In the current society, feeling lonely seems quite impossible. Modern technology and social media allow people to connect to each other more than ever before. However, even with this super connectivity and further intensified by the current pandemic, so many are feeling desperately lonely.
From the 1970s, the concept of loneliness has taken a greater meaning and researchers have investigated thoroughly the phenomenon, its causes and the possible ways to tackle it. One of the first definition of loneliness was described by Perlman and Peplau (1981) who identified it as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either quantitively or qualitatively” (cited in de Jong Gierveld et al., 2006). To explain this, loneliness can be portrayed as the feeling we experience when our need for social contact is not met, when we are not able to create or foster relationships. However, it is important to acknowledge that people can feel lonely even when they have strong relationships with others, but they might experience such phenomenon because they do not feel understood or cared by the people around (www.mind.org.uk, 2020).
The discussion on whether social media are fostering social relationships or rather damaging them has been an ongoing debate from their conception. On one hand, studies suggest that social media are a useful tool to create and foster positive relationships while on the other hand, there is a strong belief that social media have become substitutes for real-life interactions. Then further research, as the one carried out by Nowland et al. (2017), propose that social media can tackle loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships, but it is counterproductive if it is used to escape from the social world. In fact, it actually increases feelings of loneliness. According to Nowland et al. (2017), lonely people tend to avoid offline interactions and have a preference for online social connections that, strongly increase their loneliness. An explanation for this could be that lonely people might feel more comfortable and in control when they are in the online platforms. However, these people might need support with their internet use so to employ it in a way that actually foster existing offline relationships.
Regardless of the debate on social media and how they should be used, there is a large amount of research that show the influence of loneliness over our lives. In fact, loneliness has a strong negative impact on our mental health, and it can be associated with several mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and stress (www.mind.org.uk, 2020). Interestingly, loneliness also has a great impact over our behaviour as consumers. In fact, lonely people are believed to shop differently from those who do not experience such phenomenon.
It has been suggested that lonely consumers utilise the shopping experience in a compensatory way. Lonely consumers attempt to fulfil those interpersonal needs unmet in life, they try to generate social interaction through the shopping experiences (Long et al., 2015). Possibly due to this reason, it is understandable why several studies have found loneliness to reinforce materialism and vice versa. As previously reported, lonely people might start buying impulsively to fulfil that inner unsatisfaction generated by the lack of social relationships. (Long et al., 2015). However, such satisfaction might not last long as these consumers tend to quickly regret the purchases done (Krasny, 2011). Due to this reason, as explained by Long et al. (2015), these consumers might fell in the so-called “material trap” for which materialism leads to loneliness that then leads to greater materialism. In this context, it is quite obvious that retail therapy might not be a good option for this type of costumers.
Lonely consumers might also differentiate in terms of the products they buy. For instance, they are found to prefer nostalgic products as nostalgic consumption can enhance a sense of belongingness (Kim, 2017). A further interesting element related to lonely consumers’ consumption is that when these people are allowed to express their preferences, they usually distance from the products preferred by the majority of the consumers. They select those products that are not usually chosen, that fit with their feeling of loneliness and of being part of a minority (Wang et al., 2012). These consumers feel unique and they want to buy unique products, those that deviate from the norm.
However, if the purchase is done in a social setting, these consumers might become anxious about other people and, therefore, choose the product selected by the majority. Unfortunately, this can lead later to huge dissatisfaction as it may create the possibility of a troubling mismatch between buying decisions and actual preferences (Wang et al., 2012).
This type of consumers might also have a different relationship with brands than the rest of the population. Lonely consumers might negatively associate with brands that solely provide automated experiences such as self-service checkouts. In fact, automated experiences deprive them of the desired social contact (Long et al., 2015). A further interesting factor is that lonely consumers might support those brands that use faces in their imagery as previous research has found that lonely people tend to prefer products that have faces on the packaging (Halnon, 2017). Moreover, the effect of loneliness is quite negative for those brands that a consumer has used successfully. In fact, loneliness lead consumer to give more negative evaluations of preferred brands (Long et al., 2015). Loneliness brings people to distance from those brands with whom they have a satisfying pre-existing relationship.
As a growing number of people are feeling at least slightly lonely and many report being often or always lonely, with this number further increasing due to the lockdowns (ONS, 2020), it is pertinent that brand managers and marketers start looking into how they can adjust their communication to alleviate such feelings.
As our review of research showed, the impact on brand relationships, sales and shopping satisfaction is tremendous. Taking into account mental health of your customers is no joke. It is not anymore nice to have, it is essential to success.
We can understand it can’t always be easy to ensure that your marketing, customer experience and service are not only effective in selling and building brand awareness but also have a positive impact on your customers’ mental health. That is why we are here.
We would love to hear how you are navigating this challenging terrain. Share your successes and learnings so that we can all be better and create a less lonely world.
De Jong Gierveld, J., van Tilburg, T., & Dykstra, P.A. (2006). Loneliness and Social Isolation. In D. Perlman & A. Vangelisti. (2006). The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships, 485-500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Halnon, E. (2017). Seeing people on a package can improve product sales. AroundtheO Retrieved from: https://around.uoregon.edu/content/study-seeing-people-package-can-improve-product-sales
Kim, J. (2017). When, How, and Why Does Loneliness Influence Consumer Behaviour? Retrieved from: https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/77519/Kim_J_D_2017.pdf?sequence=1
Krasny, J. (2011). Study: Lonely consumers are wasting money on things they don’t even like. Business Insider. Retrieved from: https://www.businessinsider.com/study-lonely-consumers-waste-money-on-a-lot-of-crap-they-dont-even-like-2011-12?r=US&IR=T
Long, C.R., Yoon, S., & Friedman, M. (2015). How lonely consumers relate to brands. In Fournier, S., Breazeale, M.J., & Avery, J. (2015). Strong brands, strong relationships. Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=it&lr=&id=ZVjeCQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT121&dq=How+lonely+consumers+relate+to+brands:+Insights+from+psychological+and+marketing+research.&ots=eVeeutmlxO&sig=7LgNVy9afhWAmpHoRIoyyQ8G5ho&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=How%20lonely%20consumers%20relate%20to%20brands%3A%20Insights%20from%20psychological%20and%20marketing%20research.&f=false
Mind.Org.UK. (2020). Loneliness Retrieved from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/loneliness/about-loneliness/
Nowland, R., Necka, E.A., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2017). Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 70-87.
ONS (2020) ‘Coronavirus and loneliness’ https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandlonelinessgreatbritain/3aprilto3may2020
Wang, J., Zhu, R., & Shiv, B. (2012). The lonely consumers: loner or conformer? Journal of Consumer research, 38(6), 1116-1128.