Brand Empathy: More than Just a Digital Marketing Buzzword
Marketing Content Strategy

Brand Empathy Is More Than Just a Digital Marketing Buzzword

5 Minute Read

Empathy may be the 2017 marketing buzzword, but brands should tread lightly before they attempt to “own” the trend. Fully understanding and sharing your customer’s feelings is easy enough on paper, but it’s difficult to achieve in practice.

Simply put: You can’t “own” being empathetic. You have to give the emotion freely.

Of course, brands have always sought to understand their customers in order to serve them better. Now, thanks to new digital tools, brands have even more information about their customers and even more ways to connect with them.

The more empathetic brands are in their interactions with consumers—especially on social media—the more powerful their efforts will be. These understanding brands build awareness and loyalty when people talk positively about their brand. And brands that lack understanding risk being publically shamed on the same social platforms they want to conquer. (Here’s looking at you, United Airlines.)

Indeed, social media has given empathetic brands new currency. Two-way interactions are becoming the norm as customer service and marketing converge. With so many customer interactions visible to the world on social media, being empathetic matters.

How Empathetic Actions Work

Marketers already know that emotion is a powerful marketing tool. When brands stir up our feelings, we tend to remember and connect with that brand later on. Empathy is one of many powerful human emotions that drive our behavior. Just as we rush to assist a stranger who has fallen, empathetic feelings in marketing can propel us to action.

Evoking the emotion is tricky, however. Unlike using humor, nostalgia, or even sadness in marketing, empathy requires a deeper level of connection with the consumer. “Empathy is feeling with people,” as Dr. Brené Brown notes in her great YouTube video on the subject.

When thinking about this emotion, brands should consider how human-centric their marketing efforts are. As a brand, can you walk in the shoes of your customer? Do you know what matters to them, and why? What are your customers’ emotional needs? What are their values? And how can you engage with them in a heartfelt way?

Thinking about these topics helps brands move toward deeper customer trust and intimacy, concepts explored by the management authors Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in the early 2000s. Peppers and Rogers argued that brands couldn’t develop lasting customer trust if they interacted with customers in merely transactional or technical ways. Indeed, every one-on-one interaction should seek to build customer trust.

These ideas aren’t rocket science, but the human angle still eludes a lot of brands. Whether it’s over the phone, in a brick-or-mortar store, or on social media, people want to feel like they’re interacting with a fellow human being, not a corporate robot. By definition, robotic interactions can’t be empathetic. Thus, your content strategy needs to encompass something deeper.

The Empathetic Brand on Social Media

Every social media interaction with a customer represents an opportunity for brands to show their human side. By focusing on the customer, your digital interactions and content can strive to feel something more akin to a comforting digital hug.

Turn a cold shoulder on your customer-in-need, however, and you could pay the price. United Airlines is a prime example. The company committed a major misstep when it forcefully removed a passenger on a plane. Video of the bloodied passenger being dragged off the plane bounced around the world, and United’s incredibly robotic-sounding apology did nothing to calm an irate public. Meanwhile, the company’s stock plummeted.

United empathy social media tweet

No brand wants to share the same fate. So how can brands be authentically empathetic?

Firstly, it helps to give employees on the frontlines the autonomy to make considerate decisions. Delta, for example, made social media waves when flight crews ordered pizza for travelers who had been stranded on the tarmac for hours due to weather delays. Morgan Durrant, Delta spokesperson, told CNN that Delta lets teams take the lead in doing meaningful actions for customers during sticky situations.

Delta empathy social media tweet

Put a Little Love Out There

Similarly, Zappos’ customer service agents are known to surprise customers with acts of kindness. When a South Carolina customer called Zappos about an incorrect order, the customer ended up sharing some of the troubles her community had experienced due to recent flooding. The agent surprised her with a gift of multiple fleece blankets to donate to victims, as reported by WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina.

For purely digital interactions, creativity and personalization can reveal a brand’s human side. Spotify handles a myriad of customer service requests on its @SpotifyCares Twitter handle. While these interactions could easily trend toward robotic, the company aims for more authentic interactions with its “Random Acts of Kindness” program. Their customer service agents behind the handle will surprise customers by sharing a song or playlist based on their individual tastes, according to Social Media Today. In one example, as a thank you to a Frozen fan, the Spotify team tweeted out a graphic of the customer styled as a Disney Princess.

The driving force behind all of these techniques is a desire to create meaningful one-on-one connections. Through relatively simple actions, brands can show they understand where their customers are coming from and can respond like someone who cares and understands.

Stay True to Your Brand

Not every brand is going to want to get touchy-feely about every single topic. If you sell financial software, for example, a warm-and-fuzzy digital hug may not be your style, and that’s OK. Being empathetic looks different for every brand, and your content strategy should reflect your brand story. Understand your company and your audience, and let that awareness drive your empathetic outreach.

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Featured image attribution: Joshua Clay

Krystal Overmyer is a freelance journalist specializing in digital marketing trends. Her experience spans over a decade in journalism, public relations, and digital communications.

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