Dave woke up to his alarm and hit snooze. After repeating this three times, he finally grabbed his phone and sat up to greet the day. He looked at the latest weather and headlines, exchanged texts with his girlfriend, played a few rounds of his favorite game and then rolled out of bed to get ready for work. The subway was busier than usual so he tucked into a corner and caught up on his social media feeds. When he arrived, he scanned the large open office, filled with rows and rows of desks. Most people were already fixated on their computer screens, many wearing headphones to combat the constant din in the room. He settled into his workstation, opened his laptop and went online. He noticed with a sense of dread that he already had twenty new emails, five marked urgent, and a bunch of questions on the team messenger app. Everyone was asking about his progress on the latest project he’d been assigned. But he was having a tough time with this one. He just couldn’t seem to generate any new ideas. It wasn’t just writer’s block – he knew what that felt like and always knew it would pass. But this felt different and it didn’t seem to be passing. It had been going on for days, maybe for weeks. In fact, for so long that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an original idea. He didn’t know why this was happening but he had to figure it out and fix it – fast. His success depended on creativity and without it, he knew his job and future would suffer.
Dave isn’t alone in his struggle with creativity. And I’m sure the number of people who can relate to Dave’s situation is growing, every day. If you search Google using the term “how to improve creativity,” you will see 162 million results. It’s a popular topic. “How to develop creativity and innovation” yields 98 million results and “techniques to enhance creativity” has over 80 million results. It’s clear that there are many people seeking answers to this problem. And, though there are many good solutions, there is one that stands out and is, I think, more important than all the rest. Boredom.
Boredom sounds boring and it is boring. Which is why we usually try to avoid it. But boredom is a crucial ingredient for creativity. Science has shown that allowing our minds to wander leads to better creative problem solving. When we daydream, our mind starts accessing memories, emotions and random information, allowing us to see things with a new perspective. Often, this is when we figure out a solution to a problem or come up with a new thought. These eureka moments happen when we access an internal attention system in our brain called the default state network. This particular state of mind is only engaged when we are not involved in a task that requires focused attention. But these days, we are spending more and more time on those tasks requiring our attention as we spend more time on our devices.
A Nielsen study in early 2017 found that the average time American adults spend consuming media (in all forms) totaled 11 hours and 36 minutes per day. In other words, time spent on all devices combined has ballooned to almost half of the 24 hours we have for sleeping, working and doing all the things we need to get by, such as eating. How has it come to this? Well, the days when we would listen to the radio on our commute and watch an hour or two of TV after dinner are gone. Now we fill all the little empty bits of our day with content of one type or another. The ability of technology to catch our attention and keep us engaged has created a desire for distraction that few can ignore. It’s so strong that some people would rather be mildly electrocuted than be left alone with nothing to do, as a study in 2014 proved. But this distraction is costing us more than just time. It’s also costing us our creativity. And, if we don’t do something about it, we’ll end up like Dave.
So if you want to improve your creativity, allow yourself to be bored. Encourage your brain to kick into the default state by spending time doing simple external tasks that don’t require focused attention. Fold the laundry, walk your dog or go sit in a park. Make sure you don't succumb to the lure of your devices at the first sign of boredom. They are great for feeding our distraction but not for feeding our creativity.
I recently read an article on LinkedIn where the author said she thinks the concept of brands will fade. She cited the rise of bots (e.g. Amazon’s Alexa) and the sharing economy as two forces that will render branding irrelevant. She also suggested that the concept of ‘unbranding’ is on the rise and gave two examples. Like many people who posted comments below the article, I have to disagree with her point of view.
I think the need for branding will continue to be vital. Yes, brands will face challenges, as consumer behavior and consumption patterns change due to technology. But branding is what a company stands for. It’s their value proposition to the consumer and, if done well, it’s clearly communicated and consistently delivered through the products and/or services a company provides. People buy from brands that deliver a value proposition that addresses their needs, which can be rational or emotional, or both. I just don’t see that changing.
To illustrate, let’s look at one of the examples of ‘unbranding’ the author identified in her article. It is a company called Brandless and yet, all their products are branded Brandless. Confusing, no? This company has a clearly defined value proposition, as outlined on their About Us page, which includes both functional and emotional benefits. So Brandless does stand for something and, therefore, is a brand. Currently, their products are only available through their website. But if Brandless were to expand their distribution and their products were available elsewhere, I bet their customers would still buy them. That’s because their customers understand what Brandless stands for and it meets their needs. That’s branding at work.
Yes, there are some categories where branding is less effective and required – a pencil, for example. The needs of consumers in those categories are very basic and the products have typically become commodities. And that’s always been the case. However, in many categories, consumers want more than a generic product from a faceless company. In fact, one thing consumers seem to be seeking more of from brands is meaning. The role of social causes looks to be on the rise in North America, according to two recent studies, especially among Millenials.
A recent Ipsos study showed that Canadians are more concerned than ever about corporate social initiatives. Half of Canadians are very interested in which causes companies support (up 4% since 2016). Almost half of consumers are loyal to brands that support good causes (48%, also up 4% from 2016). The brands that consumers think of first for their social efforts – Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s – have a long history of giving back and it has become a strong part of their branding.
In the US, a study called the Enso’s World Value Index shows that consumer preference for brands with meaning is even stronger among Millenials than older generations. This research looks at how Americans identify a brand’s purpose, how much that purpose aligns with their values and how much that purpose motivates brand advocacy and purchase. Brands that performed well with Millenials have clear, established missions, such as Starbucks and Honest Company. Given the size of the Millenial generation, having this kind of consumer connection can contribute greatly to a brand’s success, now and in the future.
Though ‘doing good’ can be rewarding for many brands, it’s crucial to stay true and consistent over time. There have been too many examples of brands who took a stand for or against something and then were exposed as frauds. The repercussions often outweigh any goodwill that a brand has built. A recent example is the financial firm behind the status of the fearless girl on Wall Street, which was caught underpaying women and minorities.
As you can see, I strongly believe that branding is here to stay. Technology will continue to change how we buy goods and services but it won’t change our desire to connect. Branding done well is how smart companies create and foster that connection. And, ultimately, that connection leads to sales.
Vacations are a wonderful way to take a break from our everyday lives and experience something new and different. And, with the help of technology, we can now easily share our adventures with others from almost anywhere in the world. But at what point does our sharing detract from the richness of the experience we are seeking? Over the last few years, I think I finally reached that point.
I always take my camera with me when I go away so I was shocked to realize I’d forgotten to pack it when we went to Japan a couple of years ago. It turned out alright though, as I had my iPhone and the camera app did a fine job of capturing everything I wanted. Having all my photos on my smartphone made it so easy to share what we saw and did on social media throughout the day. It was great for keeping everyone up to date and I loved reading people’s reactions. Forgetting my camera turned out to be a blessing, I thought.
So when we went to China last year, I purposely left my camera behind. I like to travel light and it was one more thing I didn’t have to carry or worry about. But when I got home and looked back on those two trips, I noticed something had changed. I spent more time online, sharing in the moment, than on prior trips. As a result, my days of exploring were frequently interrupted when I was selecting photos, editing, writing and looking for wifi. Plus, once I was online, I would often find myself being sucked into my social media feed and losing track of time.
When I considered the time and attention all this was taking, and the frequency with which I was doing it, it was clear that sharing was impacting the quality of my vacation. I wanted to spend more time being present so I could immerse myself more and soak up every detail of my time away. Something needed to change. I wanted to share my adventures but not at this price.
So when we went to Spain and Portugal recently, I came up with a plan. Once again, I took my iPhone and left my camera at home. The problem wasn’t the tools I was using - it was my behavior that needed to change. I took lots of photos when we ventured out each day but I stayed off social media. Then, every night or two, I would write an update and post it to Facebook, with a few of my favourite photos. I chose Facebook versus other social channels I use because it‘s so quick and easy to post text and photos. At the same time, I would check comments from my last post and see what others were up to. A key point to note is that I kept my time online to an hour max. each evening. All this allowed me to share and stay connected, without taking away from what we were experiencing on our travels.
This approach provided additional benefits I hadn’t anticipated. My husband helped me write the re-cap, which gave us the opportunity to reflect on the day we’d had and what we took away from it - something we hadn’t done on past trips. And because I waited until we were back in our accommodations, I could take advantage of the free wifi. Also, since I have family or friends who aren’t on social media (shocking, I know, but it’s true), it was quick and easy to copy my updates from Facebook into an email to send them.
Part of me would just love to leave my iPhone at home when I travel so I could completely disconnect from the online world. But that’s getting harder and harder to do as everything migrates online. Not only that, everything is better and more convenient in its online form - maps, guidebooks, etc. However, having access to all that information in the palm of our hand can also be too convenient. It’s important that we remember why we take vacations in the first place – whether it’s for a change, for a break or for adventure. Smartphones are great tools but we can easily become absorbed by them if we don’t use them consciously. Remember that on your next vacation and make sure you use your phone mindfully. It should help you with your travels, not diminish them.
I have a curious mind and many interests. I like to spend time musing about things and this is where some of my musings end up. I would love to hear from you if you have a thought or question you'd like to add. Conversation is always appreciated.