We’ve all been culpable at one time or another. We have glanced at our smartphone in a business meeting, or other sensitive occasion, to check our emails or social media when we know we shouldn’t have. But why do we do it? Why do we feel compelled to sneak a peek at our phone even when we know it’s rude while in the presence of others or it may cause us to lose our concentration in a critical meeting. This is the world of “Always On”. “Always On” is the concept of our being in constant proximity to our smartphone, computer, or tablet where we feel a frequent inner urge to look and check in with that technological device which is always close to hand.

Intrigued by this phenomenon, we sought some insights from UM’s panel of preselected, academic psychologists about “Always On.” These psychologists come mainly from U.S. universities and similar institutions, and are typically leading professors and thinkers in their field. The panel pointed to academic findings that emerged last year – the culprit is dopamine.

In responding to calls, emails, texts, social media, etc., our electronic devices play to a primitive impulse to react to immediate threats and dangers. Our responding to that call, email or social media post provokes excitement and stimulates the release of dopamine to the brain. Little by little, we become addicted to its small kick in regular, minute doses. In its absence, people feel bored.

Dopamine is a hormone, a neurotransmitter, associated with the pleasure system of the brain. It reinforces certain activities and habits, which in turn creates habituation. Drugs such as cocaine, nicotine and crystal meth induce exceptionally large releases of dopamine, which is a testament to the addictive powers of the hormone.

This led us to ask the burning question: Is being “Always On” bad for us? To this, the panel of psychologists cited Sigmund Freud’s book, Civilization and Its Discontents, where Freud contends that since the dawn of man every technological advance has been met with a level of resistance and skepticism. For example, the ancient Greek scholar, Socrates, riled against the idea of writing because he argued it could destroy our motivation and need to memorize.

Nevertheless, “Always On” does cause unwanted modern-day anxieties. For example:

– It creates loss aversion when we are deprived of access to our smartphone.

– There is the stress of connecting with friends via social networks which is especially true for younger individuals where it may fire up:

– Jealously, e.g. a teenage girl’s boyfriend may “friend” another girl she doesn’t like, or

– Ostracism, e.g. a teen boy may see his friends organizing an event where he’s inadvertently not invited.

– Sexting, where even senior public figures who really should know better get caught.

We then probed further: is “Always On” bad for brands? Intriguingly, the psychologists on the panel said that the distractions created by “Always On” should not have to adversely impact strong brands. “Always On” increases on the simplicity for (younger) consumers to compare brands, making the best decision with regard to price, features, etc. They elaborated further and explained that “sticking with one good brand is cognitively easier than switching from brand to brand.”

Equally, mediocre brands and bland marketing communications may flounder in the new media ecology. Brand loyalty takes on a completely new perspective for many brands: “It’s less about driving customer loyalty to a brand and more about a brand being loyal to customer.” How many brands can rise to the marketing challenge of proving to consumers they are in it for the long-haul?

For brand communication, it’s about ensuring decision making is easy, pleasurable and emotionally rewarding. By emotionally rewarding, we mean it is essential to follow the most fundamental messaging ethos: “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle!” Or as Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt famously noted, “People don’t want quarter inch drills, they want quarter inch holes.”

So “Always On” doesn’t have to be a quagmire for brand communications, but brand managers do need a powerful internal gyroscope to ensure a brand’s enduring qualities are clearly visible to uphold the brand’s abilities and to exceed consumer expectations over the savageries of time.

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