Melanie Nambiar
Melanie is Mintel's Southeast Asia Trends Analyst based in the Kuala Lumpur office, focusing on how intriguing innovations and thought-provoking regulations impact consumer behaviour in the region and vice versa.

Mintel has been at the forefront of predicting the trends that matter most, calling them early and accurately, over the last 15 years. Earlier last year, we revealed Mintel Trend ‘Social Isolation’ as a key consumer trend to impact industries and markets worldwide in 2019 and beyond. Here, we take a look at how this trend has progressed in Asia-Pacific over the past year.

Technological advancements are providing consumers today with an unprecedented level of convenience. They have become dependent on their smartphones, now more than ever before, to stay entertained, in touch, informed and on top of things.

Because everyone and everything is now just a click away, there has been less of a need for people to acquire new knowledge from face-to-face conversations. These shifts are reducing opportunities for people to build connections with others through work and social activities.

Since early 2011, Mintel Trend ‘Switch Off’ has been tracking how brands around the world are urging people to reacquaint themselves with the analogue world.

In 2012, Social Rehab, a community-based initiative from Singapore, created what they called ‘Social Rehab Toolkits’ which included glasses with lenses that matched an Instagram filter, ‘Like’ stickers, as well as notepads. Social Rehab partnered with a local restaurant to challenge patrons to go phone-free for an evening by turning digital activities into playful offline interactions. With the notepads, for instance, customers were encouraged to write down messages instead of updating their statuses online.

We’ve seen brands big and small introduce initiatives like digital detox retreats and phone bans in eateries to help consumers reconnect with the real world.

Loneliness as the focus

While the use of digital technology can facilitate connections with others, it can also create feelings of isolation and frustration despite being ‘connected’ online. We’re seeing evidence of this in the Asia-Pacific region: in Thailand, a third of urban consumers say that being ‘connected’ (on their devices or social media) increases their stress levels; and the same applies to three in 10 urban Indonesians.

In 2019, we launched the Mintel Trend ‘Social Isolation’, which highlights another important factor—changing societal structures—that is giving rise to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In Asia-Pacific, society is becoming increasingly focused on independence and individualism, and while this is enabling many consumers to achieve their career and personal goals, people are less likely to live near or with a partner, family or friends. Single-person households are increasing, and isolation rates are becoming higher. According to Mintel research on marketing to China’s singles, one-third of single Chinese consumers feel that marriage is not a necessary component for a complete life.

Loneliness is increasingly coming into focus, cutting across cultures, genders, social classes and age groups. It is creating significant levels of depression and mental health afflictions, and people are gradually looking for help to feel less isolated and more connected within both their physical and virtual communities.

Supporting society

Forward-thinking companies in Asia-Pacific are beginning to recognise that loneliness and social isolation is a major issue to tackle in the region. The city of Busan in South Korea is expected to pass its first city ordinance to address loneliness. Once the ordinance has been passed, a ‘loneliness index’ will develop and a ‘loneliness committee’ will be organised to treat lonely citizens and promote happiness.

Over in New Zealand, the world’s first ‘wellbeing budget’ has just passed, whereby the government will use its spending to improve certain social outcomes and intergenerational issues, including supporting mental health, particularly among young people.

In Singapore and Malaysia, insurance group AIA has launched the region’s first insurance policy that offers coverage for mental illnesses. AIA’s move to launch such a policy is a breakthrough in the market as it allows people to get adequate coverage and the support they need to get through the challenges of being diagnosed with a mental illness.

Turning to tech

In East Asia, where social and economic forces are exacerbating the region’s loneliness problem, Mintel has spotted a number of brands that are creating AI companions to fill the emotional gap that stems from social isolation. Japan, in particular, is leading the way in terms of technological innovations that provide emotional support.

For instance, TDK has developed its ‘BonsAI’—a plant equipped with AI technology that can listen to people’s problems and act as an advisor by holding conversations through an equipped speaker. Meanwhile, the Novera mirror which has gone viral in Japan, combines a monitor, camera and speaker to provide lonely women with a male companion, with the device designed to read emotions and change the way it interacts with users depending on their responses.

Suffering in silence

Despite the progression we’re seeing from brands, social isolation and mental health issues, in general, are still highly trivialised and stigmatised in many Asian societies. Oftentimes, seeking medical help to deal with mental health issues takes a lot of courage and is often frowned upon, causing people to forgo the care they need altogether.

Governments, companies and brands must continue to bring attention to mental illnesses and loneliness as a real problem, and work towards reducing the stigma attached to these issues. Brands have the real possibility of playing a key role in contributing to the betterment of consumers’ mental wellbeing, but must be brave enough to implement policies or create campaigns that tackle these issues head-on.