A Brand's Guide to Empathy: Marketing's Latest Buzzword

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A clip from Ikea's 'Retail Therapy' campaign.
A clip from Ikea's 'Retail Therapy' campaign. Credit: IKEA

Empathy is picking up steam as the official marketing buzzword of 2017. The election fueled it, the inauguration sealed it, and the Super Bowl was its first big stage, offering a $5 million shot to put your brand's empathy on display for all America to see and admire.

But what is empathy, really? And how do we resist the temptation to appropriate and misuse it in our rush to sell the next bag of jalapeƱo snack chips?

As marketers, it's only natural to see an opportunity and immediately want to "own it." It's what we do. But unlike some of the previous linguistic superstars of marketing, words like "real" and "authenticity," empathy isn't something that as a brand, you can ever hope to be, or own. Empathy is something you give. And brands that understand that will be the brands that are appreciated and embraced; these are the brands that will connect, ultimately rising to the top in the hearts and minds of Americans this year.

So let's give empathy a little breathing room. Let's see empathy for what it is: a golden opportunity to deliver more value to people, on their own terms.

A few other thoughts on empathy, and how to approach it (with caution):

You don't own empathy, they do

If you're defending the fact that your brand is empathetic, that's a pretty good sign you're not. Like generosity or caring, empathy should never be about you. You can't own it. You can only provide it. So be generous. Let it go. Let it be all about them. Then stand back, and watch it all come back to you.

Empathy isn't just something you feel -- it's something you do

You're out shopping, and out of the corner of your eye, you see someone getting mugged. You feel really bad for them -- horrible -- as you duck through the revolving door of the next boutique clothing store. Technically, you could say that's empathy. But it's also a missed opportunity to take powerful, meaningful action. Don't miss that opportunity. Use empathy to power action. To go make things. Things that serve people's needs. Things that brighten people's days. Things that add value. Things that make people love your brand, because your brand is thinking about them. Delta is a great example, empowering their employees to do whatever it takes to alleviate passenger stress -- in one case, BY ordering pizzas for AN entire flight. If you don't take that next step, and turn empathy from feeling to action, well ... were you ever really all that empathetic in the first place?

Think like people, not marketers

When you think you have a brilliant marketing idea, put yourself in people's shoes for a moment. Why would anyone care? Why would they want this? How is this delivering real value to their experience? If you were them, would you believe any of this? You might be surprised how many times the answer is "no." And that's okay. In fact, it's a good thing. Every time you hear that word, you just dodged a bullet. Back to work. Another chance to get it right.

'Empathy' sounds serious, BUT it should also sound fun

Empathy is a pretty serious-sounding word -- suggestive of wrapping your arms around people when they need it most, and giving them a big warm hug. We think of empathy as something the world needs more of; as something all Americans could really use right now, in these rocky political times. You know what else we could all use right now? More fun. More laughter. More reminders of how amazing life can be. That's showing empathy, too. I love the IKEA's "Retail Therapy" campaign for this reason, renaming their products based on search results. It's just so entertaining. And as marketers, that's what we do best. Let's not forget to live a little, and entertain.

Empathy isn't a one-size-fits-all solution

We all want to get into the new, cool club. But maybe the club you're standing in front of isn't really the one for you. Stay true to your brand. Pick the right empathy story. If post-inauguration America needs a hug, and you sell industrial weed killer, well, maybe hugging just isn't your thing. There are a lot of ways to show empathy. But as always, it all begins with knowing your audience, and knowing yourself.

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