Don’t be a guru: the alternative to mainstream wellness marketing

Wellness marketing
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“We can fix you.”

These were the words on a sign outside the sports massage clinic I passed on my way to work every morning.

The goal? Grab the attention of passers-by who are in pain or discomfort, and get them to book an appointment.

Not subtle, but not an unusual sales tactic.

And — I thought to myself — given how often wellness advertising promises empowerment while appealing to our deepest insecurities…at least this message was direct.

But these are the choices — bold claims or sales tactics — which set the scene for a dubious marketing environment faced by therapists.

Here’s what it looks like:

On your quest to succeed, you’re advised to present yourself as the solution to someone’s problem. If you question the ethics of this, you’re told to get over yourself because this is just how marketing works.

Next, to bring your message home, it’s time to tap into the fears and vulnerabilities of your ‘target audience’.

You’ve defined your ideal client? Great. Now get inside their head and emphasise their pain points.

Finally, you’ll want to reiterate that you have the answers they need, in the form of a what-worked-for-me-will-work-for-you guarantee, a special kind of knowledge or wisdom you possess, or a treatment or protocol designed to fix whatever is wrong with their body or their life.

While these methods aren’t limited to health and wellness marketing, it’s in our field where they arguably cause the greatest harm. Because the message being shared in a context of healing is this:

“You are broken, and you need to be fixed.”

The idea that we need to be fixed is a profitable one.

Research by the Global Wellness Institute revealed that the Global Wellness Economy is valued at $5.6 Trillion, encompassing everything from traditional and complementary medicine to healthy eating, exercise, weight loss, mindfulness, wellness tourism, personalised and preventative medicine and personal care and beauty.

Let’s be clear: a growing demand for services that support our physical and mental health isn’t a bad thing. More of us prioritising self-care and self-actualisation is overwhelmingly positive.

But where capitalism meets wellness, things can get murky.

Because even the most healing practices, the most effective treatments and the most common-sense recommendations can be packaged up in a way that diminishes our self-worth, makes us dependent on experts, or pulls us into a never-ending cycle of (often costly) self-improvement.

The mind-body connection is well established, but we’re learning all the time that it’s impossible to separate our thoughts, emotions and past experiences from the state of individual and public health.

Feelings of not-enoughness and shame have been found to correlate highly with depression, addiction and eating disorders. The destructive impact of shame and its relationship with societal expectations is researched and explored in depth by Brené Brown in her book ‘I Thought It Was Just Me, (But It Wasn’t).’

And Dr Gabor Maté, author of the ‘The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture‘, writes that when we internalise messages of not being good enough, not being worthy enough, we become more susceptible to autoimmune dysfunction and chronic diseases.

In other words, the state of our health is built partly on a foundation of self-worth. If that foundation is shaky or unstable, our resilience and recovery from trauma and stress are severely impacted.

The messages we receive — from earliest childhood through to adulthood — play a central role in building those foundations of self worth.

Some of the messages we receive come from our caregivers. Other messages come from our culture. All of the messages we receive can contribute to low self-esteem and poor health, or they can nurture a sense of wholeness, and strengthen our capacity to heal.

Marketing is a message. An omnipresent, all-pervasive message.

You could think of marketing as micro-messages – about what we should aspire to and what makes us worthy of love and belonging. We’re bombarded with these micro-messages hundreds of times each day.

And many of the companies and self-styled gurus in the wellness sphere create micro-messages that set out to reinforce our insecurities. Messages that promote ‘ideals’ of body shape, skin tone and hair texture, and reinforce gender stereotypes and unattainable standards.

A study from Phrasee in 2018 asked thousands of respondents about the emotions they had felt in response to marketing:

Among the most common emotional responses to marketing were feelings of inadequacy (39%), anxiety (38%) and sadness (38%).

This, in turn, drives the need and the demand for the services and products they sell.

Even the most well-intentioned therapists, following the standard marketing advice that is still taught on most build-a-fully-booked-practice trainings, get pulled into a set of persuasion tactics that are deeply at odds with the values behind their work.

Here’s the thing.

Most therapists don’t want anything to do with unethical marketing. Aside from the negative impact it has on the very people you want to help, it damages your reputation. Nobody wants to feel ‘sold to’.

So, what can you do? How do you promote your work in a way that’s responsible? Can marketing ever be aligned with integrity and wholeness?

Yes, it can. Letting people know that you’re there, and how you help, is simply communication. It’s how you do it that matters.

Here are a few suggestions.

1. Don’t set yourself up as a guru.

Don’t show up as the solution to someone’s problem, the source of wisdom or healing, or the provider of the ‘only’, ‘right’ or ‘best’ approach. Inspire people by encouraging a sense of self-empowerment, rather than a reliance on what’s external to them.

2. Respect your future clients.

Don’t listen to marketers who tell you that ‘facts don’t sell, you need to tell stories.’ Yes, good stories are powerful! But it’s also important to share information and evidence-based research. If you’re telling people that your work is effective or transformative, back it up.

3. Demystify.

Watch out for vague language or explanations that are crafted to sound impressive or mysterious. Explain clearly how your treatment works, what happens and what change might look like. Effective ways to invite someone to work with you include being transparent and making your work accessible.

4. Words are tools for healing or harm. Use them to heal.

Your marketing is an extension of your therapeutic work. The way you talk with potential clients on the internet shouldn’t feel out of keeping with who you are as a practitioner. If you wouldn’t say something judgmental or pushy in your treatment room then don’t do it in your marketing, either.

5. Empathise in order to empathise. That’s it.

DO learn about your clients’ struggles and hopes in order to let someone know that they are seen, heard and understood. DON’T use these understandings to paint a picture of the negative outcomes that lie ahead if they don’t sign up for your services. That’s not ‘removing obstacles’, it’s exploiting someone’s fears. Empathy is about connection, not coercion.

6. Share what you stand for.

As well as sharing what you do and who you help, share what you stand for. Get clear on your values. Talk about how they inform your work and what that means for your clients. Help people to understand why — and how much — you care.

Be the antidote to damaging cultural norms and messages. Create and share messages that help your future clients sidestep the gurus, and feel good about themselves. Self-love. Self-acceptance. Body-image positivity. Wholeness, not perfection.

8. Nurture your own self-worth as a therapist and a human.

There’s a difference between arrogance and recognising the profound impact you have when you hold a space for someone to heal. Take the time to develop your self-confidence and self-belief. Genuine self-worth leads to a calm, grounded, compassionate presence. Empathy combined with professionalism radiates outwards and draws people to you. No marketing required.

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  1. Erin M. says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful, and useful marketing tips. The books included are wonderful additions to the post.

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Hi, I'm Sara.
I'm a therapist & a course creator.

I believe that growing a therapy practice doesn't have to mean following the marketing crowd or compromising on your values. It's about being your authentic self, settling clear goals, and making sure you have right support along the way. We're here to help you do just that...and more.

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