Why empathy is the most underrated weapon in the marketer’s arsenal today

In a 2014 New York Times article, Sam Tanenhaus argued that millennials were ‘Generation Nice’. He pointed to shopping habits (millennials prefer chemical-free goods and ‘disposable’ clothing) and food choices (vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free eating has become increasingly popular). He concluded that ‘these habits and tastes look less like narcissism than communalism. Its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but empathy.’

Whatever you think of this view, there’s no doubt that with the rise of millennials, the role of empathy in different areas of day-to-day life is receiving renewed attention. Marketing is no different—but empathy in marketing isn’t a nice-to-have or just another string to your bow. It’s the most underrated weapon in the marketer’s arsenal.

For marketers, empathy has a direct impact on quality of work. To know your target consumers, as well as your competition in the market, you need empathy. Strong relationships, brand loyalty, and storytelling that resonates with consumers requires empathy. Jim Shearer of Molson Coors compares good marketers to ‘method actors… they just completely immerse themselves in their brands.’

The Global Empathy Index released by HBR consistently shows that the most empathetic companies are also among the most commercially successful

Yet tech can present a problem for digital marketers as it can present a problem for all those working in digital. Though undoubtedly having a huge net benefit to marketers, enabling new practices, intelligence-gathering and access to a far larger pool of people, technology has a well-documented ‘empathy gap’ that is a major reason for the burgeoning ‘techlash’. There is always a temptation for digital businesses to commodify consumers, and advanced data-gathering tools encourage an understanding of individual people as ‘units’. But those who work in digital fields must resist this trend, and in marketing there is a very real business reason to do so.

More generally, it’s important to recognise that consumers are moving towards brands that seem ‘more human’. The Global Empathy Index released by the Harvard Business Review consistently shows that the most empathetic companies, graded according to internal culture, CEO performance, ethics and social media presence, are also among the most commercially successful. We know that millennials like cruelty-free beauty products, chemical-free clothes, organic (or meat-free) food. But by creating a culture of empathy, businesses just seem to perform better.

The question, then, is: How do you develop empathy in a marketing setting? Far more effective than attempting to ‘instil’ empathy in individuals is to create a culture of empathy within your business. First, however, businesses must understand the connection between empathy and ethics. Businesses that self-identify as ethical plant the seeds from which an empathetic culture can grow.

Empathy helps us to make ethical decisions, so by vocalising the importance of ethics to your business, you encourage your team to see its actions through that lens, scrutinising each decision by asking ‘Is this ethical?’ and thereby strengthening its sense of empathy.

In recruitment, too, businesses can develop and strengthen an empathetic culture. Employ people with a sense of values—people who try to live their lives with purpose, according to principles—but also those who are curious: curiosity fuels empathy by leading one person to wonder what life is like for someone else.

At the tree, we look specifically for ‘the interested and the interesting’ when we’re recruiting. Diversity is just as important, in that it involves bringing together people with different life experiences. We are forced to put ourselves in the shoes of people whose backgrounds may be entirely different to our own.

Businesses that have not put ethical practices at the heart of their working habits can nonetheless champion good causes. This is of course an end in itself, but the side effect in any business is that it forces that business to empathise with others. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is one way of doing this. And though cynics will call it a ‘box-ticking exercise’, it is up to the business to show that it isn’t. CSR serves an important purpose, and it undoubtedly improves engagement among employees, personal growth, and empathy across the board.

Almost any marketing business can develop greater empathy – and it begins by making a deliberate effort always to act in an ethical way and by cultivating a relationship with the ‘faceless consumer’

At the tree, we made ‘ethical’ one of our core values. Apart from the strategies listed above, we also humanise characters by creating named personas, and use face-to-face focus groups as much as we can. And we work with companies who put the well-being of others at the very front of their brand—companies like Rescue Remedy, whose products were designed to help those experiencing stress or trauma. We believe that through deliberate immersion in ethical, compassionate brands and their values, we strengthen our own sense and awareness of empathy, and this flows into all our work.

But almost any marketing business can develop greater empathy. And it begins by making a deliberate effort always to act in an ethical way and by cultivating a relationship with the ‘faceless consumer’. Do this, and more engaging stories, more effective campaigns, and deeper loyalty between employee and employer, brand and brand, and brand and customer might just follow.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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