Why Brands Can Help Fix Our Empathy Problem
Storytelling Innovator Series

Building Genuine Connections: Tom Gerace on Why Brands Can Help Fix Our Empathy Problem

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Tom Gerace, CEO of Skyword, opened the third annual Forward conference by making two assertions. His first assertion might be subjective, but few would argue with it: We are experiencing a decline in empathy. The symptoms are in plain sight—a lack of understanding between self-identified groups, a lack of connection between individuals, and a lack of trust in institutions that were once integral to our society.

His second assertion was more radical. There is an unexpected silver lining to this gloomy cloud, he claimed, and that is that brands—particularly those that excel at storytelling—are in a unique position to help address this challenge.

Tom and I discussed his speech shortly after the conference concluded. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You started your speech with the idea that we’re living in a world of declining empathy and increasing isolation. What is it about this particular point in time that makes you say that?

Part of the evidence is in our politics. America used to have folks who sat in the middle and really didn’t get agitated unless there was something crazy happening on either the right or left fringe. And for the most part we all were aligned in our understanding of the world. We didn’t often dispute the facts. If it was reported in the New York Times, CNN, ABC, you were pretty much going to get the same set of facts.

We also had a real sense of American identity that was values based. It was a commitment to freedom: allowing human beings to live life the way they want to live life, worship how they want to worship (or not), select the leaders they want to select, and be as active in that political process as they choose to be.

It seems like we are seeing a basic fragmentation in our society, and it really begins with the very notion of the world in which we live. We don’t agree on the basic facts of our economy today. We don’t agree on the basic facts of our political situation. We don’t agree on the basic facts of our international relationships. We don’t agree on a basic set of values any longer. It just feels like we’re not connected like we once were.

The other thing that we’ve lost—or may be losing, I don’t want to be too dark here—is this concept of the American Dream: that if you work very hard and you take some risks, you have a pretty darn good shot of living a better life than your parents or your grandparents did.

So it’s all of these factors, from polarization of politics to the fact that we now communicate more over social media where it’s easier to say something inflammatory. We’ve seen a fragmentation of our values and a decline in our ability to communicate effectively, and as a result, we’re seeing a decline in how much we care about each other, how much we want to interact, and how much we understand folks who are different from us.

Police in riot gear form a barricade

Image attribution: Spenser H

You framed this within the American context. Is this a specifically American problem, or is it broader?

I don’t think it’s an American problem only, though we’ve got a pretty severe case of it. You’re seeing this kind of fragmentation in Europe. The Brexit vote divided the UK almost exactly in half. You’re seeing secession movements in Spain. You’re seeing the rise of the nationalist movement in France. These are all symptoms of people defining themselves one way and really rushing to define what is “other.” This fragmentation is causing us to focus very narrowly on who we are, and to begin to carve out and isolate other people.

You went on to make a pretty bold thesis—that part of the solution to this issue of declining empathy is that brands are in a good position to fill that trust gap. Why? What’s your evidence?

Let me first say that it’s not just declining empathy, it’s declining trust. Because the less we understand each other and the less we communicate with one another, the more suspicious we become of the “other.” As a result, we’re seeing significant declines in how much people trust the core institutions that form our society. That is, how much do we trust government? How much do we trust media? How much do we trust business? And how much do we trust NGOs? Edelman’s Trust Barometer has shown a steady decline in trust in each of these institutions to the point where there are more people who distrust media and government than people who trust them. And business is not far behind—52 percent of people trust business today.

The statement I made wasn’t quite as optimistic as what you just said. It’s not that business is in a great position; it’s that business is in the best position to turn this around. Consumers don’t believe our gridlocked government will change its behavior anytime soon. There are some significant systemic factors that lock the government into that role. And at the same time, media and government are dragging each other down into the abyss together. The more the media criticizes government, the more government lashes out at the media, the more trust in both erode. What we’re seeing in the Edelman survey is that people believe those institutions aren’t capable of changing. And I suspect that’s probably true.

So the statement I’d make is that business is best positioned—not that business is likely to do it—but that business is best positioned to do it. You’ve got some folks in the business sector who have lost consumer trust. It’s the banks that dragged us down in 2008; it’s Volkswagen; it’s BP. As much as this loss of trust has dragged us down, there are a number of brands that are modeling the way, and that are putting their consumers first. This is where consumers see a true ray of hope and a genuine opportunity for social change. There are businesses that are going way beyond the profit motive. And when they do—and this is important—when they do, they thrive—only if they do it well and if they tell stories that work effectively.

Let’s take a step back. What led you to this thesis?

The basic nuggets are in the World Happiness Report, which I talked about in my speech, and in that Edelman Trust Barometer. The Edelman survey specifically finds that attitudes towards business are better than attitudes towards government or media. It’s not really my thesis; it’s the evidence that’s coming out of the broad survey data in both of those areas.

The other thing that we are seeing in our industry is businesses that are taking that step of doing something good for their customers. For example, they’re focusing their content marketing on something their customers need, not just bragging and promising about their products and services. They’re figuring out their customers’ need set, responding to that need set, and doing them a favor as a way of building a relationship.

So both in the data and in our own experience, we’re seeing a handful of businesses becoming good actors. They’re really focusing on their center of good. And businesses benefit economically when they do, but also, of course, they do real good in the world.

You use the term “center of good.” Can you define that for our readers?

The center of good in a business is the core value of the business. It’s the one thing that the business is going to do in the world that is unique, that is good for its customers and good for the planet and really makes it different from everyone else in that space.

There’s this company that makes sunglasses for fisherman, and they want to get rid of that giant Texas-sized swirling blob that occurs in several of our oceans that is nothing but plastic pollution. That’s their center of good. They’re connecting with their customers and getting that economic benefit when they do and doing a lot of good in the world.

A sea turtle swims through clear ocean waters

Image attribution: Jeremy Bishop

Seeing these examples helps other business leaders see how they might use their corporate social responsibility at the center of their marketing as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. That core makes them an empathetic corporation as opposed to a nameless, faceless company that’s out to pull as much money from your wallet as they can, regardless of whether they harm you or harm the world.

And this has other benefits. People like working at that company better. It makes talented people want to work there. It has a halo effect for their investors. All of these things differentiate the business not just to the customers but to people across the organization.

What is Skyword’s center of good?

I should first say that the center of good is explained in a core value, and core values come in pairs. You don’t just say you are free; you went from enslaved to free. You don’t just become rich; you went from poor to rich. Or from uneducated to educated.

Skyword’s core value is that we want to help people go from disconnected to connected. And of course we want to help brands do the same thing: We want to help them go from disconnected with their customers to connected. And so rebuilding this connection, establishing empathy in the world—these are our core values.

What does that look like in practice?

First and probably most importantly, we’re investing in becoming better storytellers and teaching our customers and our creatives to become good storytellers.

Second, we are giving back to the community, supporting organizations that do the same thing. For example, the non-profit that we gave exposure to during Forward, 826 Boston, helps kids from challenging economic backgrounds learn to read and learn to tell their stories. We hope to support them through significant volunteer work over the coming year. By supporting this group, we do what we can as a small organization to help create folks who can tell better stories in the world, and we think storytelling drives empathy.

Young girl reading in an empty classroom

Image attribution: Poodar Chu

Third is that we are trying to help marketers look at the world differently. We’re trying to shape how they view their role in this new world, their opportunities, and frankly the downside if they don’t change their practices. A new study from Time Inc. said people trust content from brands twice as much as they trust their advertising. This is core to brands succeeding and brands building empathy among their customers.

So Skyword’s core purpose is to help the world go from a disconnected universe to a connected one, and we believe we do that by teaching people to tell important stories effectively to one another.

Let’s say I’m a CMO and I’ve listened to everything you’ve said and I want to make this change. What do I do when I get to work tomorrow? Where do I start?

Step one is really about education. It’s about changing the hearts and minds of your leadership team and your marketing organization so that other people get the world as you do, as a now-enlightened CMO. Part of the job is to provide an objective look at the world and not to avoid the hard truths out there. After you educate people about why this really matters, you need to look at your customers’ lives. Look long and hard at the universe where they exist and figure out where it hurts for those folks.

Step two is then helping the company find its core value. A lot of companies don’t have that. They are driven purely by profit measures. Because that’s the only thing the Street cares about, that’s the only thing the company cares about, and that’s made us all think very transactionally and very short term. So step two is being that thought leader inside the enterprise that’s going to help the company figure out who it is and what it does and why anybody should give a damn.

Once the company has consensus on its core values, it’s ensuring that you’re investing properly in driving that differentiated experience. You’re giving back in a way that matters. You can’t fake it; you have to genuinely adopt that core value, you have to genuinely invest in changing lives, and you have to do it effectively.

And once you’ve done that, the final piece is to tell stories so the world understands. You’ve got to become effective, consistent storytellers in the space where you operate and do it in a way that aligns the stories with the difference you’re making in the world. When you do that, not only are you having this impact but you’re getting proper credit for the work your company’s doing so that a) you build those relationships with your customers and they want to shop with you and they’re willing to pay you a little bit more than somebody who’s not doing that work, b) you are then driving differentiated financial results, increasing your long-term scale and profitability, and c) because you’re doing that, you have not only happy shareholders but, equally important, more resources to give back more and in a bigger way. It becomes a virtuous cycle.

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Featured image attribution: Gaelle Marcel

Rachel Haberman is a consummate word nerd with a lifelong fascination with all things language. She holds a BA in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Wellesley College. Before joining Skyword, Rachel managed content marketing for an international development and strategy consulting firm. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two cats named after physicists.

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