Empathy trumps everything in a narcissistic world

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Love it or hate it, our job is to serve the needs and wants of people, writes the chief strategy officer of Olson.

If you’re looking for the most over-played word in marketing over the last five years, you'd be hard pressed to top good old "authenticity." It's gotten to that awkward point where you have to apologize every time you use it. But now there’s a new word on the block—empathy. 

A study conducted by IBM and Econsultancy last year revealed that there is a massive perception gap between how well businesses think they are marketing and the actual customer experience. A whopping 90% of marketers agree that personalizing the customer experience is critical to success; however, nearly 80% of consumers stated that brands don’t understand them as individuals.

As an advertising industry veteran, I cringe at these figures, but I am not surprised. We’ve been laser-focused on chasing new technologies and "figuring out" new platforms to reach consumers for so long that we forgot the most important factor to true customer engagement, which is and always will be people.

We forgot that in order to move people, we have to think and act like people. It begins—and ends—with empathy.

Empathy for marketers is more important than ever, because culturally, we’re more narcissistic than ever. And love it or hate it, our job is to serve the needs and wants of people. A 2010 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity since the 1980s. If you need more proof, just turn on the TV or log onto one your social media apps. We live in a world where the best part of any meal isn’t what you put in your mouth but what you post on Instagram, and where public figures, spanning from reality-star-turned-entrepreneur Kim Kardashian to businessman-turned-reality-star-turned-presidential-elect Donald Trump, are proud to be called out for their self-obsessed tendencies. 

So while it’s all good and well that your brand is "authentic" and "real," does it speak directly to your consumer? Or, to put it in more personal terms, me? Are you giving me what I want? What I need? Are you solving MY problems? Making MY life better? Or making me feel better about… well, ME. 

In this kind of environment, it’s easier to see how a candidate like Donald Trump, about as authentic and real as a tofu burger, has managed to inspire tens of millions of Americans, who freely forgive the kind of daily political missteps that in any other era would have brought his political aspirations to a crashing, burning fireball of a halt. It’s because he’s managed to tap into people's inherent desire to be heard and understood. A great many Trump followers believe that he's going to make their world better. Not THE world. Their world. 

Call him unqualified. Call him a loose cannon. A liar. Call him… whatever. But know that in this new world order, for better or for worse, empathy trumps everything. 

Looking back at our industry, we all know those brands that have been successful in communicating and behaving with empathy. Ikea makes us feel like we, too, can have a beautifully decorated home, regardless of our budget. JetBlue allows us to feel like we are always flying first class. Dollar Shave Club recognized our frustrations with personal grooming and designed a product specifically tailored to make our lives easier. And Cheerios just gets us. All these brands show real empathy, focus on delivering better experiences, and unlike most politicians, they actually deliver on that empathy. In return, they win our loyalty, and our business.

So, how can your brand use empathy as an actionable tool to connect with people as individuals? 

Give people what they want. Start by thinking about what people want, not what you want to sell them. The truth of the matter is that in the end, nobody really cares about you or your product. What they really care about… is themselves. If you do, too, you’re off to a very good start.

Meet them where they are. Go where your consumers are, don’t ask them to come to you. Respect the fact that people are busy, and show them that you’re willing to make the effort. And when you get there, don’t interrupt – join. Imagine you’re at a party, having a lively conversation with your friends about whether "The Walking Dead" has finally gone too far… and someone you don’t know steps up and starts yammering away about an amazing new cleaning product they just discovered. What would your reaction be? Probably something other than, "Wow. Tell me more!"

Be useful. Think about how your brand can give people something real and useful, that makes their life better, or easier, or more fun… or just makes them feel better about getting up in the morning. Similar to Dollar Shave Club, start by finding out what consumers want, what’s missing in their lives, and then go back to the drawing board and create that for them. 

So before your creative department obsesses over that one game-changing idea, or your social teams try a little too hard to come up with the coolest new hashtag, remember to put people first. And whatever you’re going to promise them, don’t just talk about it, be sure to deliver on it. Making empty promises, no matter how wonderful they sound—that’s not empathy. And that’s not going to help your business.

—Jurene Fremstad is chief strategy officer of Olson.

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