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Consumers are unplugging. Brands and marketers, your move.

People are unplugging not only as a "digital detox”, but also because they're being pushed to buy things they don’t need. What next?

unplugging consumers marketers brand marketing advertising GenZ

“I’m unplugging for a bit,” my godchild told me a few weeks ago – when I said that I was going to join Campaign Middle East, a title that closely follows how brands and marketers influence, persuade, and vie for people’s time and attention, especially on social media. “It will be low-key awesome if you ask people why we have become sus about clout. Time for brands to stop selling to us like we’re delulu,” she added.

The casual conversation began with a debate on whether influencer marketing is actually “influencing” my godchild and her peers at university who are now entering the workforce, and deciding where to spend their genuinely hard-earned money.

As all good conversations do, this one segued into broader banter with opinions voiced that brands and marketers seem stuck in “escape rooms” (sic) and echo chambers with millennials and GenX, without taking the viewpoints of younger generations into consideration.

Unsurprisingly, conversations around the Rotonde and The Palais at Cannes Lions echoed these thoughts. The global brand building and marketing community agreed to the fact that there is insufficient targeted research to understand the effectiveness of campaigns on Gen Z and Gen Alpha.

The unplugging trend, which began as a “detox” for mental health and well-being seems to have become more nuanced in its approach, with Gen Z pulling the plug on social media because marketers are attempting to sell them things they don’t actually need.

Relevant to the Middle East?

Yes, the unplugging sentiment had now been sounded in the safe space of a home, and expressed across the halls of the global community at Cannes – but how relevant was this to the Middle East region?

When I raised the question, Mary Smiddy, business lead at MSL Group Middle East, said, “The trend of Gen Z consumers seeking to unplug from social media platforms and reduce their screen time is noticeable, whether this is through a digital detox, switching to ‘dumb phones’ or completely removing themselves digitally.”

“The boundary between work and personal life on digital devices has become increasingly blurred, this paired with the filtered and perfectly curated content shared on these platforms, result in consumers experiencing burnout and becoming tired of their screens,” she added.

Can we take a moment to pause … and truly take in why this is concerning?

How often have marketers in the Middle East read the statistic smartphone penetration in the Middle East is at an all-time high with close to 99 per cent of the population under the age of 30 owning a smartphone and active on social media – especially in the UAE and Saudi Arabia?

But if we’re getting the basics wrong, will this see a bearish trend? A recent survey conducted by YouGov found that 58 per cent of Gen Z in the Middle East are actively trying to reduce their time spent on social media. This indicates a growing awareness among young consumers in the region about the potential negative impacts of excessive digital consumption – rising from a lack of authenticity and clear brand purpose and positioning.

Mary Smiddy explained, “The implications of unplugging are significant for brands and marketers targeting Gen Z audiences. As consumers prioritise mental health and seek to establish boundaries with technology, brands need to adapt their communication strategies accordingly. Authenticity and transparency are key factors that resonate with this audience as they continue to consumer less content online.”

“By acknowledging and responding to the unplugging trend among Gen Z consumers, brands have the opportunity to foster deeper connections and trust with their audience. Emphasising real and transparent content across a variety of platforms, promoting mindfulness, and promoting offline experiences can help brands stay connected with consumers and align with the changing behaviours and preferences of this demographic,” Smiddy added.

To pivot or leave them alone? That is the question

A few industry experts spoke to me off the record, while others shared their opinions more openly.

Those that preferred not to be quoted said that Gen Z has made it a habit to spend time on their screens, whether it is phones, tablets, or gaming devices. To solve the problem of unplugging, brands and marketers need to understand that Gen Z are “making a statement”, asking for a sense of connection and community with the brand, rather than being “push notified” to engage with a brand, buy a product, or invest time and money in a service that is not relevant to them.

Others called for a pivot. They commented that while important to get brand and marketing right, it’s also possibly time to consider reaching Gen Z in a more organic way on channels where they prefer to be reached.

Have we spoken to more regional brands in the Middle East about engaging with consumers on Roblox, Fortnite, TikTok, or even Pinterest? – a marketing and communications leader asked me.

An interesting question, given the fact that Pinterest only this week offered advertisers in the MENA markets the opportunity to find, reach, and connect with fresh audiences using Pinterest performance advertising solutions for the first time.

Laura Gleadhill, general manager at Keyade Middle East, part of GroupM MENA, said, “Gen Z can be a hard population to reach and if they continue to remain off social media then reaching them through this channel would be more difficult.

“We would need to look into alternatives, and I think there is more of these in the market. With Pinterest newly arriving in MENA for advertising this could be a great opportunity, given this isn’t a traditional social media site. It also highlights the importance of diversifying and testing new things (DOOH, gaming, CTV), what worked for you yesterday won’t necessarily work for you in a month,” Gleadhill added.

Mohammad El Tayech, strategic planner at TBWA\RAAD, said, “ We know that Gen Z is a very social generation. They spend more time on different social platforms, and they’re more likely to try new and upcoming platforms. Just look at Jaco in Saudi.

“At the same time, they’re looking forward to different events and moments that do require them to unplug; and being part of those is vital for brands so that they can establish a relevant and emotional connection to a generation that’s difficult to connect with in the first place.”

The rest remains open-ended:
– What will it take to plug GenZ back in?

– Has the time come for marketers to be make brand messaging more meaningful, add real value, and bridge a real market gap rather than merely attempting to raise revenues through sales?

– Has the time come for heads of brands and CMOs to be more agile and flexible and pivot faster at the speed of culture?

If you have the answers, I’d love to hear from you. You know where to reach me: [email protected]