How to connect in an era of dwindling empathy

Zaid al-Zaidy
Zaid al-Zaidy

Consumers are getting sick of woke-washing and tone-deaf ads.

The marketing industry has more data on consumers than ever before, yet it isn’t always managing to truly connect with people. It is failing because it has an empathy problem, according to a recent survey that showed just 30% of marketing professionals have high levels of perspective-taking and affective empathy.

Bear in mind, too, that this is an industry that was accused earlier this summer of ‘woke’-washing. When Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, called out those brands that try to cash in on causes, I was reminded of the Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner that co-opted the imagery of Black Lives Matter with a ludicrously sugar-coated version of a very real issue. 

Put simply, successful advertising requires empathy. Tone-deaf ads and cynical allusions to more profound causes that entirely lack depth just don’t wash with consumers.

What you don’t want is to make your audience cringe, shrug, squirm, yawn or press the skip button. This is only avoidable if you can get through to people on a deep, emotional level. Your audience needs to be able to relate to your brand, and your brand needs to display relevance and empathy – which isn’t always easy. Take Coca-Cola’s giant animated tongue, which hit our screens this week, and feels somewhat baffling as opposed to life-affirming and nostalgic, as was intended. 

To create or rebuild empathy, brands need to be able to recognise the specific audience energies that are prevalent right now due to economic, cultural, societal and technological change. 

Brands can restore an all-important empathetic connection with their audience by tuning into their energies or mood-states. Three tried and tested strategies that have worked consistently well for this task in the past, and feel pertinent right now, are are utility, individuality and mischief-making.

Utility is a powerful way of adding value at a time when people no longer want to buy products for the sake of it. We’re in the era of peak stuff – when items such as clothing have never seemed more affordable or disposable. In this context, brands that can demonstrate their usefulness in the lives of their audience are capable of standing out from the competition.

Sports brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have long shown their utility for consumers beyond their products by releasing a range of fitness apps to help people reach their fitness goals and connect with each other. Dating app Hinge recently underwent a redesign to bring its ‘designed to be deleted’ feature to the forefront of its user experience. By showing users that it wants them to be able to delete the app one day, the brand harnesses feelings of positivity, which in turn help it connect more deeply with its audience.

Individualism is also on the rise. Consumer demand for personalisation is driving innovation across business and retail. It has resulted in personalised marketing and communications, like another of Coca-Cola’s campaigns, the hugely successful "Share a Coke", as well as new types of business propositions that focus on serving the individual’s needs, such as US fashion tech company Stitch Fix, which uses human stylists alongside algorithms to create a much more personalised way of buying clothes.

Another way to get closer to your audience is to be irreverent and make some mischief. Of course, brands have done their fair share of mischief-making in the past, but with rising levels of anxiety, fear and mistrust it is a tactic that is more potent than ever before.

Brands wanting pointers on this approach need look no further than the fast-food giants. KFC’s "FCK, we’re sorry" ad in response to its chicken shortage was a stroke of mischief-making genius. Meanwhile, Burger King’s "Whopper detour" campaign, which redirected McDonald's customers to the nearest Burger King to get a sandwich for just a penny, swept the boards at Cannes this year and Subway went for masked invaders crashing into its commercial, supposedly in protest about the amount of choice it offers. We’ve also seen this mischief-making strategy adopted in Samsung’s recent "#SponsoredPost" activity in Australia that poked fun at influencers’ unsubtle posts, and Diesel’s "Love is more important than followers" where it celebrated losing 14,000 Instagram followers after the release of its Pride-themed collection.

Brands can actually lose sight of the humanity of their customers in the vast sea of data they have on them. These practical approaches can offer a way forward that invites consumers in and deepens those fundamentally important emotional bonds, with no whiff of hypocrisy or ‘woke’-washing in sight.

Zaid Al-Zaidy is the chief executive of The Beyond Collective

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