Adaptogens & Herbal Remedies in the Cultural Landscape How brands can adapt to changing cultural needs with adaptogens
Adaptogens are compounds obtained from plants that help the body adapt to, and alleviate, stress. The rise of adaptogens is part of a wider rise in curiosity around the power of mushrooms and plants. Adaptogens have various benefits, ranging from improving mood, cognition and memory, to help with staying asleep and muscle recovery.
Many adaptogenic ingredients and herbs have long been used by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine, though the word adaptogens came into use in the 1940s. In that decade, Soviet researchers studied the biological effects of ‘folk’ remedies, seeking a natural substance that could mitigate stress and improve mental and physical performance. Adaptogens are named for their ability to help the body adapt and adjust. Examples include:
Reishi: a mushroom with potential benefits for the immune system, fatigue and depression.
Turmeric: a spice with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties.
Ashwaganda: also known as winter cherry, ashwaganda has been shown to help reduce stress, regulate cortisol, enhance focus and reduce irritability.
What’s made these herbs, whose potent properties have been studied for centuries, so resonant in consumer culture now?
In the wellbeing and personal care space, recent years have seen the rise of laboratory-inspired brand identities – see clean lines, white pipette bottles, sans-serif fonts and language derived from chemistry. These cues point to clinical precision and expertise, yet they can carry an undertone of strict functionality or even medicinal anxiety. By contrast, adaptogenic products are typically positioned as benevolently calming.
Brands including herbar, Grass & Co and Moon Juice have adopted an ethereal look & feel, with visual identities that mirror the relaxed state they claim to induce. Herbar’s website references “philosophy” and “potions”, replacing the usual language around why a product works with: “why it’s special.” Others have adopted floating letters and icons, suggesting a gravity-defying personal ‘lift’. These cues point to a liberation from strict, harsh functionality in favour of soft, friendly, escapist comfort.
Simiarly, several brands refer to a mysterious ‘wonder’, including Wunderground and the WonderDay gummies. Wunderground fuse coffee with adaptogenic compounds, countering the associations between coffee & stress with coffee & anti-stress ingredients. Its brand imagery resembles a festival poster, with 2D cartoons and slightly absurd imagined landscapes. WonderDay, similary, evokes a rosy horizon with a glowing sun, creating an impression of gentle optimism.
Many of these brands are playing on the cultural associations between fungi and shrooms. Their cues tap into a legacy of ‘hallucinatory’, gently swarming forms familiar from 1960s & 70s design styles with psychedelic overtones.
More emergently, Black-owned wellness brand Deon Libra has reworked the design cues associated with adaptogenics, refreshing the category with a bold, unapologetic look that still holds a clean, discerning sophistication with its monochromatic palette and small type size. The brand rejects the design cues of a wellness category that has long underserved and underrepresented Black people, with a design approach that is simultaneously relevant and aspirational.
Several celebrities have endorsed adaptogens, and even included them in their own product formulations. Kin Euphorics, the functional drinks brand co-founded by Bella Hadid, contains adaptogens, nootropics, and botanicals. Last year, Katy Perry also launched a range of non-alcoholic drinks that feature ashwaganda, gentian root and reishi mushroom. Adaptogens and functional drinks exemplify the shift from celebrities as brand ambassadors, to brand founders; a move from celebrities having a potentially abstract connection to the products they promote, to having a more authentic one. Beneath this, the notion that celebrities have access to experts’ secrets around eternal wellness has also shored up the intrigue around adaptogenic benefits. Their endorsement makes adaptogens appear not only effective, but aspirational.
3 key takeouts for brands:
- The idea of helping us ‘adapt’ to new circumstances is of especial relevance as we adjust to life in light of the pandemic. Though it has a natural intersection with personal wellness, this idea of flexible adaptation and anxiety alleviation can be relevant across a vast range of categories – tech, beauty, e-commerce, CPG, etc.
- The branding of adaptogen-based products often plays on nostalgic cues, updating them with contemporary digital techniques. How might your brand play on historic reference points in a fresh, relevant way?
- More and more, people are looking for wellness products that reflect their lifestyle – speaking to them authentically, while representing an elevated retreat from the everyday. A deep understanding of your consumers’ cultural context, and the drivers impacting that context, can help a brand really resonate with both the everyday and the more elevated, escapist moments.
Katrina Russell, Associate Director