Tennis isn’t usually a big topic in the Slack channels of Calm, the $2 billion mindfulness app. But when Naomi Osaka suddenly withdrew from the French Open on Memorial Day, citing her sanity, the salvoes of her decision began to fly. The next morning, Calm’s global head of marketing and communications, Monica Austin, brought together people from across the company’s marketing, PR, talent and content teams to identify the potential role of the brand. in the conversation and assess the risk. Calm, who has worked with celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey and LeBron James but had no relationship with Osaka, had to decide whether he could fit into the heated debate over Osaka’s choice. Would prominent sportswriters and the likes of British pundit Piers Morgan pillory Calm like they did in Osaka? Would even Osaka fans find Calm’s participation rude?
Austin’s impromptu team quickly decided that Calm could step in without feeling like an intruder, as long as he amplified his “sanity is health” message. The key was finding the right way to do it.
Within 48 hours, the company had tweeted that it would donate $15,000 – the sum of Osaka’s fine – to Laureus Sport, a French mental health organization. Calm also pledged to pay fines for any players who opted out of 2021 Grand Slam media appearances and donate the same value to Laureus Sport. “When we show up in popular culture,” says co-founder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith, “we have to be careful not to sound tone-deaf or too goofy or too serious.”
Calm’s quick response was an asset, earning her $28 million in attention in one week, according to media monitoring firm Critical Mention, and elevating her to the pantheon of brand marketers who can both participate in and shape the cultural discourse, like Nike and Beats by Dre (the two official sponsors of Osaka). But Calm doesn’t have decades of experience in this game. He lacks the tangible affinity that people attribute to shoes and headphones. Calm is also wading through difficult territory in establishing her identity around such an intensely personal issue. As the company moves towards an IPO, the performance pressure only increases.
Calm’s instinct for getting into cultural debates is a pillar of what Austin calls the company’s 50-50 strategy. Half the time, Calm plans his marketing campaigns. “The other 50% of the time it’s about looking at where the conversation is going in the culture,” says Austin, who joined Netflix in April, “while sticking to our mission to destigmatize the conversation about mental health”.
Calm has long sought to infuse pop culture into its app and has enlisted some big names to do just that. In July 2020, he launched a 39-minute bedtime story titled dream with me, read by pop star Harry Styles, and the instant request temporarily blocked the app. Then there was his clever writing of the biggest single event of 2020: the US presidential election. Amid the drama of what has been billed as the most important election of our lives, Calm drew attention to himself during the cacophonous CNN presentation with the television equivalent of a banner ad – his The sage blue cursive logo sat incongruously alongside CNN’s dazzling red graphics – offering a reminder to breathe, as John King zoomed in on new comebacks. Everyone from Ad age for teen vogue declared Calm the overall winner of November 3, 2020. The next day, Calm climbed 54 spots in the Apple App Store rankings, according to Sensor Tower, to No. 65 overall.
The two components of Calm’s strategy are orchestrated to build its identity over the long term. “It’s an element of establishing Calm as a brand that not only sells mental health, but is also invested in advocating for it,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and analyst principal of Forrester. “The brand appears as an advocate and a benefactor, and above all, a guide.”
Calm must stand out in an increasingly crowded market for digital mental health services. In addition to competing with Headspace — which offers a similar offering (see box) — 124 mental health startups (including Calm) collectively raised $1.5 billion in 2020, according to CB Insights. In the first three months of 2021, they raised an additional $852 million from investors.
Critics see it as more marketing than mindfulness. Randima Fernando, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, told the New York Times in February, “Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct inquiry into our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more effective and certainly more likely to win a download or account. business.
Acton Smith says his goal is for Calm to be for mental health what Nike has become for physical activity. When Nike started in the 1970s, fitness wasn’t mainstream. “Nike brilliantly, through marketing and partnerships, normalized it and sprinkled a lot of freshness,” he says. “We are doing the same with Calm. This wave of sanity is going to be just as important. Calm’s strategy can distinguish between smart and rude, but it certainly won’t put you to sleep.
How Calm takes on its main rival, Headspace
Calm: East. 2012, $218M in VC funding, 60% female and 40% male users
Headspace: East. 2010, $215.9M in VC funding, 50% female/50% male users
Quiet: Added sleep stories in 2016 and now there are over 100, told by dreamy voices like Harry Styles and Matthew McConaughey
Headspace: Introduced Sleeping tablets in 2018, a 45-minute adult podcast/bedtime story hybrid
Calm: popular song library launched in 2017, modified by Calm to enhance serenity based on when you listen
Headspace: Appointed Music Director of John Legend in 2020 to manage stations to promote focus
Calm: A world of calm (October 1, 2020, HBO Max) takes a NatGeo documentary-style relaxation approach, narrated by stars like Idris Elba
Head space: Headspace Guide to Meditation (January 1, 2021, Netflix) seeks to deliver Zen via eight short animated episodes
Calm: Thomas the Chariot Engine and the Trolls are there to guide enlightened children
Headspace: a youth-friendly version launched in 2016 and a sesame street sleep podcast, Good night, world!bowed out in June 2021