C-Series 8: How the pandemic has affected health and wellness innovation

Mar 18, 2021

In the latest instalment of GDR’s series assessing the ways in which the retail industry has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, innovation strategist Charlie Lloyd explores shifting attitudes towards health and wellness and how brands are innovating in response.

Many of the sectors we’ve covered in the C-Series so far, from physical retail to hospitality and travel share a common thread: the pandemic put a wrecking ball to brands’ ability to sell to their customers in the ways they were used to and they had to react incredibly quickly in order to survive.

The pandemic has affected health and wellness differently. With our health under the spotlight more than ever, the global market doesn’t appear to have suffered financially and is predicted to continue to grow by around 5% each year until 2026. Yet the pandemic has wrought huge changes to the industry by shifting consumers’ needs and attitudes toward health and wellness.

Sanitisation has, of course, been a key concern for consumers and we’ve seen several innovations in this space, from the use of ultraviolet light to disinfect public spaces via street lamps and bus shelters, to hospital-grade cleaners and spray bottles that convert water into aqueous ozone for use in the home. But the pandemic has also brought a multitude of product innovations beyond those that confront the direct risks posed by Covid-19.


Immersive workouts

Ghost Runner


Physical exercise is a prime example. Despite gyms being closed during lockdown, consumers are more committed than ever to keeping fit: 52% of young people say they will exercise more after the pandemic than they did before it. They won’t, however, necessarily return to the gym, as 56% say they will exercise alone and 47% say they will follow their own routine at home.

During the pandemic we’ve seen a surge in new technologies designed to ramp up the home or outdoor workout by making the experience more immersive. Ghost Pacer’s mixed reality running glasses display a holographic competitor running alongside the wearer that can set a target pace or match a personal best, while Running Stories is an app that uses live location data and the runner’s own speed and heart rate to create an audio story in which the runner is the protagonist.

At a time when Peloton’s sales rose by 172% and the brand achieved its first ever quarterly profit, it’s no surprise that other at-home workout systems are entering the market. Zwift adds video gaming to the mix by connecting treadmill and exercise bike riders together to compete by racing their avatars against one another.


New technologies for health tracking and analysis

Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch


The pandemic also seems to be changing our attitudes to the best ways of addressing health and wellness issues. 33% of young people expect to rely on modern medicine more than before the pandemic (compared to 6% who said less), while more young people expect to turn away from alternative medicines (25%) than to them (17%). So while our wellbeing is more important than ever, we may see a cooling in demand for certain wellness products that were gaining popularity in the run up to the pandemic, those that lean on ancient rituals or promote unproven benefits of things like crystals, in favour of products with more robust health claims.

Certainly, over the past few months we’ve seen a raft of new products and services empowering people to monitor and maintain their health. At a time when supermarkets are playing a more important role than ever in customers’ lives, we’ve seen several supermarket brands developing new healthcare services. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we reported the launch of US supermarket chain Kroger’s food prescription programme in which local doctors make dietary recommendations to customers, and this month the chain has partnered with Gauss to launch at-home Covid tests that send the results straight to the customer’s phone. In the UK, Asda has begun to offer premium video calls with doctors. These take place in confidential consulting rooms fitted with a range of equipment that enable customers to measure key health data such as their pulse rate, temperature and blood pressure.

New wearables and other connected devices are launching that have diagnostic or preventative health benefits. Japanese toilet brand Toto unveiled its conceptual Wellness Toilet at CES this year, that analyses waste and identifies foods that can improve consumers’ health, and Cyrcadia have created a wearable patch that fits inside the bra and can detect early indicators of breast cancer. Even Gatorade has developed its own wearable, a patch for athletes that analyses their sweat to suggest the drink most appropriate for them right at that moment.


A renewed focus on mental health

Headspace Breathers


Mental health has played a key role in the wellness boom of the past few years. But while awareness of its importance had already been growing across society as a whole, loneliness, loss, fear for loved ones and rising unemployment during the pandemic have all coalesced into a mental health crisis that has made the issue as important now as it has ever been.

The economy is a significant source of stress for 70% of Americans and more than a third have had clinical symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. In the UK, two thirds of people’s mental health suffered as a result of loneliness. Research in China also suggests that nearly a quarter of adults suffered from depression during lockdown and that 20% were suffering from clinically significant insomnia. According to Chinese retailer Suning.com, sales of massage chairs were up by more than 400% at the height of the pandemic on the same period last year, which underlines consumers’ need for relaxation and also provides a possible insight into the sense of loss of human physical contact many have experienced in lockdown.

As a result, a new generation of digital mental health services has emerged. Coa borrows from the language of physical exercise to provide solo and group workouts that help consumers to maintain their ‘emotional fitness’, while ‘digiceuticals’ company Healium has developed virtual and mixed reality tools designed to combat stress. (You can watch GDR CEO Kate Ancketill discuss Healium with its founder, Sarah Hill here.)

Meanwhile, the most prominent app in the mental health space, Headspace, has been diffusing its service across partner platforms to integrate better with consumers’ lifestyles. Having just announced a partnership with Google on a mindfulness programme for young children, Headspace is  also working with Colgate on mindful toothbrushing routines, dating app Hinge on pre-date meditations, and Snapchat to broaden its reach and connect to consumers in new and relevant ways.


Mood-boosting products

Forest Lungs by The Nue Co


Beyond services specifically targeting mental health, the pandemic has seen brands from across a multitude of other categories taking a softer approach by launching new products with stress-relieving or mood-boosting benefits. Both fragrance brand The Nue Co. and home cleaning brand The Laundress have created new products with aromatherapeutic qualities to help the customer de-stress.

New food and drink launches that have adaptogenic properties have boomed in the past year. Israeli brand myAir has created a range of snack bars each designed to alleviate stress in different ways, with variants to calm, help focus and induce sleep. The latter has been a particular focus of brands during the pandemic with so many consumers struggling with insomnia during lockdown. PepsiCo launched Driftwell, a canned drink positioned as a sleep-aid containing the active ingredient L-theanine, while new cereal brand OffLimits has two variants, one to be eaten in the morning that contains caffeine, and another for the evening that contains adaptogens to help the customer fall asleep.

Last month, Molson Coors launched a new non-alcoholic beverage range, Veryvell, containing CBD (and traces of THC) with variants to help the drinker ‘unwind’ or ‘restore balance’, while mood-boosting benefits have even infiltrated eyewear, as Garrett Leight recently launched a range of three coloured lenses named according to the need states they are designed to facilitate: Boost, Focus and Relax. Mood-changing food and drink products had been slowly gaining momentum for some time – we first covered Kin’s ‘euphoric’ non-alcoholic cocktails in 2019 – and the category has really pushed on over the past year.


Form follows functionality



As we’ve already seen, consumers’ focus on their health during the pandemic has led to a flurry of innovation in the food and drink industry. In the UK, 43% of consumers have adapted their diets to be healthier and more than a third have both reduced the sugar in their diet or introduced vitamins or supplements.

There has been a particular emphasis on the role of functional ingredients promising to address specific health or wellness issues. In China, Nestlé launched NesQino, a drinks system in which the customer selects from a range of superfood sachets to make their drink. LifeFuels is similarly trying to lock consumers into its own drinks ecosystem, involving a connected bottle into which the customer inserts flavour pods that come with a variety of functionalities associated with them.

Drinks brand Ocean Spray has been ramping up its roster of health-focused drinks. Recently it has launched B1U, a functional drink range with variants named directly according to the consumers’ need state: ‘I need a boost’; ‘I need rhythm’; ‘I need immunity’; and ‘I need power’. And it has also released a range of sparkling caffeinated waters positioned as a lighter alternative to coffee. Elsewhere, DTC soda brand Poppi’s drinks specifically target gut health by containing prebiotics and apple cider vinegar, while start-up, Daydream, forgoes sugar and caffeine in favour of ‘adaptogenic’ ingredients such as moringa, ginseng and hemp extract.

And lastly, we’re seeing collagen and other skin-boosting ingredients being added more and more as the concept of edible beauty is quickly gaining momentum in Asia. In China, snack brand Pejoy has launched a range of ‘beauty snacks’ containing niacinamide which it claims helps to brighten the skin, while Chicecream has partnered with skincare supplement brand Xiaoxiandun on a new collagen-rich ice cream. As US drinks brand Flow launches their own line of ‘collagen-infused’ spring waters to promote anti-aging, the West might be cottoning on to the role of food and drink in promoting skin health.


If you’re interested in talking to us in more detail about any of the themes discussed in this article, or the challenges you’re facing as a business, we’re here to help. Get in touch with rachel@gdruk.com

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