If you could sit with a few of your customers and chat over coffee, what would you hope to get out of that conversation? Would you survey them for their income, zip code, number of kids and leave it at that? Or would you take the opportunity to get to know them more deeply? You’d do the latter, I’m sure, and in doing so you would be gaining the most powerful, but maybe most under utilized thing in marketing—empathy.
A state of shared emotion with the consumer
Empathy in marketing is possible when you go beyond merely understanding your customer and get to a state of shared emotion. It allows you to craft something out of feeling as much as crafting something from information. But it’s not always easy to get there, especially today. We are surrounded by data, gadgets and automation. This is good stuff, no doubt, but it has codified our process in such a huge way that the danger is to forget, or minimize, the equally important role emotion has in driving outcomes.
Because Concentric is in the CPG branding space, understanding the customer’s frame of reference is essential because brands relate to people on an emotional level, not a logical one. It’s one reason why brands that project and behave with a clear purpose create more value than do ones whose purpose is unclear. And while I believe that empathy is useful for people across the communications work spectrum, using it is most important for those more upstream in the process: marketing directors, brand managers, planners, strategists, creative directors, etc.
Understand needs and concerns that influence behavior
While understanding your customer is important, empathy goes deeper. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says it’s more about the ability to address “the concerns and needs that underlie responses and reactions.” The goal of empathy is not to understand consumer behavior, but the emotions that drive it.
An example of this is food brands cleaning up their ingredients. When people became more aware that their food was coming from giant corporations and factories who were prioritizing profit over healthfulness, their responses were to read more labels and demand cleaner alternatives. Pioneers in clean label gained an advantage, however, noticing this early by empathizing with their customers’ feelings of food skepticism and the degree to which they felt removed from their foods’ sources. While an emotional trend can linger until it builds into a critical mass of actions and responses, marketers can innovate earlier and gain competitive advantages by understanding these emotional dynamics before they surface to mainstream awareness or become industry mandates.
Building a brand around an idea bigger than product features
Empathy is about finding a way to reflect a genuine, shared feeling—based on the consumer’s reality—that is connected to an idea that is much larger than the basic marketing premise we work from at the beginning of the branding process.
A good example of building a brand on an emotional foundation is Lemon Grass Kitchen, a Concentric client who sells a line of quality Southeast Asian frozen cuisines. As their marketing agency, we got to know the ingredients (in fact, we helped define them), we got to know a lot about their prospective shoppers, we understood the category, we knew the competitive landscape. Lots of thinking and strategy went into this product and there were many tactical and logical reasons shaping our plans. But that reasoning would be less powerful if we didn’t engage the shopper on an emotional level. Based on deeper insights, we learned that our target loves Southeast Asian culture, not just the food. They like the idea of experiencing culture through food. So, within the broader strategy, our emotional gravity was cultural authenticity (this was an opportunity, too, due to the lack of authenticity in Frozen).
Southeast Asian authenticity was the frame of reference we wanted to tap to engage consumers before they went shopping or when they encountered Lemon Grass Kitchen in the store. It drove the copy on the package, the content and user flow for the website, how we styled our photography and videos, etc.
Of course flavor and convenience are also important and impact sales, but features and benefits alone are less likely to drive trial and subsequent loyalty. Customers gravitate toward and stick with brands who really understand them, that really connect to them on an emotional level…
…brands that exhibit empathy.