Creativity Creative Thinking

Empathy Is Not a Marketing Strategy

8 Minute Read

Empathy is the 2017 marketing buzzword. Everywhere I look, I find content encouraging smart brands to use, employ, and even “leverage” empathy. But if empathy is the latest craze, this begs the question: What were brands doing—or not doing—before 2017?

Empathy is not simply a tool you use to reach your audience during work hours and switch off at night—it’s deeper than that.

But what is empathy?

To me, the word empathy has an almost supernatural ring to it—it rhymes with telepathy, and in science fiction, an empath is “a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.”

But real empathy is more straightforward than that. According to my favorite dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

This capacity is fundamental to our humanity. From fairy tales to brand stories, we share in the trials and tribulations of their heroes, villains, antiheroes, and anti-villains (yes, that’s a thing) because in them we recognize something in ourselves.

Empathy is the building block of trust, without which our institutions simply could not function. Think of traffic. If we didn’t believe that other motorists were “like us”—that they wanted to get to their destinations in one piece—it would be impossible to trust them or predict their behavior.

Traffic requires trust and empathy

Image attribution: Adrián Tormo

But here’s the rub. Trust in institutions is in decline. In 2016, the average trust in institutions was only 32 percent (it was above 40 percent in 2005). Empathy is also in decline. In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan found that college students were a whopping 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1980, and the fall happened primarily after 2000.

As you can see, I’m not talking about how to reach your audience and “brand empathy” alone. In fact, there’s no such thing as “brand empathy.” A brand cannot have empathy any more than a dollar can. That doesn’t mean you can’t use a dollar, or a brand, to effect positive change. I’m talking about real empathy, which is much more than a buzzword, gimmick, or tool to achieve a business objective. It is a fundamental human characteristic necessary for the functioning of a decent society. But while empathy is an innate human quality, there are a few obstacles to its proper function.

Obstacle 1: Bias

Ever watch a compilation of skateboarder wipeouts? I indulge in schadenfreude as much as the next sociopath, but I can’t deny that I wince when a skateboarder hits the concrete at full speed. When you see or imagine someone in pain, you naturally feel a corresponding phantom sensation, or empathy pain. Now what happens if the person you see in pain is of a different race? It turns out, according to one study, that “humans tend to empathize by default unless prejudice is at play.”

Well, I don’t think I’m prejudiced. But am I free from implicit bias?

Here’s a riddle: A father is driving his son to school. There’s an accident. The father dies in the ambulance but the boy survives. In the hospital, the doctor points at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy; he is my son.”

So who’s the doctor?

Every woman I asked solved the riddle instantly whereas half the men did not, even after several guesses. I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I first heard the riddle I did not solve it, revealing I was afflicted with an implicit bias that clouded my thinking. (For those still stuck, the doctor is the boy’s mother.)

Some campaigns turn bias on its head in enlightening ways. Boldly, formerly known as BuzzFeed Yellow, took a humorous approach and juxtaposed original ads with modified versions where the gender roles were reversed. The effect is hilarious and revealing.

Sometimes the approach is more serious. Take this powerful public service announcement for Save the Children.

We see the story of young girl in London told in one-second snippets. It begins with a birthday party and a series of commonplace events. Little by little, we hear ominous news reports of violent clashes and airstrikes—but life carries on. Suddenly there are blackouts, explosions, gunfire, and gas attacks. It becomes clear that London has become a war zone and the girl a refugee. The overall effect is distressing and powerful.

Why did the creators of this campaign set the story in London as opposed to one of the many war-torn countries in the Middle East or Africa? Why did they feature a white girl as opposed to a girl of color? The creators understood that by setting the story “closer to home,” they could trigger an empathetic response in the (predominantly white) British audience, and then deliver the message at the climax: “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

We shouldn’t be ashamed of “ingroup favoritism.” According to researchers, “As a species, we appear to have a remarkable tendency to seek out and identify with groups, and it has been suggested that cooperation with the ingroup and competition with the outgroup may have co-evolved.” At the same time, it would be helpful (as human beings as well as marketers) to consider our attitudes towards our customers and audience, whether they are rich or poor, male or female, old or young, black or white. Are you carrying any implicit assumptions about “tech-savvy millennials” or “workaholic baby-boomers”? Are you relying on gender stereotypes to create content?

I’m not suggesting that you volunteer on the weekends or fork out change for the homeless guy on the street (although it would be nice), but as marketers and content creators, it’s your business to know your audience properly, to know “where it hurts.” This is the beginning of building a genuine connection with your audience.

Obstacle 2: Stress

On a recent flight, a passenger came running through the cabin asking urgently for a doctor. Her travel companion had fallen ill. “I hope she’s okay,” said my wife. Yet all I could say was, “If this plane gets grounded, we’re going to miss our connection.”

Travel stress decreases empathy

Image attribution: Chris Brignola

In the end we were grounded for several hours. Luckily, there were no incidents of air rage—a phenomenon which is on the rise. But what causes air rage? Some put it down to the S trigger, where “S” stands for “stop.” This is the trigger that makes you mad when you’re stuck in traffic, your Internet is slow, or your flight is delayed. Others say it’s class-related.

Either way, when we become stressed, we become irrational, selfish, and not very empathetic towards those who cut the line or invade our space.

According to Erin Olivo, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University, “elevated stress levels make travelers lapse into ‘survival’ mode, leading to rude or self-centered behavior.” This makes travelers “hyper-vigilant about potential threats to their comfort or safety, [so] they don’t care about anyone else,” she says.

So clearly, stress is another obstacle to genuine empathy. How do we overcome stress? There are plenty of articles about stress and relaxation out there, so take a look. As stressed-out marketers, and as human beings, we must take care of our mental health.

Obstacle 3: Lack of Imagination

I only realized the depth of my selfishness regarding the sick woman on the flight while I was feeling airsick on another flight. While rummaging for a nonexistent sick bag, I began to imagine what it must have felt like to be seriously ill, trapped in an aircraft 30,000 feet in the air, hours from a hospital. How would I feel in that situation? How would I feel if it were my travel companion?

As marketers or content creators, we may not be that stressed, and we may not have any implicit bias about our audience. Yet still we might not be able to empathize with them. Why not? I suggest that this is the result of a lack of imagination. I’m not trying to imply that you don’t have a good imagination—you do—but imagination is like a muscle. You have to exercise it. Why don’t we already exercise our imagination regarding our target audience? Isn’t that part of our job—to know where it hurts? Perhaps we are afraid of empathizing with our audience because we are afraid of facing the reality of their pain.

But you do have to acknowledge their pain. So let’s exercise that empathy.

Empathy in Practice

To reach your audience and make a genuine connection, you need to be aware of any implicit bias you might have, relax a little, and exercise your imagination. Hopefully this will make you a more empathetic person in your personal as well as professional life. But you also want to use your rejuvenated empathy to reach your audience. What would this look like in practice?

Take me, a typical xennial (part gen X, part millennial). How could a company like, say, Disney use their empathy and make a genuine connection with me? If they overcame the three obstacles to empathy, they’d realize that all I—and many others like me—want is a re-release of the original, unadulterated cuts of Star Wars. #hanshotfirst

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Michael Box is a professional business editor and writer with a background in storytelling and language teaching. As Content Marketing Specialist at Skyword, Michael writes about brand storytelling, marketing trends, creativity, technology, social media, consumer psychology, and advertising. Michael enjoys creative writing, reading, photography, chess, electronic music composition, and classical guitar.

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