The term "empathy" is being used in relation to business more and more. Just recently Ad Age ran a headline reading "Why empathy continues to be the key to customer expectations", while Forbes proclaimed that "Empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research".
Reagan Kok, Hoorah Digital CEO
While these are just two examples of thought-leading publications addressing the topic of empathy, a cursory Google search shows that the term is being widely used in relation to various aspects of the business.
As such, it’s worth interrogating what exactly is meant by empathy in the context of business generally and marketing and advertising specifically. Empathy is the ability to understand or share another person’s feelings or experiences. By implication, this suggests that empathy in the business context is about placing the needs and desires of the customer or user at the centre of the offering.
It is easy enough for businesses to “empathy wash” – to say that they are an empathetic brand that “gets” what their customers want and need in a way that others don’t. But empathy is more than a checkbox exercise and there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to making a business an empathetic one.
Empathy is important because it is increasingly one of the most important ways to ensure a brand’s offering stands out from the rest. One report suggests that we’re exposed to some 6,000 brands each day. Empathy, thoughtfully and effectively applied, can serve as part of the effort to distinguish a brand from 5,999 others.
For years the “look at what we do, we think you need this approach” to marketing and communication worked for brands. Today’s customers are savvier, more sophisticated, and increasingly prefer a “we get what you want and need, here’s how we can help you” approach.
As such, empathy is simply about putting the (real) needs of the customer first and foremost, even if that stands in conflict with a brand’s own (imagined) version of what their customers need and want.
Empathy and authenticity
Authenticity is an equally important concept in business today, and one that goes hand-in-hand with empathy. The Power of Authenticity report, issued by Fleishman Hillard, 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”.
As such, authenticity and empathy cannot be a marketing stunt – it’s a way of conducting business and being in the world. Bear in mind that 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 to who they claim to be, and deliver on what they promise. This kind of authenticity is fundamental to ensuring a brand’s credibility in 2021 and beyond, and empathy is key to demonstrating this commitment to authenticity.
How to empathise
Empathy should be considered as “a shared journey between your brand and its audience”, according to one source, that “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
Empathy cannot be faked. Rather, it needs to be prioritised and nurtured, and when done properly the reward for brands and businesses is customer retention, loyalty and even respect.