Earlier this year, Samsung unveiled a spectacular new offering, NEON, at the much awaited Annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at Las Vegas. NEON was the talk of the show, because it was an “artificial human”.

Unlike an AI assistant or chatbot, which merely provides answers to queries, NEON is a virtual being that behaves like a real human companion who can be a friend, display emotions, converse and even sympathise with you. NEON is not meant to replace human jobs, but on the other hand, it could help combat loneliness. It could offer human-like company to the elderly, the sick and the lonely. It could be their confidant, or just their gossip partner. In other words, NEON will serve lonely people.

A problem crying for solutions

With Neon, Samsung has perhaps zoned in on a big human problem that is crying out for solutions — because loneliness is a major trend, and growing rapidly. Consider these statistics. In India, 7.5 per cent of homes have single parents. There is an annual migration of 9 million people from rural to urban India, which often means breaking down of family units.

Worldwide, life expectancy has been rising steadily, and already stands at 68 years in India today. This means more elderly people suffering loss of their spouse, and living alone thereafter for longer periods of time. A Euro Monitor study now projects a 128 per cent growth in single-person households over the next decade.

In addition to all this demographic data, late marriages contribute to loneliness, as do smaller families.

Yet another factor is our increasing addiction to our digital devices — which, over a long period of time, can lead to isolation and loneliness. But what should really concern us is that loneliness is not merely emotionally painful, it can lead to many other significant problems.

Isolation triggers health issues

Loneliness can lead to psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety and even hallucinatory delirium. There is evidence that social isolation triggers cellular changes that can result in chronic inflammation, which can, in turn, increase predisposition to physical conditions like heart disease and stroke.

A recent study has stated that loneliness and social isolation are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And, according to the 2016 Viceland UK census, loneliness is the number one fear of young people today. For instance, 42 per cent of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than of a cancer diagnosis. No wonder then that the need to reduce or eliminate loneliness from our lives has become such an important human want today. As the evidence above shows, this need cuts across diverse segments — elderly and young, single parents and digital addicts.

Clearly, where there is such a significant need, there is also a profitable opportunity to provide solutions. Marketers have already been waking up to this opportunity, as the new Samsung NEON shows us. But the field is led not just by technology gadgets. Here are a few other products and services, from relatively conventional areas, that cater to this important need.

Enter cafes and malls

Many cafes and malls provide perfect locations to drive away loneliness. In fact, some of my friends tell me that they are unable to work or read in the lonely confines of their homes, but when they enter a café, the buzz around them makes the loneliness go away instantly. That’s one reason that modern cafes provide nooks and corners, and tables for singles — they provide people space, but also the buzz.

Similarly, malls or public plazas offer us cool spaces, with lots of people around, also occasional music, comedy or other crowded events — again, perfect momentary antidotes to loneliness, which succeed in pulling in lots of people, who then also shop around.

Shared hotel spaces

Last year, Marriott International rolled out its Studio Commons concept at select locations, which allows groups of guests to stay in their individual hotel rooms and simultaneously enjoy shared kitchens and living room areas, where they can meet and interact with one another.

Guests have the privacy of their rooms, but when they wish to drive their loneliness blues away, they can drop in at the common kitchens, cook together or enjoy team cooking classes, relax together in the common living area, or even go on a group nature trek together.

This innovative communal living concept leverages the insight that many travellers crave connections and inspirational group travel experiences. In other words, here is a hotel that takes your loneliness away.

Soft drinks that connect

Brands also use communication campaigns to connect powerfully with this consumer segment. In October 2019, the soft drink brand Sprite launched a campaign called “You are not alone” in Latin America.

The brand worked with Google to identify personal issues of concern to young people, and then opened forums on Reddit to allow young people to connect with others, and engage in discussions on topics that were sensitive, yet relevant. Each such forum was led by an influencer who had experience in the issue being discussed. The campaign was a big success, precisely because the need for such connections is so high.

These interesting examples, extending from high technology products to hotel rooms to soft drinks, show us how marketers across the spectrum can contribute towards this big, emerging human need of warding off loneliness, and making human connections. Many years ago, the Beatles sang of “All the lonely people”. Today, marketers can take inspiration from yet another song written by this legendary music band, to say, “Come together”.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views. He acknowledges inputs from Kavita Mahto in the writing of this article. bhatharish@hotmail.com

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