Innovator Interviews: Headspace’s Deborah Hyun

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The early bright spots of quarantine were relatively easy to spot: content companies like Twitch were able to capture a larger share of the zeitgeist as live-streams and gaming with friends became the social activities of choice, while packaged food companies including General Mills saw double digit gains in sales as more people ate and cooked from home.

The early bright spots of quarantine were relatively easy to spot: content companies like Twitch were able to capture a larger share of the zeitgeist as live-streams and gaming with friends became the social activities of choice, while packaged food companies including General Mills saw double digit gains in sales as more people ate and cooked from home. 

But as the weeks have turned into months of sheltering in place and highly restricted social gatherings, the demand for self-care resources has never been higher. And Headspace, an app that provides mindfulness and meditation content for 65 million people worldwide, has found itself at the forefront of the booming self-care movement — and finding many ways to give back in the process.

Deborah Hyun, who joined Headspace as VP-Global Marketing last November, says the newly candid dialogue around mental health has helped bring new users to the app, with downloads up 20% since mid-March as the global pandemic steadily increased. Other growth activity Headspace has seen includes in a 600% increase in users engaging in stressed meditation, and a 200% increase in usage of at-home workouts designed to reframe anxiety. Headspace has paid that growth forward with a wide range of initiatives, including free subscriptions for U.S. healthcare workers and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), state-driven partnerships to help New York and Michigan residents find relief from stress and anxiety and a year’s worth of free subscriptions to unemployed Americans.

“Between our offering for healthcare professionals, educators and unemployed people in the US, we've seen hundreds of thousands of people sign up for free Headspace subscriptions,” says Hyun. “On the corporate side – with our enterprise business offering, we’ve seen a more than 500% increase in inbound requests from companies seeking support for their employees' mental health.”

While stress and anxiety are on the rise, so is the need to focus amid so many daily stressors. That’s why Hyun and the Headspace team recently introduced music and custom playlists as their latest brand pillar, tapping Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner John Legend as its first Chief Music Officer. As part of his role, Legend will curate 12 different genre stations (from classical to jazz to hip-hop) of music exclusively for the Headspace app to help block out distractions, as well hire guest composers like hip-hop/soul producer Madlib to create their own playlists. “We know music can play a unique role in helping our mind sort through the chaos,” Hyun says.

Prior to joining Headspace last fall, Hyun held senior roles on both the agency and brand side of marketing, including Taco Bell, strategic marketing firm TWO NIL and Uber, where she most recently worked for four years — including a year as director of performance marketing. Brand Innovators caught up with Hyun to learn more about Headspace’s growth spurt, the role of Snapchat in her marketing strategy and the importance of supporting the healthcare community.

Brand Innovators: You joined Headspace last November, just months before the coronavirus pandemic upended the world. What was your initial vision for the brand when you joined, and how have the last six months pivoted or accelerated those plans?

Deborah Hyun: For years, our focus at Headspace was on educating around the importance of taking care of one’s mind and mental health. And while that is still an important part of our job, the stigmas around mental health have greatly improved. We’ve heard directly from our members how challenging these times have been, and we’ve found that people are more openly discussing ways to cope with life's stressors. It’s given us an opening to establish Headspace as a leader in prevention, as well as a tool to cope with heightened stress. It’s certainly accelerated our ability to reach people in ways we haven’t been able to before.

What are some new behaviors or use cases you’ve seen on the Headspace app, and any pivots you’ve introduced to better serve those needs?

We’ve seen an upsurge in users who are going to our stress meditations as well as reframing anxiety at-home exercises. Knowing that our users are seeking this sort of content, we want to ensure we are showing up for them both in-app and through strategic partnerships. For example, in July we launched the Headspace Mini within Snapchat which provides Snapchatters with expert resources related to emotional and physical well-being, while offering daily meditations and tools to help Snapchatters check-in with their friends and stay healthy. During times of stress, connecting with friends and having moments of relaxation and mindfulness, have never been more important -- and by putting resources front and center where friends already meet and share, our goal is to provide a safe space for friends to practice meditation and mindfulness exercises, and use these new tools to send encouraging messages to positively boost friends in need.  

What user insights led to your partnership with John Legend as Headspace’s Chief Music Officer, and what will his role entail?

By listening to our Headspace users and through our internal insights team, we learned that many people around the world are struggling with focus as the boundaries between work and personal life become more and more blurred and we continue to grapple with the pandemic. Every month, John Legend will curate a new Focus playlist with musicians renowned for different musical styles with September’s playlist composed by critically acclaimed hip hop producer, Madlib.

What types of feedback or engagement have you seen from the healthcare community following your ongoing efforts to provide free mental health resources for them during the pandemic?

The Healthcare providers are on the front lines of this unprecedented public health crisis, making sure communities receive necessary and critical care. Our healthcare system is facing immense pressure amid the COVID-19 outbreak and, in particular, we’ve been seeing incredible stress, anxiety and burnout among our healthcare workers, who are the front lines of this crisis. Overall, the community has been very appreciative of the offering and we’re just happy to do what we can to support these heroes. 

You worked at several global brands prior to joining Headspace, including Taco Bell and Uber. Is there a throughline or core set of brand pillars that you’ve applied to each of your roles, as you approach brand building across very different categories of businesses?

Put the customer first and all else follows. The marketing plan is only as good as the insights it’s built on, so by listening to customers and putting their needs above what we want to accomplish, we can accelerate growth and build deeper and lasting relationships with them.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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