Tennis isn’t usually a big topic in the Slack channels at Calm, the mindfulness app valued at $2 billion. But when Naomi Osaka suddenly withdrew from the French Open on Memorial Day, citing her mental health, the volleys about her decision started flying. By the next morning, Calm’s global head of marketing and communications, Monica Austin, had convened folks from across the company’s marketing, PR, talent, and content teams to identify the brand’s potential role in the conversation—and evaluate the risk. Calm, which has worked with such celebrities as Matthew McConaughey and LeBron James but had no relationship with Osaka, had to decide whether it could insert itself into the heated debate regarding Osaka’s choice. Would prominent sportswriters and the likes of British pundit Piers Morgan pillory Calm as they had Osaka? Would even Osaka supporters find Calm’s participation crass?
Austin’s impromptu team quickly decided that Calm could jump in without feeling like an interloper—so long as it amplified its “mental health is health” message. The key was figuring out the right way to do it.
Within 48 hours, the company had tweeted that it would be donating $15,000—the sum of Osaka’s fine—to Laureus Sport, a French mental health organization. Calm also committed to paying fines for any players who opted out of 2021 Grand Slam media appearances, and to donate the same value to Laureus Sport. “When we show up in popular culture,” says cofounder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith, “we do need to be careful we’re not being tone-deaf or too goofy, or too serious.”
Calm’s rapid response was an ace, earning it $28 million worth of attention within a week, according to media-monitoring firm Critical Mention, and elevating it into the pantheon of brand marketers who can both participate in and shape cultural discourse, such as Nike and Beats by Dre (both official Osaka sponsors). But Calm doesn’t have decades of experience playing this game. It lacks the tangible affinity people ascribe to shoes and headphones. Calm also wades into fraught territory by establishing its identity around such an intensely personal issue. As the company moves toward an IPO, the pressure to perform only grows.
Calm’s instinct to jump into cultural debates is a pillar of what Austin calls the company’s 50-50 strategy. Half the time, Calm plans out its marketing campaigns. “The other 50% of the time, it’s about leaning into where the conversation is happening in culture,” says Austin, who joined from Netflix in April, “while sticking to our mission to destigmatize the conversation around mental health.”
Calm has long sought to suffuse pop culture into its app, and enlisted big names to do so. In July 2020, it launched a 39-minute bedtime story called Dream With Me, read by pop star Harry Styles, and the instant demand temporarily crashed the app. Then there was its clever drafting off the biggest single event of 2020: the U.S. presidential election. Amid the high drama of what was billed as the most important election of our lives, Calm drew attention to itself during CNN’s cacophonous presentation with the televisual equivalent of a banner ad—its demure, blue cursive logo sat incongruously alongside CNN’s glaring red graphics—offering a reminder to breathe, as John King zoomed into new returns. Everyone from Ad Age to Teen Vogue declared Calm the big winner of November 3, 2020. The following day, Calm vaulted 54 spots in Apple’s App Store rankings, according to Sensor Tower, to No. 65 overall.
Both sides of Calm’s strategy are orchestrated to build its identity over the long term. “This is one component of establishing Calm as a brand that doesn’t simply sell mental health, but is also invested in defending it,” says Forrester vice president and principal analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee. “The brand emerges as an advocate and well-wisher, and most importantly, a guide.”
Calm needs to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded market for digital mental health services. In addition to competing against Headspace—which has a similar offering (see sidebar)—124 mental health startups (including Calm) collectively raised $1.5 billion in 2020, according to CB Insights. In the first three months of 2021, they collected another $852 million from investors.
Critics see this as more marketing than mindfulness. Randima Fernando, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, told the New York Times in February, “Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct investigation of our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more successful, and definitely more likely to win a download or corporate account.”
Acton Smith says his goal is for Calm to be to mental health what Nike has become for physical activity. When Nike started in the 1970s, fitness wasn’t mainstream. “Nike brilliantly, through marketing and partnerships, normalized it, and sprinkled a lot of cool on it,” he says. “We’re doing the same with Calm. That mental health wave is going to be just as big.” Calm’s strategy may walk the line between clever and crass, but it definitely won’t put you to sleep.
How Calm shapes up against its primary rival, Headspace
Calm: Est. 2012, $218 M in VC funding, 60% Female/40% Male users
Headspace: Est. 2010, $215.9 M in VC funding, 50% Female/50% Male users
Calm: Added Sleep Stories in 2016 and now there are 100+, narrated by dreamy voices like Harry Styles and Matthew McConaughey
Headspace: Introduced Sleepcasts in 2018, a 45-minute podcast/bedtime-story hybrid for adults
Calm: Debuted popular-songs library in 2017, altered by Calm to bolster serenity based on when you listen
Headspace: Appointed John Legend chief music officer in 2020 to curate stations to promote focus
Calm: A World of Calm (October 1, 2020, HBO Max) takes a NatGeo doc–style approach to relaxation, narrated by stars like Idris Elba
Headspace: Headspace Guide to Meditation (January 1, 2021, Netflix) seeks to deliver zen via eight short, animated episodes
Calm: Thomas the Tank Engine and the Trolls are there to guide enlightened children
Headspace: A youth-friendly version launched in 2016, and a Sesame Street sleep podcast, Goodnight, World!, bowed in June 2021