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Is the digital backlash around the corner, and how should brands react?

It’d be interesting to know what Neil Postman would have made of our distracted times. When his book Amusing Ourselves to Death was released in the 1980s, Postman warned us how petty entertainment would corrode our attention spans.

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” he wrote then. He died in 2003: four years before Steve Jobs triumphantly unveiled the iPhone.

Since then, pocket-sized internet connected devices have warped entire industries: taxis, travelling, obviously communication, even dating. But for all the convenience, what has happened to the consumers themselves?

The results are in

After a decade of constant connectivity, the results are starting to trickle in.

The average mobile device user looks at their phone about 150 times a day and about twice as often as they think they do, according to this study from the University of Lincoln. As the New York University marketing professor Adam Alter points out in his book Irresistible, these results indicate that over the course of an average lifetime, we’ll spend about seven years immersed in our devices.

Tristan Harris, a former star product designer at Google, has been a particularly powerful public voice in this respect. He has been a vocal critic of big platforms that have deliberately designed their products to capture our attention. He proposes a renaissance in online design that frees users, instead of trapping them.

As Harris explained to the Globe and Mail,every generation has cried wolf about how some newfangled innovation would ruin us, but “this time, it’s different”. Technology is now portable, constantly with us and designed to capture our attention.

This noisy and crowded environment has dramatically altered how we navigate through media. According to research from Sticky (a startup that uses technology to track and measure user's eyes) there’s a turn away from visual registration which manifests more dramatically in younger consumers.

Less than a third of Millennials studied “somewhat saw” a brand advertisement next to an article, compared to the 83% of baby boomers who “significantly saw” the ad. Brands are fighting an uphill battle against decreasing attention spans. Since 2000, the average human attention span has dipped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.

Digital backlash

This new normal offers a bewildering challenge. As attention spans wane, it becomes trickier for brands to cut through the din and differentiate themselves. This isn’t a heritage thing; all companies face this task equally. Instead, it’s a question of your ethos and culture.

There’s a digital backlash brewing across the world. Critiques like Harris’ are beginning to unfold in public policy around the world. France is set to ban mobile phones in schools from September onwards, while a recent survey of British 13-to-16 year olds found almost two-thirds would not mind if social media had never been invented.

As this consumer sentiment swells, what can brands do? Consumers don’t want brands to frantically jockey for their attention, they want to experience authentic connections. A recent Sprout Social study found 65% of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues, for instance.

With digital technology and media so intricately woven through our daily lives, it presents an opportunity for brands to exercise their soft power.

Instead of hard approaches like adding new product lines or fundamentally altering your product, soft power is all about altering your brand’s emotional DNA. Soft power focuses on tone, identity, range and personality, instead of the product or service on offer.

Soft power is  exemplified by Mondelez International’s efforts with Oreo, an iconic, almost century old legacy product. The brand was well known, but (as one Mondelez marketing exec told Fast Company) “trapped in the pantry” by its repetitive, formulaic marketing.

“I remember conversations about not being able to show anything [in a TV spot] that didn’t take place inside a kitchen,” they said. Mondelez realised that Oreo’s history could be used to drive culture and comment on it.

This more playful, softer approach has caught on with Mondelez’s other brands. “We have a lot of mature brands and culture gives brands rebirth, it breathes life into the room,” Mondelez’s CMO Dana Anderson explained to Fast Company.

Digital isn’t going anywhere

A digital backlash doesn’t mean “no more digital”. Even harsh critics like Tristan Harris, with his pointed criticisms, want to alter how technology and platforms are designed, rather doing away with it all entirely.

Besides, it’s here to stay. Not only is the number of mobile device users increasing worldwide (up to an expected 5 billion in 2019), the variety of platforms and devices is increasing too. The average British household now owns 7 internet capable devices - as the Internet of Things expands, even fridges are talking to each other online.

Brands simply can’t avoid this digital reality, you can’t rid yourself of everyday life. Digital is fused into our culture, bleeding from online into the real world, especially for Millennials. “The influence of the internet,” writes the sociologist Frank Furedi, “has been most significant in the way it has transformed the lives of young people”, lives that are “mediated through the social media, mobile phones and the Internet”.

Brands can’t ignore the medium, but they can control the softer, more nuanced aspects of how they communicate with consumers and culture at large. Physical and digital aren’t disparate anymore. They’re connected. And the secret to success is soft power design that explores the spaces that exist between them.


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