The Stress Factor: What Brands should Know

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Why do Millennials prefer a snack to a meal, and Ubering to owning a car? How have Amazon and Netflix come to command the loyalty of an otherwise restless generation?

Recent consumer trends may well be explained by a simple, though powerful, motivation: to avoid or minimize stress.

“Stress Free” has become ubiquitous in marketing campaigns, as more and more companies prefix the term to their brands. But make no mistake: this is a sophisticated concept that drives strategy and governs how some of the most successful companies envision their mission.

It is therefore useful for brands to understand the stress-free megatrend, and we introduce The Stress-Free Principle to capture both consumers’ motivations and companies’ myriad strategies of addressing it. The Principle provides an effective framework to understand recent developments in many industries — from food and beverages, cosmetics and personal care to technology, financial services, travel and tourism — and it should guide your innovation.

When we, at Schieber Research, realized that the Stress-Free Principle was shaping key industries, we developed a methodology to assess a company’s, brand’s or product’s stress-free-ness. Our report on the Principle will share our knowledge, insights, and suggestions. We’re proud to present the first part.

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What do we mean by “Stress Free”? It denotes a preference for simplicity, control, balance, reduced accountability and at times even indulgence. To be sure, it has much in common with convenience and wellness, but it’s a tad trickier than those more straightforward values. To see why, let’s see how stress come about.

Feelings of strain and pressure may occur when one must decide between conflicting interests: health vs. indulgence, cost vs. comfort, professional vs. personal life, control vs. freedom, planning vs. spontaneity, and so on. Time pressure, too, may be understood as resulting from overcommitting, which in turn necessitates to prioritize obligations. Thus, a focus on only one item in each of the pairs is often not enough to manage stress. Rather, you should take a step back and consider instead how all concerns involved play out in tandem.

That insight led us to propose the Stress-Free Principle as the rationale behind strategies intended to diminish such conflicts, or the appearance thereof. Eliminate the conflict, and stress should abate.

Of course, stress is nothing new, nor is the motivation to manage it. Life has never been altogether without stress. Still, until recently either stress was perceived as the inevitable price of success, or a factor beyond one’s control. And that’s no longer the case with today’s millennials who see no contradiction between a demanding career and a rich personal life. They want a balanced lifestyle, an expectation that ironically in itself may add stress.

If millennials may be more stressed out, they are also more committed to fight this evil back. A 2016 survey of American households by the Hartman Group found that “anxiety and stress” was the most reported health concern among millennials (born in 1981-2000) and Gen-X (1961-1980), at 35% and 31%, respectively.

Companies react to this psychology, as well as reinforce consumers’ expectations. The Stress-Free Principle provides a compelling insight into the appeal of Apple and Amazon, two of the most influential companies of our generation. They have such a strong following (sometimes while pricing at a premium) because they understand the consumer psyche.

Those behemoths aside, companies small and big, new and established, will benefit from implementing the Stress-Free Principles. Here are a few suggestions how.

  1. Make products, communication and shopping experience fun. Humor, irony, and a sense of surprise will go a long way with consumers. Seriousness is stressful; being casual lights things up.
  2. Offer solutions, not products. The classical example is telecom bundling, where the home’s telephone package includes also cable television and internet. But the concept of bundling is wider and can be applied more broadly. If I bought balloons and candies, why not offer me also a cake and candles?
  3. Define a lifestyle. People look for strategies that allow them to keep in control but also to let go. Weight Watchers, Atkins and other diets and nutrition plans that were innovative a few years back were meant to hold people accountable by encouraging you to be mindful of calorie and ingredient intake. Those diets are still popular but you also see a trend in the opposite direction— diets, such as Paleo, that set broad, easy-to-follow guidelines, emphasizing the freedom to choose and even indulge within the guidelines. Nutrition free from obsessive calorie-counting is therefore easier to manage and less of a headache.
  4. Keep it simple. Against the abundance of information and choice, there are opportunities in going against complexity. Nostalgia, back to nature, minimalism, clean label, farm to fork, and a “what you see is what you get” attitude, are all part of the backlash against the never-ending march toward increased sophistication. Take, for example, CrossFit, the popular fitness program, that substitutes minimally furnished “boxes” for fancy gyms, and weights and bars for expensive equipment. It keeps the programming to the likes of pushups and pullups. Its appeal lies in the combination of a back-to-basics approach and the offer of a lifestyle that bundles fitness and wellness.
  5. Free customers from commitments, and win their loyalty. Making a commitment demands attention and is a source of stress. So, convince customers that they would not be held accountable to their decisions. Companies’ no-questions-ask return or cancel policies are based on this rationale, as well as on the realization that most customers don’t return a product or cancel a service— sometimes even if they regret the deal, simply because of laziness and the mental effort of rethinking about a decision that was already made. Such policies also project maturity, confidence and integrity. Freemium or generous free samples also get customers on board by relieving them of the burden of decision-making. Netflix, for one, keeps enticing prospective and past subscribers with a month-long free membership. Among food companies you see the likes of Sabra’s Unofficial Meal that reframe the dining experience as noncommittal to meet people’s mental accounting. Another popular trend is meal kits that provide cooking instructions along with the specific ingredients you need to prepare the meal. By saving you the trouble of selecting and shopping for ingredients and experimenting with the recipes, the meal kits keep cooking casual.


Stress free is an important megatrend that will continue to shape strategy and marketing in the future. As lives get more hectic and people are overwhelmed by choice and information, consumers seek solutions that simplify their lives and clear their minds, and companies that understand this psyche stand to gain.

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