Staff Writer
Sep 23, 2022

Embracing vulnerability: How brands are addressing the stigma around mental health in APAC

Leading marketers in Asia Pacific expound on the shift towards open discussion of mental well-being and why brands are duty-bound to spearhead the conversation.

(from left) Melissa Hopkins, VP of marketing, Optus; Yves Briantais, VP of marketing, APAC, Colgate-Palmolive
(from left) Melissa Hopkins, VP of marketing, Optus; Yves Briantais, VP of marketing, APAC, Colgate-Palmolive
This is part of an article series for the Power List 2022, created in partnership with Twitter as part of their global #LeadersforGood initiative.
While the discourse around mental health has been steadily growing momentum in recent years, the far-reaching impact of the pandemic in every aspect of life has thrown the importance of mental wellness into sharp relief. Within the professional sphere, dialogues around mental health remain at an all-time high, propelled by the rapidly changing working conditions brought on by Covid-19. As burnout prevails — a situation not unique to adland — workers are questioning their priorities and hustle culture at large. Consumers, too, are demanding more of brands, showing a clear preference for companies that take a stand on relatable issues to forge a deeper emotional bond.
Optus and Colgate-Palmolive are two major brands that have taken the plunge to lead the conversation around mental health. We sit down with marketing leaders Melissa Hopkins and Yves Briantais — both honoured on the 2022 Asia-Pacific Power List — to learn more about the responsibility marketers have towards their audiences, how to better address the public stigma surrounding mental health, and that change really does start from within.
Doing away with public stigma
Mental health has traditionally been a subject most companies skirted around, especially in conservative Asian cultures, but the events of the pandemic have lifted the curtain on well-being, allowing for more freedom to tackle taboo topics in public conversations.
“We should not be afraid of talking about mental health challenges,” insists Yves Briantais, marketing chief of Asia-Pacific at Colgate-Palmolive. “Brands should talk about it. If brands don’t do it, who will?” After all, companies are powered by humans and market to humans, and it’s this simple yet profound connection that he finds most valuable. “Brands need to become citizens again,” he urges, “and go beyond the financial aspect of your products” as part of the mission to bring compassion to the discussions surrounding mental health.
Melissa Hopkins, vice president of marketing at Optus, agrees that “it’s a big job and a sensitive job for brands to do.” Conversations need to not only be tailored to each specific market for maximum effect, but also be supported by substantial innovative policies to ensure authenticity and align with brand messages. It’s a balancing act that requires trust, creativity, and a keen sense of understanding. “Any brand in their diversity and inclusion programmes need to ensure that they’re representative of diversity and inclusion across all of their advertising [and] also how they act in the market,” she notes.
The changing tides are evident on Twitter, Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Power List partner, where brands and individuals alike are engaging in meaningful discourse about mental wellness. Rishabh Sharma, head of core business, Twitter Next — the platform’s in-house creative team — in Asia Pacific, said, “The ongoing pursuit of happiness is inspiring more honest conversations. Recognising the need to take care of one’s mental health has opened up the dialogue around self-esteem and self-love, empowering people to have frank discussions about their everyday struggles.”
Acknowledging that “people believe brands have a role to play,” Sharma counsels brands to use their influence to “empower honest conversations, share critical resources, and always encourage improvement — no matter how small.”
Factoring in the influence that brands have in their reach and resources, they are uniquely positioned to move the needle and “help societies to improve.” Briantais believes brands have a strong responsibility to do right by their audience, and illuminate the way in “showing courage” and “[making] sure we tell people [to] feel free to speak about it.”
Choosing the right brand partners
Fortunately, destigmatising mental health is not a battle that is fought alone. Hopkins points out that one of the most honest ways to stand behind your campaign is to choose the right brand partners who stand behind the same message. “Good things can happen if you have that commitment and optimism,” she says, recalling an Optus campaign that highlights the power of positivity and uplifts the talents of an indigenous Australian violin player. 
“As an individual, I don’t want to see myself portrayed in an ad in a negative sense, but I do absolutely want it recognised that people go through ups and downs,” she continues.
Collaborating with the right individuals can “[make] a big statement about what our brand stands for.” She cites that Optus is part of the Unstereotype Alliance, an empowerment platform that champions diversity in media and advertising content, which counts Chaz Mostert — the VH supercar driver who advocates against bullying with No Social Hate — and Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe amongst its ambassadors.
Change starts from within
Fostering mental wellness should not only be a surface-level initiative to simply further a marketing campaign — it must start from within the company as a foundational pillar to support its own people. Optus’s own chief of optimism, Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo, is a powerful force in promoting “a positive mindset and how to change your point of view,” praises Hopkins, “because the biggest challenge with mental ill health is probably self-stigma.”
Providing the right resources in the workplace, such as subsidised psychological care, is crucial to help workers feel their best so they can perform their best. It also creates a safe environment to uplift mental wellness. “There is no way you can deliver if you’re not feeling well,” emphasises Briantais. “Making it a priority that the team feels good is critical. And it’s something that is obvious and [we] always should have done even without Covid.”
In addition, allowing room for trust and independence to grow is essential for companies to adapt to employees’ evolving needs. Briantais remarks that “demanding from our people to deliver in the way they used to deliver is impossible. You need to provide flexibility.”
Along that line, Hopkins details how a shift in office policies following Covid-19 allowed Optus to show up for its people. “We have a rule where there are no meetings after 3 pm on a Friday. 3 pm to 5 pm is about clearing up your week,” she explains. Even something as small as giving people permission to work according to their own needs — such as outside of traditional office hours and on weekends — and encouraging team members to respect the boundaries of others demonstrates a human-first approach in the workplace.
While demonstrating “what wellness means to the brand” is all well and good, Sharma emphasises the importance of openly sharing the actionable ways that brands are incorporating healthier internal practices and “encouraging wellbeing amongst their employees.”
While these improvements might manifest as “better healthcare and more accessible technology,” Sharma notes that “strong community support” can also take the form of “simply lending an ear” and inspiring people to speak up about their mental health journeys. 
Eliminating feelings of shame, embracing vulnerability, and modelling the right behaviour from the top further helps businesses walk the walk. “Leaders [who are] vulnerable enough to share their own mental ill health stories [...] normalise it for everybody else,” says Hopkins. 
Briantais concurs. Brands are duty-bound to lead by example and guide the way to a better mindset: “Covid made us even more aware of the need to take care of the well-being and mental health of each other. All of us together, as a company, we need to take care of each other.”
Campaign Asia

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