Picture: 123RF/ALEKSANDR DAVYDOV
Picture: 123RF/ALEKSANDR DAVYDOV

The word “empathy” is being used increasingly in relation to brands. “We need more empathy in marketing right now” was an Adweek headline earlier this year, while Fast Company said: “Empathy is core to closing the customer experience gap.” 

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings or experiences, which suggests, in the case of brands, a keen understanding of the problem the brand is trying to solve. 

But empathy cannot simply be superimposed on a brand’s offering. Empathy doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all list of requirements that can be tick-boxed and marked as completed. Instead, an empathetic approach to brand activities requires a collective mind shift that places the customer/user at the very centre of the offering. Designing, creating, branding and marketing with empathy is about prioritising the needs, desires and preferences of the human at the receiving end, first and foremost. 

Empathy to drown out the noise

Estimates vary, but there is at least some consensus that suggests that people are exposed to upwards of 6,000 brands each day. That means brands compete with at least 5,999 other brands in that time to get the attention of their customers. Empathy, when thoughtfully and effectively applied, can serve as a filter that helps drown out the noise to allow a brand to stand out. 

Empathy is showing customers that brands “get them” in a way that the others don’t. Brands that understand the value of empathy engage their customers in a more thoughtful way, ensuring that the brand feels like an authentic response to their needs. Empathy says: “We get what you want and need; here’s how we can help you have it”, as opposed to a “look at what we do, we think you need this” approach to marketing. 

Empathy to demonstrate authenticity 

Today’s consumers expect more from brands than ever before, and because digital channels allow for so much connection and transparency, brands have little choice but to ensure their offering aligns with who they claim to be and delivers on what they promise. This kind of authenticity is fundamental to ensuring a brand’s credibility in 2021 and beyond, and empathy is vital to demonstrating this commitment to authenticity. 

“The Power of Authenticity” report, issued by FleishmanHillard, talks about the importance for brands of “knowing the right time to stand up, the right issue to champion and the right words to say”.  This means being authentic – and empathetic – as a way of being in the world, not just as a marketing stunt. The report also found that 64% of consumers it surveyed “believe a company must talk about its behaviour and impact on society, and not just the customer benefits it offers”. Empathy is thus not just about demonstrating a keen understanding of its customers’ needs, but also engaging its environment with empathy.

We need to ensure that the campaigns and communications that brands put out align authentically with what they claim to be and the promises they make, as this, too, is a form of empathy. 

Empathy in action 

It’s hard, if not impossible, to fake empathy. Customers today are savvy and well-informed, and they have a smartphone in their hands, which means there is no room for a half-hearted attempt at empathy. 

One source describes brand empathy as “a shared journey between your brand and its audience”. It suggests that it “involves a deeper connection to and understanding of that audience on an emotional level”. In practice this means taking the time to develop the “inner life” of the brand, to put in the work (especially at the beginning) that ensures the brand will be able to forge connections with its audience by showing compassion, selling a solution or a concept rather than a product per se, and being real. 

The empathetic characteristics and features of one brand cannot simply be imposed on another. Each needs to be individually considered, weighted, applied and nurtured. But the most resilient brands are the ones that time and again demonstrate a keen understanding of the needs, ideals and preferences of those they are trying to connect with. 

Shaune Jordaan is co-founder and chief commercial officer at Hoorah Digital.  

The big take-out:

The most resilient brands are the ones that time and again demonstrate a keen understanding of the needs, ideals and preferences of those they are trying to connect with.

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