, even with the lightest touch, every impression adds to the broader brand experience. 360/24/7 access to the consumer also means 360/24/7 access by the consumer. With every interaction, the brand has to be consistent and coherent – in tone, in quality and in purpose.

Essential, seamless, coherent. When technology enables connections with customers so pervasive and personal, brands need to deliver on every level. This is what it means to be holistic in our digital age.