Headspace: a quiet idea done loudly

The meditation app has cornered the market in modern-day mindfulness and marketing.

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When you’re choosing a brand name, you dream of a ‘Hoover’ moment – when your own title becomes the default word for the genre.

After 16 million app downloads (that was in June 2017 – presumably there have been many more millions since), 73,000 reviews, a 4.8 score on the Apple Store and a $250 million valuation in Forbes, it’s fair to say Headspace is making significant strides in that direction.

And for what? Daily guided reminders to quiet the mind and inject a little more calmness into your day.

Headspace, founded by Bristol-born Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, began life as a meditation event business in London.

Now it’s everywhere – app, books, speaking tours, airlines offering Headspace on flights… Revenues are primarily generated from app subscriptions, where users can either pay £9.99 per month, £71.88 for the year or a one-off £299.99 ‘Lifetime’ subscription for unlimited access to the app.

And with every successful business, there are marketing lessons to be learned. So switch off for 10 minutes and let us lead you through some.

Timing

The secret to any success is timing.

Can this be true? It seems a bit demoralising if so – all of our daily efforts on the marketing coalface reduced to pot luck.

There’s no denying that timing played its part in Headspace’s success. But if Headspace has ridden the wave of interest in mental wellbeing, it did so by spotting the potential of the product early on.

Puddicombe returned to England after years spent overseas and began his meditation events business. The stroke of luck came from a chance skill swap between him and burned-out marketing man Rich Pierson. Andy gave Rich mindfulness one-to-one training in exchange for marketing tips.

The rest is history.

Lesson #1: You might have a great idea but in all likelihood you will need help getting it off the ground. Don’t be afraid of listening to outside opinions from trusted advisers and acting upon them. Timing is less about benefitting from a change in public mood and more about putting yourself in the position to be able to benefit from it.

Visuals

Headspace has a clear and distinctive visual identity based around animated cartoon characters and a washed-out colour palette.

It’s whimsical and lighthearted – as befits a platform that aims to make meditation accessible and easy.

Headspace’s visual output is based around illustrations. Just as the programme promotes simplicity of thought, so the illustrations pare down the cluttered modern world into something smaller and calmer.

Its most recent content addition is a series of video animated with names such as ‘Letting Go of Effort’ and ‘Training the Monkey Mind’.

Lesson #2: What is your brand advocating? What is the central message you are trying to convey? Headspace’s calmness and clarity is reflected in its simple messaging and mild colour palette.

That same train of thought should be true for your content – whether it’s a newsletter, web page, press release etc. Every combination of colours you use in your output tells a story – so make sure it’s the right one.

Audio

The rise of audio has been well documented in marketing circles. In 2016, 5.5 million people in the UK bought or listened to an audio book and the number of titles available has tripled since 2011.

Similarly, 24% of UK adults have listened to a podcast at least once. And once they’re in, they’re loyal. 85% of listeners will listen to most or all of the podcast.

Clearly, and as Headspace has found, we have no trouble plugging in our earphones and switching off.

In a seemingly contradictory situation, Headspace’s move from public events to private sessions created a wider but more intimate experience for the audience. And in the seemingly unrehearsed, natural flow of its voice – the voice of Andy Puddicombe himself – Headspace has its own secret weapon.

The success of audio books and long-form interview podcasts such as WTF with Marc Maron, The Bill Simmons Podcast and The Adam Buxton Podcast shows that the sprawling, slow game of audio is perfect for long-term engagement.

Lesson #3: If you’re not looking to add an audio element to your content output, you’re missing out. The intimacy of audio makes it ideal for content such as interviews with leading industry figures or an informal, behind-the-scenes glimpse.

Gamification

Headspace counts how many days in a row you’ve actively used the app, for how long, and lets you unlock awards for regular, sustained usage.

It’s a part of the service that has come under some criticism. It sounds counterproductive to incentivise mindfulness with essentially pointless rewards on a phone app.

But on the other hand, running apps have been doing the same for years. Isn’t it fair enough to apply principles for a healthy body to aiding a healthy mind?

A quick straw poll round the Progressive Content office found no shortage of Headspace fans/users/sceptics.

For one lapsed user, it was this gamification that made her go off the whole idea.

“There were goals to meet as you progressed through the levels: the kind of friendly encouragement we get from health apps and devices to jolly us along,” she said.

“But actually it was those friendly seeming levels that managed to undo the point for me. I didn’t feel like I was making time to relax by using the app in a natural way, but using it because I was expecting myself to work through a programme.

“On balance I decided I would rather sit in the park at lunchtime and empty my mind, than listen to a largely silent soundtrack with occasional interjections from a soothing voice.”

Lesson #4: Headspace has removed the spiritual aspect from Puddicombe’s Buddhist teachings and made it accessible for a more secular world. And in this case, that means slotting it in with the gamified nature of other health and fitness apps.

But if you’re going to try gamification, beware of the consequences. A social media competition can provoke short-term engagement, for example, but at what cost? Seriously consider whether your brand will benefit from such tactics, or end up undermining the effectiveness of your content.