Sandeep Dutta
Guest Article

Are you lonesome tonight? A brand can help!

Youth loneliness is emerging as a serious social and mental health problem. Our guest author writes about how brands can help to combat the problem.

Aarjo, a post-graduate student and I were talking, in a café in Kolkata just few days before the outbreak of COVID 19. This was one of the many interviews that I was conducting as a consumer researcher to understand the anxieties of urban Indian youth for a brand positioning study. I had prepared myself to hear about anxieties related to career, appearance, break-ups but was not ready to hear about loneliness. I was taken aback when Aarjo, a social media addict, said “You remember the poem…water, water everywhere not a drop to drink, I would say I have friends everywhere but no one who I can call really close”.

Aarjo was quick to read my mind and explained that while his parents were supportive, he couldn’t talk to them about everything and missed having friends with who he could connect unreservedly. He described his innumerable social media friends as those who he relies on for liking his posts in social media but for nothing else.

I heard echoes of this when I met Nidhi, a student of pharmacy in Coimbatore. She told me how much she dreaded studying alone in the house till she found herself a virtual study buddy. The buddy, an undergrad student runs a Youtube channel that shows her studying diligently for hours in her study room. Nidhi and several others like her switch on the channel to study along with her and beat their loneliness.

Once I asked few young participants in a focus group to create two collages; one depicting the happy side of their lives and the other the opposite. Loneliness emerged as a key element of the unhappy side of their lives. A participant explained “We are stressed most of the time…stressed with studies, friends, career…in Instagram we show how happy we are but all that is not true, we don’t know who to tell us about our sadness…don’t want to tell parents as they get upset…sometimes I tell my friends but fear if they tell others…or think I am weird…so most of the times keep it all inside”.

Youth loneliness is emerging as a serious social and mental health problem. According to a BBC Radio 4 survey in 2018, 16-24-year-old emerged as the loneliest age group. Over 55,000 people aged 16 years and over, living in UK took part in the survey exploring experiences of loneliness. The UK government recognizes the seriousness of the issue and has appointed a minister for loneliness. Loneliness is not simply about being alone. Many believe that social media is the main culprit as constant voyeurism and incessant comparison with others causes or intensifies feelings of anxiety, loneliness and eventually depression.

In India, a country which boasts of a population of more than a billion, the concept of loneliness is yet to be taken seriously. The dominant perception is that loneliness, if at all a problem, is for the old and the socially discarded and certainly not for the heavily networked youth. That is far from true. Loneliness is an unspoken and unseen challenge of the youth which has further intensified in times of the pandemic as they constantly battle with frustrations and fears.

Can brands help to combat loneliness? Apparently, they can, and some brands are already doing it in markets outside India. Desperados, the Heineken-owned tequila-flavoured beer, invited people to a house party, got them to give up their phones and then used the screens of the devices to create a light show. Guests obliged and socialized with gusto. Over the past few years, on-demand connection is gaining popularity. 'Papa' a brand from Florida has successfully been connecting lonely senior citizens to "grandkids on demand.”

Brands that are not able to connect one human to another are creating surrogate social experiences. In October 2019, the soft drink brand Sprite launched a campaign called “You are not alone” in Latin America. The brand created a series of Reddit forums where young people could express their feelings on issues that made them feel isolated. Some brands are putting up human faces on their packs as scientists claim that lonely people are more likely to buy products that have human faces on them. Brands like KFC and McDonalds certainly have an advantage from this perspective.

Indian brands are yet to address the cultural tension of youth loneliness. There is an opportunity for brands to be the enablers of authentic social engagements in the real world and help the youth find desirable company especially in these times of social recession.

I am hoping, when I meet Aarjo in future, he would be singing paeans to a brand for filling a deep void in his life.

(The author is vice president, Insights Division at Kantar.)