Janet Lam-Graham

Headspace 🧘

Marketing case study:  A mindful strategy to building brand awareness and trust

📖 15 to 20 minute read

Headspace is a digital health company known for its subscription-based guided meditation app.

It has been instrumental in redefining mindfulness and meditation, introducing millions of people to the practice; and making these techniques more mainstream, accessible (and profitable). 

Meditation is training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective…

Mindfulness is the ability to be present….

1. Introduction

When the Headspace app was released in 2012 it was one of the first of its kind. There are now about 2000 mediation apps on the market including Calm, Insight timer and Simple Habit.

It’s an increasingly crowded market and Headspace have a healthy share: It’s frequently listed in the ‘best meditation app’ type articles, and usually ranks in the top 3 of its category on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

The Headspace app has 40 million users in more than 200 countries, it’s raised $75.2 million in funding and reached over $100 million in revenue in 2018.

A key part of Headspace’s appeal and popularity is its distinctive branding – it is a purpose driven brand with a lot of personality. The illustrations and storytelling reflect the teaching style of co-founder Andy Puddicombe. Moreover, its mission is clear and research shows that it is delivering on its brand promise of improving the health and happiness of the world.

This article will look into how Headspace attracts users and inspires trust with creativity, clarity and consistency. It will also consider its challenges and place in the industry.

2. The Headspace brand story

Headspace was founded in the UK by former buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe and ex-advertising executive Rich Pierson. The pair met in 2008 through a mutual friend and they did a skills swap: Puddicombe would teach meditation at his London clinic, helping Pierson who was burnout while working for an advertising agency. Then afterwards they would go to a cafe and Pierson would give marketing advice, discussing on what would become Headspace, forming the business in 2010.

Headspace was initially a live events company, it then partnered with airlines in 2011 to offer an in-flight channel of recorded guided meditations to passengers. Puddicombe also published his first book under the Headspace brand. To scale up further and perhaps replicate the success of fitness apps, Headspace developed and launched the mobile app in 2012 – using some of the $50,000 book advance to help fund the development of it. They would later get angel investment and then venture capitalist funding, and moved their offices from London to Los Angeles.

3. Designed for life

Meditation has been around for thousands of years, all major religions practice some form of it. In the 1960s and 1970s meditation and mindfulness became part of the counterculture for those living a New Age (hippie) lifestyle. Whilst over the years, in mainstream society we formed preconceived ideas around the practice. Some people were skeptical about its benefits, associating it with mysticism. Others were curious about meditation but assumed it was about getting rid of thoughts and found it difficult to do.

Anna Charity, Head of Design at Headspace, explained that the company wanted to move away from the ‘all the mysticism and cliched imagery’ we associate with meditation and mindfulness. Making it easier to adopt in our daily routine. Positioning it as tools and techniques for modern-day living. Headspace’s approach is nothing new. The added value it brings is modernising the practice through its relatable tone of voice and its imaginative visual design – illustrations, animations and layout. All of this creates a thoughtful brand experience that engages with people living in today’s always-on, hyper connected world full of distractions (bringing them a bit of stillness in the day).

3.1. Tone of voice

The personality of the Headspace brand captures co-founder Puddicombe’s teaching method, which comes across as friendly, straightforward and expert. Mixing his training roots in Tibetan Buddhism and then the Burmese tradition; with his years of experience working in a London clinic doing one to one meditation sessions and consultancy workshops with a range of professionals.

The tone of voice is also consistent: From the app itself – Puddicombe narrates the guided meditation audio and animation; which feels natural and conversational as much of the recordings are unscripted. To all customer touchpoints – website copy, email campaigns, social media posts; the complex aspects of the mind are told in the same approachable style.

3.2. Character building

Other meditation apps such as Calm and Simple Habit are using natural stock photo images like sunset landscapes, mountain tops, hot air balloons etc. quite fitting for the subject. So Headspace’s illustrations stand out, which is an advantage in such a competitive market where many of the products have similar functionality.

The Headspace illustration style of funny-shaped characters compliments its tone of voice, further communicating its simple and fun approach. These anthropomorphic characters play out abstract concepts that we recognise as the everyday thoughts and feelings we may experience. The characters appear warm and fuzzy too, with similarities to the cartoons and picture books of our childhood. People connect with it because it feels familiar, almost nostalgic. In turn this connection can cultivate brand loyalty.

4. Investment in scientific research  

Meditation began to be studied for its health benefits in the 1960s and centres began opening up in the West. But it remained on the fringes of science for some time.

In the last few decades as more scientists are studying mindfulness and meditation, it’s become more mainstream. Now it’s recommended by doctors and other healthcare professionals. Moreover, in the early 2000s, the NHS in the UK approved mindfulness as treatment, particularly for the relapse of depression. Which was how co-founder Puddicombe started working in a London clinic.

Part of the Headspace marketing strategy has been emphasising its investment in studying the science of meditation, and publishing independent clinically-validated research on its product. In this information age, Headspace understand that being transparent about the research is the best way to build trust with customers.

5. Marketing communications

In 2011 when the Headspace app was in beta mode, the Guardian newspaper picked up on what Headspace were doing and they worked together to develop a series of short podcasts and a booklet: How to meditate in 10 easy steps. One million booklets were distributed as a supplement with the newspaper, boosting awareness of Headspace nationwide. Publicity, endorsements and storytelling for Headspace continue to be a contributing factor to the app’s growth.

More recently, it has been running integrated marketing across digital, including paid search ads, retargeting and outdoor advertising (billboards and taxis).

5.1. Media

Puddicombe is the focus of much of the PR campaigns, sharing his personal story to emphasise his expertise, relevant experience and motivation for co-founding Headspace.

Notably, he did a Ted talk which has received to date 2.5 million views, using his juggling skills to explain the approach. He also did chat show interviews with Ellen, and at the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon where he led a two minute meditation with the studio audience and viewers at home.

Through the media coverage, Headspace have reached new mass audiences. People connect with Puddicombe’s life story, practical explanations about mindfulness and meditation, and therefore the brand.

5.2. Partnerships

Before the app took off, Headspace built initial brand awareness by partnering with commercial companies (Selfridges department store, Twinings tea) and nonprofits (the Royal Parks foundation). Implementing joint mindfulness campaigns that included live sessions and installing meditation pods to spark curiosity and educate new audiences about the practice.

More recently, Headspace have spread its practice to even more people; it gives subscriptions (access to the full library of meditations) for free or at a discounted price to some charities. It also has a partnership with music streaming service, Spotify – offering a combined subscription bundle to customers in certain countries. Plus, a continued partnership with airlines, especially since that’s a place where people are naturally sitting still.

Headspace have described its product as ‘your gym membership for the mind.’ The sports analogies go further – there is a dedicated section of ‘movement and sports’ meditations in the app’s library. And connections to big sports brands and organisations such as hosting audio guided runs on the Nike apps. Plus, Headspace supports professional athletes and coaches (like those competing in the Olympics and basketball players in the NBA) by giving free app subscriptions. In return it gets publicity and possibly some brand endorsements from the athletes, which can boost customer confidence in Headspace.

In a similar way, commercial companies (LinkedIn, Adobe and Airbnb) offer Headspace to employees as part of their benefit packages; which gives more corporate kudos to use the meditation app to improve work-life balance.

5.3. Video animations

The animation videos narrated by Puddicombe feature in the app and are part of its paid campaigns on YouTube. These videos talk about the ideas behind meditation.

The most viewed  – ‘letting go of effort’ has received over 64 million views on YouTube. Although many of the views have come from paid campaigns, there are a lot of positive comments from people saying it’s ‘the only ad they didn’t skip’ –  which shows these animated stories resonate with customers.

With three hundred million Youtube channel views, it’s received more engagement than bigger, more established brand channels like McDonalds and Samsung. Indicating that the animation videos are an effective medium for Headspace to entertain and educate new and existing customers.

6. The customer journey

Before mediation apps, there were many ways to find out more about mindfulness and learn how to meditate. From reading books and blogs, to watching free videos on YouTube, and going to in-person events such as talks and drop-in sessions.

What the Headspace app has done is package it into a challenge, that helps you learn and track your progress. It has the added convenience of it being on your phone, a device you use daily. Plus, an intuitive user experience that makes it simple and easy to use; for example it’s self-paced, the guided meditation audio can be played when you want and you can fit the practice around your schedule.

Convenience (and indulgences) are valuable to customers. But as an opinion article on the Drum website explained, brands prosper if they ‘trade on effort and reward’. In the same way Nike just do it. Or meal kit company, Gousto, refreshed the activity of cooking for consumers (which will perhaps feel and test better than ordering takeaways).

It’s about encouraging people to put in the effort, do the work when interacting with the product; that creates a more meaningful customer experience.

The gamification and accountability elements in Headspace ensure it becomes a daily habit. The more time and investment you put into the Headspace app, the more perceived value you have for it.

Here are parts of the Headspace customer journey:

📣 6.1. Awareness and interest  

As described in the previous ‘marketing communications’ section, Headspace use PR campaigns, partnerships, outdoor advertising, and digital and social media channels to excite and inform potential customers.  

💭 6.2. Consideration, conversion and pricing

Headspace works on a freemium model so the 10-day ‘basics’ course is free of charge and to unlock the entire Headspace guided meditation audio library, you have to pay a subscription fee.

The free 10-day beginner course makes the process consistent and manageable. It’s based on research that 10 days commitment to Headspace meditation can increase positive mood whilst reduce negative attitudes.

Content marketing in the form of emails, animation videos, blog articles also supports the free to paid subscriber conversion process. As well as optional push notifications (reminders to meditate, daily inspirational messages about staying mindful); and short audio clips in the app to help customers with common meditation obstacles.

One obstacle for people may be the subscription price. At £9.99 a month, it is the same price as the film and TV subscription service Netflix’s premium package. But it’s set at this price to make the yearly subscription price of £74.99 a more attractive option. (although it is still more expensive than competitors).

Perhaps the pricing strategy links back to the perceived value. The more you pay, the more likely you will use it.

🎮 6.3. Retention

Headspace use gamification tactics to keep users engaged. Meditation stats are kept through a ‘run streak’ – counting how many consecutive days you’ve meditated. Which you can proudly share as a graphic on social media. The streak gets broken, if you don’t meditate within 24 hours of the last session. You can hack it i.e. skip through the audio but that defeats your purpose of using it.

There are ‘run streak goals’ which are visual medals awarded to you when you reach milestones for certain days in a row meditated. Users also get rewards in the form of hidden animations, which are unlocked after achieving certain number of minutes meditated. All of these are little things, that do keep you motivated; but the real reward is satisfaction with keeping up with the practice and improving parts of your life.

Users can access their ‘journey’ timeline stating which session/course they completed on a specific date. Which may evoke positive feelings about using Headspace.

There is the accountability feature, the ability to add ‘buddies’ – friends and family also using Headspace. You can see their stats and give them a ‘nudge’ via text message or email to meditate. It’s a way to hold each other accountable, the encouragement to continue.

7. Challenges and the future

There’s a growing movement of digital minimalism, establishing a more balanced relationship with our personal technology. Like turning off phone notifications and reducing time spent on emails and scrolling through social media.

So with our increasing desires to cut down screen time to lower stress and anxiety and reconnect with the real world, how does Headspace and other meditation apps fit in?

South Park’s Buddha Box

Meditation apps can seem ironic. But it’s about meeting customers where they are: on their smartphones. Using technology, the healthy habit-forming products, to overcome obsessive technology usage.

One of Headspace’s challenges may be customer conversion and retention. The data isn’t publicly shared. So looking at figures which are a few months apart – it celebrated 1 million paying subscribers in June 2018 and says it has about 40 million users in December 2018. There is a bit of time difference, but overall its ratio of free to paying users could be higher.
While most subscription based businesses place emphasis on adding more entertaining content to create customer value. Headspace’s offering is totally different. Guided mediations are repetitive, a lot of it is made of silence. It knows the value they bring to customers is packaging the practice with gamification and accountability features that ensure you make it as part of your everyday routine.
To add more value and inspire customer loyalty it could expand on the accountability features, like an online community element in the app. Or it could go full circle – start hosting in-person events again for its subscribers.

When Headspace started they wanted to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible. It’s now swung the other way. The critical term McMindfulness has been coined to describe the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity through meditation apps, adult colouring books and more.
Headspace are demonstrating it is not part of this fad, that it takes its brand promise seriously, particularly with the commitment to scientific research and the introduction of the Headspace Health program – delivering the first prescription meditation app in 2020. Through its marketing Headspace has always communicated that its purpose is genuine and that it isn’t a panacea; but it’s a tool that teaches you a life skill you need to keep practicing. ∎