Brands Spot Opportunity in Helping Consumers Unplug

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When was the last time you were offline for more than a quick subway journey? And did it make you feel anxious -- or did you enjoy a sense of liberation from the tyranny of hyper-connectivity?

McDonald's Arabia promotes a day offline.
McDonald's Arabia promotes a day offline.

Most consumers rely so heavily on multi-screen search, email and social networks for negotiating their personal and professional lives that there is a growing desire to take a break from being "always on" -- and brands are tapping into that trend.

Zoe Lazarus, partner at Lowe Counsel, calls it the "New Esc." She said, "It's not about rejection of technology, it's about finding better ways to master it so we can remain its master and not its servant."

Ms. Lazarus cites the example of McDonald's Arabia, which aired TV ads by Leo Burnett Dubai to promote Sept. 28 as "A day offline." Against a backdrop of kids playing, McDonald's urged, "It's their day. No phones, no emails, no distractions... Family time forever."

In Sweden, telecommunications company Telia created a branded app that disables the internet for a set amount of time, as well as building internet-free pods to encourage relaxation. In Germany, Volkswagen blocks work emails to employees sent more than 30 minutes before or after a shift.

The trend can also be seen in Chivas Regal's "Here's to Big Bear" short film by Havas Worldwide London, where four friends are stranded at a remote train station. The lack of WiFi or cell reception sends them on an adventure that creates lasting memories.

Tetley Tea and MediaVest harnessed the tea brand's association with downtime in its "Make time, make Tetley" campaign, becoming the first brand in the U.K. to use a new Ad Pause function in August 2012. (The "Make Time" campaign was done by London agency Dare). When viewers of 4OD (Channel 4's online catch-up service) paused a show, they were presented not with a frozen screen, but with an animated vignette showing a cartoon man who encourages them to go off and have a cup of tea. He asks: "Paused for a cuppa?"

In the U.K., telecom brand Orange has had long-term success with "Orange Wednesdays," where subscribers are lured offline by old-fashioned entertainment like dinner and a movie with two-for-one deals on meals and movie tickets. They even get a warning to turn off their phones inside the theater.

Katrien DeBauw, managing director of Orange's agency, Fallon, said, "It's been so successful because Orange does it in an endearing, self-deprecating way -- it's not about telling people what to do and teaching them a lesson. Plus we are giving them an engaging experience in return."

The key lies in offering a reward, according to Ryan Newey, founder of independent agency Fold 7. He warned, "Brands jumping on the bandwagon without a relevant product or ownable alternative engagement should be wary of encouraging disconnection from this hyper-connected generation."

For James Broomfield, a strategy director at Mother London, digital detoxing is no different from city folk taking some country air. He said, "It is simply a modern-day manifestation of what it is to take a break or a holiday. The brands that will profit most are those that don't even need to reference a 'digital detox' at all, those who can provide the kind of experiences that will see customers willfully go off the grid without having to be asked. After all, it is the transformative moments that we are looking for, not simply the act of switching off a phone."

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