In economics, there is a theory called technological determinism. The details can get convoluted but the basic premise is that a society’s structure, culture, and values don’t create and shape its technology. Rather, it’s technology that determines how society operates.

Though the theory was devised to better understand entire countries, it can be equally illuminating when examining smaller groups — like the health and wellness industries. Technology begets technology (it’s easier to design computers when you already have computers) and, in the last five years alone, incredible advancements have occurred in everything from:

  • App development
  • Self-help and educational portals
  • Online-only insurance plans
  • Telemedicine
  • Wearables
  • Sleep and fitness tracking
  • Social media touchpoints
  • Machine learning-backed analytics
  • Artificially intelligent chatbots

The end result is a health and wellness sector that is undergoing rapid and transformative change.

New and disruptive innovations are reshuffling the leaderboard across industries, displacing older organizations and brands that are unwilling to wholeheartedly embrace new technologies and modes of communication or adapt to changing consumer expectations — and creating massive opportunities for nimble, challenger brands hoping to create entirely new services and markets to fill that gap.

Moving to a Patient Focus

Among the biggest changes has been a shift from an operations focus to a customer (or patient) focus. Health brands have long seen themselves as able to eschew the requirements of retail organizations. Sure, they made some investments in branding and marketing, but typically from a distance, more of a blanket attempt to build awareness and positive brand associations than an analytically-vetted, hyper-personalized strategy to deliver a stellar experience to each and every customer — which is exactly what their counterparts in retail are attempting. But that is changing.

“Disruptive innovations are reshuffling the leaderboard across industries, displacing older organizations and brands that are unwilling to wholeheartedly embrace new technologies.”

The Amazon effect means that every customer, whether shopping for dentures, groceries, or a good dermatologist, expects the kind of fast, responsive, low friction, tech-enabled buying experience they get from the big e-tailers regardless of where they choose to do business — and if the brand they select fails to meet that expectation, they are incredibly quick to drop them and go looking for a better, more modern offering.

The pandemic brought about another disruptive change, one that a recent study by Deloitte revealed: a shift from reacting to illness to proactively protecting one’s health and wellness. Consequently, the health and wellness brands that thrive in the years ahead have to provide more than solutions to problems (though they still need to do that), they will have to take on the role of life coach, personal trainer, and wellness expert in some fashion as well.

Faster, More Personalized Care and Communication

In the U.S. alone, healthcare is a multi-trillion dollar industry and the share of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product devoted to it grows annually. In 1970, annual health spending topped out at just $353 per American. In 2019 that figure was $11,582. Even accounting for inflation, that’s an exponential increase.

“The Amazon effect means that every customer, whether shopping for dentures, groceries, or a good dermatologist, expects a fast, responsive, low friction, tech-enabled buying experience.”

Hence, it’s no surprise that companies without strong existing connections to health and wellness are increasingly motivated to start changing that reality. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook announced recently that the California-based tech giant has broad ambitions in healthcare, covering medical devices, telemedicine, health payments, as well as apps for physical fitness, meditation, and sleep. The entree of tech into this area is opening up massive new channels for health and user data collection.

Not that long ago, the only way for a healthcare provider to gain insight into a patient was to physically examine them (or review the work of someone else who had). Thanks to a flood of new health data sources from smartphones, smartwatches, and even wireless earbuds with health monitoring features, doctors and other practitioners have access to patient information at a level of granularity and frequency that was once impossible.

“There has been a shift from reacting to illness to proactively protecting one’s health and wellness.”

That flood of new data is accelerating diagnoses and the delivery of treatment, triggering automatic responses, and empowering patients to take a more direct role in their healthcare journey — something that can only serve to increase their engagement with and awareness of the health and wellness brands that are helping them on that path.

Disrupters Moving into Healthcare

Because rising healthcare costs are unsustainable, many brands are hoping to play a role not in direct delivery of health services, but as facilitators, organizers, platforms, and process innovators that will inject some much needed efficiency into the health and wellness space.

They are helping patients comparison shop for insurance, such as with Nerd Wallet’s free Health Insurance Quote service; providing a first stop for basic health and wellness education resources on sites like WebMDHealthline, and the Mayo Clinic; and moving medical specialties that are well-suited to telehealth fully online, such as web-based counseling service BetterHelp.

There has also been a blurring of the line between a traditional lifestyle brand and a modern health and wellness service. Hims & Hers, for example, which began as just another online store selling over the counter and prescription products for erectile dysfunction and hair loss, has grown into a trusted authority for men and women seeking discreet advice on sensitive issues related to their health, sexuality, aging, and well-being — and in doing so has built a strong and personal connection to its customers.

On the connected fitness front, smart mirrors from Tonal, athleisure maker Lululemon, and Tempo Studio were a huge hit during the lockdowns of the pandemic. Now that gyms are reopening, the frenzy has died down some, but not entirely. Health conscious consumers like the option of taking classes at home or in public, as well as the data feedback their in-home, smart fitness equipment reports. These devices are so popular, in fact, that they are leaving the home. The Four Seasons announced they are adding Tonal’s smart mirrors to some of their hotels.

In some cases, the next generation of health and wellness brands will even surpass what traditional medical services can promise. A new study found that Amazon’s Halo Body, which performs body scans using just smartphone cameras and machine learning systems, is better able to calculate and track body fat percentages than professional laboratory equipment.

According to Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s Steven Heymsfield, who worked on the study, this is the beginning of a minor revolution in healthcare: “The question now is, can we use this for research and clinical purposes, not just for the consumer out of curiosity. Can we use this as a real medical device to get body shape and size, so that people can use it to make clinical decisions?”

What’s the Takeaway For Marketers?

Consumer and patient expectations and needs have shifted. The brands that are disrupting and displacing the former leaders in health and wellness marketing are moving quickly to adapt to the new normal by developing services and brand strategies that connect with health and wellness consumers on a more personal level.

They aren’t selling goods and services, they are working as a partner and a guide on a thoughtfully curated, elegantly designed, and data-empowered health journey.

Hanlon builds and grows modern health and wellness brands with cutting-edge strategies, brilliant design, and flawless implementations. Find out what we can do for you.