Empathy has always been a cornerstone of good marketing strategy, but trends toward consumer empowerment and digital transparency have made it more important than ever before.

On the most basic level, marketing is the process of communicating ideas and information in a way that motivates someone to take a desired action.

Regardless of your industry, product, or target demographic, doing this successfully will likely be impossible if you fail to master one simple skill: empathy.

Google’s Dictionary widget defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” (The Merriam-Webster definition is pretty long and you’re probably busy…an example of empathy in action).

Based on this definition, the value from a marketing perspective seems pretty clear: without a firm understanding of your audience’s core values and needs, how can you ever hope to make a meaningful connection with them?

Don’t Just Identify Audiences — Understand Them

The notion of empathetic marketing certainly isn’t new. Companies were relying on buyer personas — a classic empathetic marketing tactic — long before the term was coined back in the early 2000s.

In a nutshell, this is the practice of identifying your individual target demographics, then creating fictional characters with traits and emotions that are, generally speaking, representative of each. Personas can include a range of characteristics, such as geographic location, age, income, core values, pain points, knowledge level (about a product or solution), and more — they can be as detailed as you’d like.

The idea is that these personas serve as a roadmap directly into hearts and minds of your audience — particularly when it comes to content and messaging.

The most successful campaigns utilize this information to develop collateral that not only resonates with consumers, but provides real value for them as well.

In an era when the consumers are firmly in the driver’s seat, it’s no surprise that many of the brands with large, loyal customer bases are those that offer the best and/or most useful experiences online.

When executed properly, content like how-to guides and other educational materials, relevant news and insightful commentary, even just a quick laugh or feel-good story can help you gain and ultimately retain an audience.

The point is that when you leverage marketing channels to connect with someone on an emotional level, chances are that when the time comes to make a purchasing decision, they’re going to choose you over a less-familiar competitor. It’s simple psychology.

This Is What Empathy Looks Like

A successful empathetic strategy is simply one that understands what a particular audience thinks is funny, important, useful, problematic, etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be socially conscious, altruistic, or heavy-handed — it just has to be spot-on.

IKEA’s “Retail Therapy” campaign is a perfect example of this — a campaign that makes people laugh and speaks to the real-life, day-to-day issues that its customer base encounters.

(Side note: this one had the added benefit of helping them overcome some of the SEO hurdles that come with the exotically Swedish furniture names.)

Some brands employ this notion of empathy in a more extreme fashion, taking hard political or ethical stands, often based on the personal beliefs of those at the helm.

Since its inception, Patagonia has focused on building a brand synonymous with a number of key political and ethical issues — conservation, ethical supply chains, and environmentalism in general.

Obviously, this approach can be a double-edged sword; on the one hand, there’s a good chance your going to alienate some people — on the other, the customers you do gain are probably going to be far more loyal than if you had played it safe.

It’s not surprising that Patagonia’s customers’ are so willing to dish out $60 for a pair of lightweight running shorts. They believe in the brand so they’re much more motivated to support it — sometimes exclusively.

All of this isn’t to say that you should immediately run out and take a political stand; however, marketing is becoming a much more personalized endeavour. If you can’t effectively demonstrate that you understand and value your customer base, chances are you aren’t going to hold onto it for much longer.
Relying on empathy may not give marketers the sense of security that, say, data does, but when teams use empathy to guide campaigns and content, they’re more likely to be successful.

Author Reuben Weiss

As People Operations Manager, Reuben works to unify L&T's business and talent strategies. He believes that an organization is only as good as its people, and he strives to create a culture that supports L&T’s top asset. Prior to working at L&T, Reuben consulted for various organizations ranging from Fortune 20 corporations to nonprofits. He has also facilitated trainings on executive coaching, effective communication, mindful awareness practices, and working with personality assessments. He holds an M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and a B.A. from UCLA. In his free time, he enjoys exploring bodegas, sauntering, drinking seltzer, and doing yoga.

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