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A wake-up call: why brands should be helping us get a good night’s sleep

Mother followed its retelling of the tortoise and the hare with posters spoofing the claims of fad products

Katie Mackay-Sinclair has been helping Ikea share the virtues of sleep for years. She says that for the future health of every single one of us, brands need to play a more positive role in our bedtime, not just cram our every waking moment full of more entertainment, products and experiences.

Imagine you’re briefed on the launch of a new brand. One whose core product is abundant yet affordable, with the potent ability to dramatically improve human cognitive and physical performance. Surely everyone would consume it at as high a frequency as time allowed? If only. The brand is sleep, its product a good night of it – and none of us are getting enough of either.

Sleep on the wane

If the past year has accelerated many trends, and exacerbated many woes, sleep has been doubly squeezed. Compared to our parents, we’re all getting less sleep and of a lower quality too; 70% of us sleep less than the recommended minimum seven hours a night, and a staggering one-in-three experience some form of insomnia. And these stats are before we layer on the toll of this past year. I’m typing this months after recovering from coronavirus, when the inability to sleep lingered long after my actual infection disappeared. But Covid to one side, culturally, sleep has become something to be scrimped on, not luxuriated in.

It’s tempting to chalk this up to yet another thing that’s changed since the Boomers were young. But there’s something more worrying at play than the tally of missed shut-eye. Sleep – or lack thereof – is one of the biggest issues of our generation.

Opportunity cost or vital function?

A sobering fact: for every hour of sleep lost, we lose one IQ point. One sleepless night is cognitively the same as having a 0.1 blood alcohol level – too high to legally drive (the English, Welsh and Northern Irish driving limit is 0.08). But it’s not just cognitive malaise; the time it takes for your muscles to get exhausted drops by 10-30% when you dip below six hours shut-eye in a day. The longer-term impact on our mental health is stark; in 2011, analysis of 21 different studies found that people who experience insomnia have a two-fold risk of developing depression over those who do not have problems sleeping.

Of course, humans wouldn’t have evolved to spend a third of their lives as downtime unless this played an important role in making our bodies and brains into the most dominant on this planet. From emotional resilience and creative thinking to basic brain maintenance, sleep is a big part of the reason we’re ahead. Thomas Roth from the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center in Detroit put it pretty bluntly: “The percentage of the population who need less than five hours of sleep per night, rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

Sleep is big business, predicted to be worth $585bn by 2024. And yet most marketing activity and innovation is focused on increasing the possibility of our waking hours; cramming more experiences, more products and more entertainment into more and more hours awake. Ultimately, the focus is upon encouraging sleep sacrifice to create even more time for even more stimulation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 80% of us would prioritize catching up on the internet over getting the recommended seven hours. Which would be fine, if sleep didn’t actually do something pretty vital for our health and wellbeing.

We’ve worked with Ikea in helping to share sleep’s virtues and benefits for many years. Most recently, we told the night-before-the-race story from the perspective of both tortoise and hare and showcased the benefits of a good night’s sleep through the perspective of claimed benefits of fad products. I am grateful for the personal benefit such an in-depth understanding of sleep has given me and everyone at Mother who has worked on the brand. And let me tell you, there’s so much more to a good night’s sleep than a good bed – although that is a good place to start.

Busting the sleep myth

There’s a fallacy that we’re all born either good or bad sleepers. This just isn’t true. Everyone can sleep well. But in order to do it, you have to focus on techniques and rituals known as ‘sleep hygiene’. It’s not simply a case of jumping into bed, closing your eyes and ta-da, welcome to the land of nod. But it’s a heck of a lot less complicated than the booming sleep industry might have you believe. If you have children, you’re probably doing a lot of this ‘sleep hygiene’ for them already, and if you don’t, then I can bet it was part of your early life even if it has fallen by the wayside as an adult.

Consider the wonderful wind-down of childhood bedtimes: a warm bath, followed by warm milk and a calming bedtime story told in gentle tones in a darkened room. Contrast that with how many of us end our day as adults. Sleep-related rituals have been supplanted by an environment that’s been evolving faster than we have ever since the industrial revolution. From light available on-demand 24 hours a day to the entirety of human knowledge and entertainment available in our hands 24 hours a day, transmitted to us via a sleep-suppressing blue hue. Advances in technology have extended waking hours, making sleep less alluring to our increasingly tired yet wired brains.

Brands at bedtime

No doubt about it, we’ve fallen into a state of culturally encouraged sleep bulimia and the last 12 months have only compounded the issue. Brands can play a major role in recalibrating this, helping us to see hours asleep as vital (not wasted) in the pursuit of a full and fulfilling life. Both the bedtime ritual itself and the concept of ‘sleep hygiene’ create opportunities aplenty for brands to refocus themselves through the lens of sleep. From bedtime stories on Channel 4, to a range of sleep-inducing relaxing scents at The Body Shop, or sleep-encouraging paints by Dulux; there are few that couldn’t have a point of view and positive impact on sleep.

Experts call the FOMO-induced sleep deficit a ticking time bomb, warning that our cultural understanding of the sleep/good health dynamic is probably where smoking was 50 years ago. For the future health of every single one of us, there’s nothing more important than a good night’s sleep. Let’s prioritize it not only for ourselves but for the teams, brands and businesses we shepherd.

Katie Mackay-Sinclair is a partner at Mother

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.