Anxiety the trend…but also the social taboo

In a latest article, John Woods of Business Times summarizes six supertrends to keep an eye on. One of them is “Anxious Societies” – defined as “inequalities relating to lack of opportunities or limited access to basic necessities, rapidly changing work environments etc.” 

The anxieties certainly got more pronounced in the past year, when the pandemic caused the economy to slow down, companies to downsize, and many people to face difficulties in the job market. 

Yet many who suffered a psychological toll couldn’t easily find proper public channels to rant. Social media always favors blind positivity (i.e. #spreadthelove), shiny achievements and high spirits, and leaves little space for an honest conversation on anxiety, insecurity, and burnt-out. 

This taboo drives people to gear their attention towards concepts such as “self-love” and “inner peace” as another way out. Self-help books are piling up in the bookstores, “life coaches” are appearing in the market, and motivational speakers are everywhere across the world.

Is “self-love” a panacea to modern illness?

This counter trend finds itself perfectly compatible with the anxious society, and is even successfully turning itself into channels of monetisation.

In the West, booming meditation and lifestyle apps such as Headspace and Calm keep generating eyeballs and getting higher public praise. In late 2020, Calm raised $75 million at the valuation of $2 billion in a round led by its prior investor Lightspeed Venture Partners. Together with Headspace, the two have raised a combined $434 million up to today, proving the attractiveness of such business model to the capital side. 

In China the situation is the same. While the discussion of the notorious “996” is far from over, lately public contention is heating up again around the idea of “involution”(内卷) – the incessant competition that spirals on itself and keeps people from progressing, describing the feeling of being trapped and disillusioned at the workplace by the majority. As many friends jokingly describe, in contemporary Chinese society the millennials and Gen-Zs are incredibly bought into the “mourning”(丧) culture.

Yet it grooms the “self-love” hype too, and complements the trendy mourning chatters. “KnowYourself (KY)”, the most popular brand first started in 2016 publishing mental wellness-related content on Wechat account, is now rapidly expanding into an integrated platform with both 2B and 2C services. It runs a stand-alone meditation app to individual consumers, and also partners with corporates to offer a tailored package of assessment, counseling and even training on skills of mental wellbeing for its employees, priced at US$130 per person/year. So far, KY has gained 7 million users in China and is still growing fast. 

MW’s WeChat community is talking about how ridiculously profitable this business can be. “Young people are blindly pouring money into the ‘self-love’ cult, with all these expensive but useless courses out there”, one said.

Why do we buy into it?

It’s worth spending some time to figure out why this paradoxical yet weirdly compatible business functions so well under the social current. It’s about understanding ourselves too – why are many of us voluntarily (or are we?) dumping money into this business if it is really full of crap?

I took a stab and looked into it. Here’s what I think is why monetizing over “self-love” is, and will still be successful and profitable. 

  1. Customer psychology: seeking rescue is itself THE rescue. We always act upon our aspirations, not realities – that’s basic human mentality. The very effort of subscribing to “self-love” services itself is a stress reliever, just the same as why we keep buying books but never finish reading them. Yes, this customer pain point is really a pain to admit.
  2. The concept sells, not the product. Be it meditation or “self-love” courses, the effectiveness of such services can not be scrutinized right away, and yet customers have to keep paying. So reasonable to conclude that customers retain not for the product, but for a well-branded concept.
  3. Accurately identified consumers. It’s not hard to realize that most subscribers are the highly educated, well-paid young working professionals in the cities, who are also well informed and exposed to the concept of “self-love”, as KY concludes themselves as well. This is the rightly targeted crowd with both the willingness and financial ability to spare the budget on mental well-being.
  4. Market is huge and ever-growing. This is a no-brainer. In this “anxious society”, people are getting increasingly burnt out at work, and turning inward for remedies.

So what’s next? 

If you put on a Marxist hat, you’d probably say that such an endeavor is still established on capital gain. Well technically not wrong – these companies are backed by big capital, and will attract even more to join. 

But this makes sense too. If the economy is not picking up the pace, the call for self-love will not stop, and the lost souls will soon start a race to chase after the “inner peace”.

For the players, the important question will be how to differentiate. When the market gets saturated, customers will essentially realise that the rescue, by the end of the day, is a product. 

This is probably when the scientific and practical grounds of the products get more examined , and other business segments such as pricing and advertising come into play.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].