A marketing perspective around sleep

“Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain”, says preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker, in his book, ‘Why We Sleep’.

Even more alarmingly, he adds, “Our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia”!

The irony is that we all know the impact of lack of sleep or poor quality sleep. It usually shows up the next day, and we try to overcome it with coffee. But despite knowing the value of sleep in our lives, we hardly seem to prioritize sleep or the conditions that lead us to a good night’s sleep.

Worse, we even glamorize sleep deprivation to the point where it becomes fashionable to emulate.

In a way, it’s a bit like smoking, and smokers. Smokers know the effects of smoking adequately and yet indulge in that miserable habit. Similarly, most people know, both instinctively and logically, that lack of sleep has a real impact, and yet they also prolong wakefulness and avoid sleep!

Still, if you really want to know what lack of sleep does to your body, I highly recommend you pick up Matthew Walker’s book, ‘Why We Sleep’. A quick summary of the impact on our body when it doesn’t get enough sleep:

  • lack of alertness (even 1.5 hours of missed sleep in one night can change your next day)
  • impaired memory that affects your ability to think, remember, and process information
  • increased stress
  • daytime drowsiness
  • “vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined” (from ‘Why We Sleep’)
  • serious health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke

(Picture from Healthline)

Reed Hastings famously claimed in 2017 that Netflix’s competition is not rival streaming channels, but sleep! Of all the things that could distract a viewer, they considered sleep as what they are fighting against, for attention! It’s a terrific, catchy framing from a communications perspective, but a terrible one from a health point of view.

When someone speaks about sleeping, she/he is perceived to be lazy, or a slacker, even though there is no connection whatsoever. And, what do we do by depriving ourselves of our sleep? Work more, play more, party more. Everything more… except sleep more.

Why? Because we treat sleep as time wasted! That is, while sleeping, we don’t seem to be doing something productive (or doing anything), and hence, we try our best to keep sleep away so we can pack more in our day, day after day.

Now, I have no scientific context of sleep because I’m not a scientist. But my interest in sleep comes purely from the perspective of someone who thoroughly enjoys sleeping 🙂 And since I’m in the communications profession, my outlook on sleep is from the perspective of marketing/pitching sleep.

I have written quite a bit about marketing and advertising of sleep-related products and services in the past. The most common point in all sleep-related advertising is that they pitch a single product as the source of good sleep.

Let’s take the most common purveyor of sleep – mattress brands.

The average story behind any mattress brand communication is just “Our mattress ensures good/great quality sleep”. This basic idea is peppered with other bells and whistles that purport to convey the benefits of good sleep (leading to good health). But how to get a good night’s sleep? Buy our mattress.

Here’s a standard example, featuring Duroflex mattress (agency: Tilt Brand Solutions):

Or, consider this ad from Dubai, for Home Centre (agency: FP7 McCann Dubai):

This narrative goes a step ahead of Duroflex’s template since it dramatizes the outcome of a great night’s sleep beyond merely talking about it with words.

Or, consider this ad film by the Australian sleep solutions brand, Forty Winks (agency: Akcelo):

This narrative pitches sleep-deprived people as zombies. What makes the zombies finally fall asleep blissfully? Why, Forty Winks’ mattress and pillows, of course.

Almost all mattress advertising stays in this territory – can’t sleep/poor sleep? Our mattress to the rescue.

Another mattress brand, MattressFirm, appropriated the concept of ‘junk sleep’ disingenuously and offered its mattress as a panacea for good sleep. I had written about it earlier, about how wrong that framing was (and why): MattressFirm’s new marketing idea is both brilliant and wrong

Beyond mattress brands, very few other products or services advertise sleep frequently or consistently.

Vicks’ ZzzQuil, a sleep aid brand from P&G is one. The brand’s India launch ad (agency: Grey) was straight to the point – take our pill, sleep well, and perform better the next day.

Sleep tracking device is another category that sells sleep in a different way compared to mattress brands or sleep aid brands – they do not promise good sleep but they commit to helping you track your sleep so that you may do better over time. Here’s an ad from Apple, for their Apple Watch’s sleep tracking feature.

And finally, sleep aid apps also sell sleep. Here’s Calm’s ad campaign featuring LeBron James (agency: Uninterrupted):

At a broad level, all these brands are simply doing what they can afford to do within the scope of what their products or services deliver. So, a mattress for good sleep, a sleep aid for good sleep, an app for good sleep, and so on.

But, such brands’ communication leaves something really crucial unsaid: “all things considered”. What does this mean?

In the case of a mattress brand’s advertising, for instance, it means that they consciously ignore what the user would have done that may be the actual cause of lack of sleep.

What are the causes of poor sleep/sleeplessness (insomnia)?

  • stress
  • erratic travel of work schedule
  • irregular bedtime schedules
  • watching TV, using mobile devices before sleep
  • late dinner/late night food habits
  • medical conditions like chronic pain, upset stomach, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), asthma, among others
  • caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, close to sleeping time. Alcohol does help fall asleep but it also affects the quality of sleep, resulting in awakening in the middle of the night, and so on
  • bright lights in the sleeping area

Given these (fairly commonly understood) reasons, think of a mattress brand’s advertising now: “Did you have coffee at 9 pm?” is left unsaid. “Our mattress helps you sleep peacefully” is the only thing communicated. Can a person sleep peacefully on that mattress if she had a cup of coffee at 9 pm? Hardly.

Can a sleep aid capsule claim that the user can sleep peacefully despite suffering from GERD? Nope.

In a way, all sleep-related advertising is saying, without saying, “Sort all your other issues that can affect sleep which we cannot control. And then try our product. You’d have a great night’s sleep!”.

But, to be fair, such narratives are not very different from assorted food companies advertising their products leading to spectacular results that need a LOT more efforts across a longer period of time.

For instance, this Britannia Nutrichoice biscuit ad claims, “Feel the fit” (for a biscuit, that is!!)

Or this ad for Tetley Green Tea that sweepingly delivers all the goodness of overall fitness on… green tea!

However, there is a difference between pitching singular solutions to assorted levels of fitness and health, and to good quality sleep.

With health and fitness, there is considerably more visible awareness among people – what to eat, how much to eat, what not to eat, and so on. We share such ideas among us, see each other being fit, hitting the gym, start running more regularly, start playing a sport, and so on. In fact, social pressure to get fitter, and healthier is very real. The more people share their running, gymming, and healthy eating experiences, the more people are inspired.

Even sugar has become a fashionable item worth sharing! People wear a patch that tracks blood sugar to monitor glucose levels and change their food intake accordingly!

With sleep? What does one share about sleep? A video of going to bed and then falling asleep? There is nothing to show off when it comes to sleep, like biceps or a toned body (in the case of fitness and health). Sure, there is the ‘8 hours sleep’ number to achieve like the ‘10,000 steps’ target, but while we take active efforts to reach the steps, do we switch off the TV or the mobile phone to reach the 8 hours of sleep? Even if we do, it is not a ‘shareable’ item like walking more or running more.

Even as alcohol brands showcase ideas around responsible drinking, designated drivers, etc., not a single ad considers it worth showing someone not drinking alcohol closer to bedtime!

Mostly, this is about the public nature of our health-related pursuits and the private nature of our sleep.

But there are some early signs of turning sleep too into a gamified activity. Here’s a recent Wall Street Journal piece that mentions the Whoop band, Oura ring, and the Pokemon Sleep app.

This is, of course, nowhere near the kind of attention that overall physical health and fitness get (of which sleep is a very big part too, ironically).

So, from a marketing perspective, how do we solve the problem of how sleep is sold?

For starters, there are very, very few brands (and categories) around sleep that have a meaningful stake in selling sleep. This needs to increase, but how can a brand that has nothing to do with sleep get into selling sleep? And why would they even bother?

Second, selling sleep is a long-term strategy and process. It is not an instant product to sell. It requires consistent communication over a longer period of time for it to truly register in people’s minds.

Given this backdrop, here’s an idea.

Consider a category-wide consortium. Or a league, if you will. Or even a coalition, given that is in vogue in politics.

Imagine… The Sleep League. Or, Z League, perhaps? League of Zs? You get the idea, so let me dispense with the naming.

What is this coalition?

It would be a coalition of assorted brands that have products that can affect the quality of sleep, for good or worse.

Let’s start with the obvious stakeholder – mattress brands. A mattress brand can start the league and rope in other partners. Or, it could be kickstarted by a well-known hospital chain (for added credibility) along with a mattress brand.

Who could join the league?

A beer brand could. Why? It could also advocate controlled/thoughtful drinking after say, 7 or 8 pm, with the explicit logic that drinking more closer to bedtime would impair the quality of sleep.

A lighting brand could. Why? It could pitch lights that can be programmed to automatically start dimming starting 9 pm or so, which could help ease into the sleep mood.

A TV brand could. Why? It could be programmed to add subtle alerts about the time as it goes closer to bedtime.

A mobile phone brand could. Why? One, it could start dimming the screen brightness gradually closer to bedtime, and two, it could, like the TV, send subtle signals about the impending bedtime.

A coffee brand (or even a carbonated/fizzy drink brand) could. Why? They could advocate ‘responsible drinking’, where the ‘responsible’ is geared towards bedtime and quality of sleep.

You could argue: ‘Why would a beer brand or a fizzy drink brand seemingly advocate reduced consumption of their products that they otherwise want people to consume more and more?’. Simple! Most alcohol brands already have some kind of ‘responsible drinking’ sub-campaign running for a long time. Only, such ‘responsibility’ is directed towards dangerous driving and anti-social behavior caused by alcohol-induced sensory impairment, not sleep. So, adding to the list of ‘responsible’ is not really a big deal. For fizzy drinks, it could be their entry into the haloed halls of ‘responsible drinking’ campaigns.

For context, KLM advocates us to ‘fly responsibly’. Smartphone companies too advocate responsible use of the device.

So, what would the league’s communication look like?

To be sure, it need not be in your face unless the product is specifically promising sleep/quality of sleep. So most sleep solutions brands can continue what they do as it is. But they could bring an added context in their communication. This could be, for instance, a scannable logo of sorts (The ‘Z League’ as the logo). Scanning it could take people to the equivalent of ‘Mutual fund investment are subject to market risks. Please read the…’. So a user would get the context of the mattress helping with the sleep but also adding other causes of poor quality of sleep, along with a range of related products from relevant brands (in the name of ‘the members of Z league’).

After the launch announcement of the league, it need not be anything more than the participating logo for the non-sleep brands. They do not have an active stake in sleep, only a passive one (limiting usage increases the quality of sleep; unlike mattresses that actively assist in increasing the quality of sleep).

What would this do to the participating brands?

It would place them in a trusted zone. Why? Because they are not merely selling their products but at least trying to do so responsibly, by explaining the context of their products in the sleep-wellbeing of the buyer. In short, they announce that they care for the customer beyond just the money.

The league concept is a way to ensure that this doesn’t remain a one-off campaign on World Sleep Day (observed annually on the Friday before the March Equinox; usually mid-March) specifically by brands (a handful, at that) that have something to actively pitch in context of sleep. By spreading the responsibility beyond brands that can actively help in sleep (mattresses, pillows, air conditioners, white noise apps, incense brands, pharma sleep aids, etc.) to include products that can affect the quality of sleep (TV channels, TV sets, mobile phones, alcohol brands, coffee, sleep trackers, lighting brands, etc.), it helps getting more awareness about sleep in general and about quality of sleep. Every time these brands advertise, if customers notice the Z League logo, it leads more and more people towards making more informed choices to positively affect their sleep.

Of course, having been in PR and marketing for over 2 decades, I completely understand the difficulties involved in getting so many disparate brands to come together. Even related brands rarely come together, so why would such an assortment of brands come together at all?

One, beyond products that actively promise enhanced sleep, for the others, this is low-involvement after the launch. But the impact on their brands would accrue in the long term.

Second, every time a new product joins, it could help bring light (pun unintended) to the entire league, and hence all the products within the league.

Third, the league could also be planned as an exclusive club – only one product per category! That exclusivity would help products vie to be inside the league – so, only one beer brand, one coffee brand, and so on.

Sure, this is going to be tough. But consider the upside – it’s a matter of great sleep, and hence, the health of all the customers these brands are vying for.