Tell a Better Story

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“Rebranding Mental Health”, my TEDx Talk, was born from bad storytelling. When I began developing a mental health web series a few years back, as part of my research, I went to a support group for people who had lost a loved one to suicide. I met a counselor from the Crisis Centre there. Upon learning of our project, she said, “Good luck, you’re going to need it. No one wants to talk about this.”

She described setting up her booth at a busy mall on a Saturday and no one stopping by. I asked her what her banner read. “Crisis Centre”, she replied. That’s a branding problem. If her banner had read “Happiness Broker” or “Peace of Mind Found Here” she would have attracted more interest. The market needed her product, but she needed to adjust her positioning.

Every brand and its overarching category has a brand story, whether it was architected intentionally by marketing professionals, or it inherited a social narrative that has become its defining story. A big challenge in Mental Health is that our cultural narrative is a negative one. Mental Health has an image problem. The bad reputation keeps people who need Mental Healthcare from identifying themselves and accessing help. It also keeps the category from getting funded.

Mental Health is weighed down by a legacy of shame, stigma, and a dysfunctional healthcare system. It saddens me when I encounter brilliant innovators in this space, who should be getting more lift, but poor brand storytelling keeps them from reaching their market potential. Imagine if someone fixed the category’s overarching narrative and demonstrated to the various stakeholders how to position themselves as well. To expect the mental health charities, governments, or care providers to do this work is naive. Most of them don’t have the mandate or skill, others don’t have the resources or will. If this category was a client of an advertising or communications agency, we would market and promote their way out of this problem.

Why don’t we just do this? Assign the job to ourselves. Give Mental Health a makeover. Lift everyone together to the benefit of the end user, our citizens. There is both a moral and an economic imperative for this. Depression is the leading cause of disability and ill health worldwide. The WHO estimates the global cost of mental illness at $2.5T with a projected increase to nearly 6T by 2030. The costs, both human and economic, of ignoring this problem are astronomical. Are we willing to continue to pay them?

I propose that we gather a Knights of the Round Table-like alliance of the best and the brightest disruptors including social scientists, marketers, designers, data scientists, researchers, caregivers, technology experts, and consumers. Make the category our client. Give it the gift of communications. Rebrand mental health.

Perhaps you think this is a utopian ideal that can’t be reached. Those on the inside of marketing, promotion, public relations, and advertising know better. We do this all the time for products that are less deserving of our efforts. Some savvy tobacco marketers out there might want to redeem themselves and get on board. Take a lesson from their playbook.

Stigma is killing people. It’s keeping them from getting help. It’s keeping our healthcare system in the dark ages. We won’t fund what we don’t value. So, let’s elevate the conversation. Why not use the same techniques that marketers use to sell us stuff we don’t need, to instead, promote something we do need? Let’s cultivate attitudes and beliefs that empower us. Ditch the stigma. Lose the shame. Tell a better story.


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