Storytelling Communications

Empathy in Consumer Psychology: What It Does (and How To Get More of It)

5 Minute Read

Recently, a toy brand slayed me. As a content marketer, I tend to stay objective, but last week, Barbie outwitted my defenses and touched my cold heart. The ad was a video that showed different dads playing dolls with their daughters. The demeanor of these dudes melted my objectivity, and I felt something.

The ultimate goal of so many campaigns is to evoke an emotion. I knew right away I’d been touched by the message. As sharp as I am, I’m still a “buyer” to someone, and their consumer psychology had worked.

How? What does a brand do to reach me?

Here’s a hint: it addresses my pain points.

Building a detailed audience persona is great: I know a successful event-planning company that requires their employees to know everything about their ideal customer, down to her hair color and favorite attire. They swear every nuance helps them target buyers. But the trickiest detail of all is that elusive “pain point” you may have heard about. It’s the deep frustrations and fears of others.

In my case, it was the concern that my kid doesn’t get enough regular adult interaction and that my husband is too hardworking (read: busy) to play with her. Bingo.

To reach, really reach an audience, you’ve got to have empathy. And, thankfully, empathy can be learned, as noted by compassion experts at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Empathy is the most important element in consumer psychology, but it can be learned.

Empathy is a skill. The actual emotion comes later.

Trying to muster up warm fuzzies for your reader is a waste of effort. Instead, locate their irritations, fears, and offenses. Let’s look at how that’s done.


Listening to someone helps you understand them (and their antagonistic hurts) more quickly. For example, when in disagreement, active listening is the one tool shown to drive coworkers to a win-win solution. Chances are, there’s a “target audience” member in your social sphere. Listen to that person more than you have before, and more than you think you should. Join private online question-and-answer forums of people who fit your company’s target persona, listen to their communications, and mind the questions that arise. What’s beneath each actual inquiry?

Offer Openness

When you’re empathizing with someone one on one, a powerful way to deepen your connection is to share something related to their struggle. As a brand identifying with a group, you’re more likely to be viewed as a safe place if you share one of your own facepalm moments. When you do, your followers will respond. This is your cue to listen . . . and then listen some more.


“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” Harper Lee penned in To Kill A Mocking Bird. The quote has been repeated for years as an iconic saying when it comes to the power of empathy. President Obama recently made news by attributing the quote not to Lee but to her controversial character, Atticus Finch. A striking move, indeed. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes has a way of connecting you with that person—and exposing their vulnerabilities.

Examine Their Choices

Once you’ve listened to someone, opened up about yourself, and envisioned life from their position, you can then examine the choices facing your subject. By now, you’ve gone much deeper into your audience’s life than listing their gender, income, and marital status. You’ve explored what moves them. What makes them act. Now, if you look closely, you can play out certain scenarios and see how each one benefits your buyer.

Rob Jolles, business strategy speaker and author of How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence Without Manipulation, says that most people, when given the choice, would rather stay in a painful place than risk movement, even if that movement would ease the pain. But why? “The fear of change, Bethany,” he told me one morning, smiling through the steam of his coffee. “The fear of change is worse than the hurt of maintaining that pain.” Rob has a thing for unconventional consumer psychology. He loves identifying hidden hurts. He loves it. He knows that if he can relieve someone of the fear of change, he’s given them a lifelong gift.

When you examine the choices of your target audience, remember, their hurt may be something you can help them with, but you’ll have to contend with their fear of change, too.

Last week, a toy brand I don’t even like touched me more deeply than half of my friends have. And here’s the thing: I know enough about consumer psychology to know that, long before talking camera angles, actors, or even script, marketers had been brainstorming my needs. My frustrations. Fears. Hurts. Things I don’t even acknowledge half the time, let alone tell corporations.

Empathizing with me as a consumer isn’t rocket science, but so few brands have evoked the emotion they want. I see thousands of nuggets of “content” a day, and it’s rare when one stands out as moving or memorable. As a consumer yourself, you can agree the one that catches you off-guard is the one that sticks immortalized in your mind. And it starts with someone nailing your pain points.

Your audience is, by nature, defensive. The trick, then, is to outdo those defenses and lay a hand on your reader’s shoulder. Generate content that reaches that soft spot and tells your audience, “I get you.”

One of my favorite marketing managers once said, “Our goal isn’t really the buy. Instead, it’s the share. It’s the ‘like,’ the comment, and the ‘follow.'” I used to agree with her, until last week, when a simple video advertisement moved me. My new goal is to lodge a memory using emotion in my creative work. A moved reader is better than the “like” or comment because the emotional memory lives on forever. And to craft something that powerful, I’ve got to find my readers’ hurts.

You, too?

If so, then shoot. I feel your pain.

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit

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