Rise of the neo-luddites?

It’s commonly spoken truism that the pace of change has never faster than today – and much of that is being driven by technology which is influencing almost every aspect of our consumers’ lives.

However, for every trend that is a counter-trend and there are signs of the emergence of an anti-tech back-to-basics counter-culture.
Research about impact of technology and social media on people is in its infancy and some of the conclusions have been contradictory. However difficult to measure, there is a growing unease about how – and how much – people should interact with digital. This is driven by a sense that being consumed by tech has created a ‘digital attention crisis’ and that we are neglecting some aspects of the human existence.

Heroes and villains

Often topics are over-simplified, rapidly reduced to a heroes and villains narrative. Some see smartphones as villains, blaming them for a diverse set of ills – damaging eye development in children, disrupting sleep, reducing attention spans and our ability to focus, causing traffic accidents, and so on.

And the backlash is influencing behaviours. For example, last year the Pew Research Center found that 74% of US adults have either adjusted privacy settings, taken a “break” from Facebook or deleted the app altogether for their own well being. Its founder, along with the bosses of other giants like Google, is grappling with how to re-engineer business models so they work for both users and shareholders.


Terms like ‘neo-luddite’ are appearing in the media to describe how some people are choosing to “reject” technology – with parallels being drawn to the rebellious actions of workers whose jobs were displaced by machines during the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago.

Innocent ‘Unplugged’ was one of a series of festivals for “grown-ups” organised by the famous smoothie maker which deliberately had with no wifi and no 3G/4G coverage. The CEO said “People are missing out on what is happening in front of them and are too distracted by technology to enjoy the moment.”
Analogue zones in restaurants are a growing theme along with digital detox holidays. Off Grid Hideaways is one of a number of holiday brands focused on serving the growing demand for digital detox.
In March, the 200-strong Samuel Smiths chain of pubs became the UK’s first chain to ban the use of mobile phones and laptops to “protect social conversation”. It’s publicity-shy 73-year old owner is believed to visit outlets undercover to enforce the ban.
For consumers who want to dispense with the interruptions that accompany apps, but without losing the aesthetic, Swiss phone maker Punkt will provide beautiful & basic handsets for between £200-300.

Cyborg jellyfish

However appealing a life with less tech might be to some consumers, the internet cannot be ‘un-invented’. The hypocrisy of some of the anti-tech rhetoric was neatly summarised by a US University Professor:

“College students take out their earbuds to discuss how technology dominates their lives. But when a class ends, their cell phones all come to life, screens glowing in front of their faces, and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of cyborg jellyfish.”

Rather than the wide-scale (and impractical) rejection of technology what we are likely to see is smarter use of technology, where it’s harnessed to put people back in control. And I’d argue it’s in this space that the bigger commercial opportunity lies for brand owners – either as a means of defence or growth opportunity.


The tech brands are themselves are using tech to help solve the consumer tension, in what is almost certainly a pre-emptive strike (and a sign of concern about the potential commercial impact).

Apple‘s new screen time app provides users with stats about their smartphone usage enabling them to monitor and alter their behaviour. Night time mode was introduced on both Android and iOS phones to eliminate the blue light from screens that can disrupt sleep.
A growing number of people are using ad blocking software. The behaviour is most prevalent in Germany (32% of all users), but also significant in France (29%), India (28%), Canada (25%), US (25%) and UK (22%). As a result it’s estimated that around 10% of paid advertising impressions are not served due to ad blocking.

Growth opportunity

Brands that harness technology to mitigate the impact of (often technology-enabled) stress are becoming big business.

The Calm guided meditation and relaxation app has been downloaded over 26m times, with 50,000 new users added daily. The firm (which has also diversified into things like herbal remedies) is now valued at $1bn. The Headspace app serves the same market and has now attracted over $70m of funding from investors.
Habit is a personalised online food service that creates personalised food and nutrition recommendations based on an individual’s bio-markers. Indeed, many of the high growth food brands are delivering functional well-being benefits, including stress reduction, improving sleep, increasing energy and resilience.
Cuddlist (it’s a real thing) is a website which originated from New York around 3 years ago, where consumers can pay a certified cuddler to cuddle them. The non-sexual service aims to replace the physical touch that independent or isolated people are missing.
Despite the pace of change, the importance of brands being led by deep consumer insight remains as true as ever. Businesses will continue to prosper if they put effort into gaining a deep understanding of their buyers’ evolving social and cultural landscape, observe and understand the tensions they face, then design products, services and marketing activity that helps resolve those tensions.
At Brand Ambition we have a significant experience in helping clients to interrogate consumer insight and drive this into action through marketing strategy and activation planning. Our aim is to help you serve customers & markets better and make more money from doing so. If you’d like to chat, please get in touch.

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