The Body Conscious: How Every Body Part Has a New Story to Tell

By Dr. Joanne Lacey MEAT

This piece explores how brands can transform themselves by transforming the previously demeaned status of parts of the body. In transforming the meaning of taken for granted parts of the body and the subsequent relationships that consumers have with them, they can potentially transform the relationships that consumers have with their brand. Both body part and brand are re-meaned. MEAT has created significant brand transformations in the field of foot care, re-meaning the feet for Dr Scholl’s , the mouth for oral care and GSK, and the gut for digestive health and Tums/Eno.

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Bodies matter. Bodies matter because they are tied to our very identity, they both constitute and express who we are and how we see and feel about ourselves. They are intricately twinned with our state of mental and emotional wellbeing. When bodies go ‘wrong’ (stop working quite right) or just don’t feel ‘right’ they have an impact on the workings of the mind and vice versa. Psychoanalysts and Psychologists from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Alexander Lowen have all built theories of body psychology that in different ways have mainstreamed into culture. We now take for granted a near unquestionable link between some mind and body symptoms like stress and eczema or tension and headaches.

Bodies also matter because they are barometers of the times we are living in. As body psychotherapist Susie Orbach reminds, bodies are always ‘bodies of our time’ reflective of and indeed contributing to the dominant values, rules, beliefs and practices at play at any historical moment in any particular place. An inter disciplinary community of writers and thinkers have directed us to see how late capitalism has catapulted our bodies out of centuries-old bodily practices which were centred on survival, procreation, the provision of shelter and the satisfaction of hunger to the experience of the body as an object to be honed and worked on. The body is now our personal project and the result of our individual production. We call on brands to help us fashion it, enhance or improve it because the body is our calling card – how we wish to be seen – and as such is vested with status, showing the results of our efforts (or our shortcomings or sloth) to the world. What characterises ‘bodies of our time’, therefore, is their place in a discourse of betterment. We no longer have to accept the body that we have, we see ourselves as psychologically entitled to an ever more accessible range of enhancement and improvement interventions.

If the body is the foundation of personal and social identity then it is fair to say that any brands that speak to or intervene in the space of human physicality with any or all of a raft of enhancement, maintenance, performance or repair benefits are operating in a fundamentally meaningful space. It is striking to note, therefore, how many categories and brands find themselves in a demeaned body conundrum. They get stuck in providing functional or generic problem solution benefits to sweaty, dry, cracked, greasy, smelly, ageing, creaky, bumpy or knobbly bodies. The challenge and the opportunity is to re-mean the body such that it becomes an elevated expression of the Human Values that are driving the aspirational bodies and identities ‘of our time’.

MEAT has developed a projective global insight tool which specialises in tracking the changing cultural life of ideas and the human values that they align to. Cultural Energies™ map the emergent attitudes, values, beliefs, behaviours and brand and cultural examples that evidence how and where an idea is evolving in a particular market. They draw on a network of global in market cultural insight specialists to elicit the themes and the language that can help brands give new meaning to demeaned ideas. Cultural Energies™ is an integral part of the BrandsWeBelievein™ building process, laying down the insight in one of the four brand pillars, the context pillar.

We have deployed Cultural Energies™ to identify the body themes with the power to re-mean the demeaned body for brands and categories globally. Bodies can develop brave new frontiers that breathe life into once banal body parts. Take the feet, from a brand point of view often the site of endless problems, bumpy, misshapen, smelly, sweaty, and achy. Brands have typically responded with a bewildering and ever more expansive array of products to fix an ever more bewildering and expansive array of problems. Meanwhile, in the context space, cosmetic surgery is busy enhancing feet and making them more beautiful. ‘Cinderella surgery’ is a growing trend and ‘Loub jobs’ are a pithy name for a popular procedure to smooth out the damage caused by years of wearing high heeled shoes (the ‘loub’ in Laboutin’s). MEAT worked with Dr Scholl’s to integrate the feet with their driving Human Value of Happiness, and in so doing unlocked a more elevated space to talk to consumers about how happy feet can make them feel.

Out there in culture consumers are perhaps less bashful about their body deficits that we might think. The social psychology of the ‘bodies of our time’ is less embarrassed by the ‘problem’ and more embarrassed by the prospect of being seen as someone who accepts a problem or doesn’t prevent a problem getting worse – someone who lets themselves go. Adult braces are no longer laughable, they have become the visible sign of a person who cares about their body and themselves, a person who is centrally concerned with projecting the best image of themselves into the world (US country singer Faith Hill proudly wore her braces to the Grammies, Niall Horan from One Direction was braced up for over a year). As a body part, the mouth and its constituent parts (teeth, tongue, gums) has been part of an ongoing cultural re-meaning that has been driven by both changing health and wellbeing and beauty trends. MEAT worked with GSK to develop a category vision for oral care. The re-meaning and valorisation of the mouth as part of a person’s identity led to a strategy of 5 discrete brands each taking on a notion of the mouth and the Human Value that it connected with. This has gone on to become the global operating model for GSK.

As part of this strategy, Corsodyl led the way in positioning the gums as a brave new frontier of mouth health, moving away from their banal status as something that just held the teeth in place to playing a constituent role in dental health and beauty. Take Corsodyl’s ‘for people who split blood when they brush their teeth’ campaign. Borrowing communication codes from beauty and skincare categories has elevated the status of demeaned gums to be part of a daily beauty regimen.

Brands are also part of wider cultural shifts to bring body parts out of culturally imposed shame or hiding. There is a growing category devoted to the care of feminine intimate health. Once the hush – hush semi category that housed discrete products for the bottom shelf and a semiotics of metaphorical flowers, buds and other symbols of mother earth, it is now released from taboo to speak to women and girls with a range of products that empower them to exercise their entitlement to care for and enhance their intimate health and wellbeing in the way they do any other part of their body. US brand Hello Flo are leading the charge with a powerfully vernacular language of vagina/va-jay-jay/vag hoo-ha and a monthly care package service and online advice portal.

Cultural Energies™ also mapped a theme that was about strong bodies and the desire to be and feel empowered, and in control. A version of the ‘survival of the fittest’ for the now and coming context. In this space brands empower bodies to be autonomous and resilient. Always has captured this elevation beautifully in their ‘like a girl campaign’. As a category, feminine care does not have the best track record in de-banalising the uterus and its associated processes. Always has succeeded in re-meaning and emotionally elevating the processes and parts of the body that their brand benefits. They really understood that young girls can lose massive amounts of self-confidence when they hit puberty and start periods. Instead of offering girls idealised versions of themselves as people who can get on with life as though periods didn’t exist at all – seen and not heard – they have tied the functional benefit of protection to the emotionally elevated value spaces of Self Respect and Freedom. In empowering girls and women, Always are empowering and re- meaning the once demeaned uterus, implicitly connecting it as a uniquely female bodily experience to a uniquely beautiful idea of embodied female strength.

Operating at the same time as this ‘survival of the fittest’ energy is ‘the survival of the focused’, an idea of the body as mindful, stable, self – aware and grounded. It is the antithesis to the hectic, high octane ‘on the go’ body that has been around for a while. In the context of this theme body parts can be re- meaned as part of a holistic understanding of the whole person. It means treating the body as a gestalt, with individual body parts – which might be troubled or troubling as significant because they make up the whole person and influence the whole person. MEAT worked on a category vision with GSK’s digestive health team, helping them to find the spaces that their brands could leverage once they understood that when one part of the body isn’t right this has an impact on the whole person, how they feel and how they are in the world. This opened up the space to elevate the demeaned status of digestive issues (wind, heartburn, bloating) to their rightful holistic place in overall health and wellbeing. Tums came to understand that having indigestion isn’t just an unpleasant digestive symptom, it’s an experience that compromises at a gut level, how we feel about ourselves. Seen through this lens, Tums isn’t just providing symptom relief but is a way to help people ‘get back to feeling like themselves’ so that they can enjoy their life.

Cultural Energies™ can be a very powerful tool for mapping the ‘bodies of our time’ and indeed tracking what the bodies of the future might be. By understanding what and how the body and parts of the body mean culturally we can equip brands with the insight to make bodies mean more and create a bond of intimacy with consumers who are the ‘bodies of our time’.