Empathy has become a hot topic in marketing circles over the past couple of years. The increased interest has been largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted the personal and professional lives of millions and wreaked havoc on the operations of businesses almost everywhere. Astute marketers quickly recognized that communications with customers and potential buyers would only be effective if they embodied a healthy dose of empathy.
If anything, empathy will become even more essential for effective marketing in 2022. So marketing leaders need to make empathy an important focus of their planning for next year.
Why Empathy Matters
Empathy is generally defined as the ability to understand and vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of another person. It's the ability to put yourself in the "heart and mind" of someone and "see the world" as that person sees it.
Empathy is essential for effective human communications of all kinds, and it's particularly important in marketing. One of the primary objectives of marketers is to craft messages that will resonate with customers and potential buyers, and empathy is necessary for achieving that goal.
To create messages that are truly empathetic, marketers must perform two sequential tasks:
- First, they must put themselves in the shoes of their target audience(s) and see the world through their eyes. This step is often called perspective-taking.
- And second, marketers must adapt their messages to fit the mental and emotional perspective(s) of their target audience(s).
In short, marketing messages must be tailored based on all relevant aspects of the audience's perspective in order to produce maximum effectiveness.
Why Empathetic Marketing Is Hard
If you think my description of empathetic marketing sounds a bit like "Marketing 101," you'd be right. Understanding potential buyers and leveraging those insights to create compelling marketing messages has been the fundamental job of marketers for decades. But while empathetic marketing isn't new, it remains very difficult to do well.
One reason is that empathetic marketing requires deep insights about potential buyers, and those insights can't be totally derived from the demographic and behavioral data that most marketers rely on. Therefore, marketers are required to make inferences about several important aspects of their audiences' perspectives.
For marketing messages to be empathetic, those inferences must be reasonably accurate, but drawing accurate inferences about potential buyers isn't easy, even under the best conditions. And that brings us to the second reason that empathetic marketing is difficult to do well.
The Problem of Marketer Bias
Remember that empathetic marketing requires marketers to take on the mental and emotional perspective of their target audience. This means that marketers must be able to set aside their own likes, dislikes and feelings and adopt the persona of their audience. As the insightful Mark Ritson recently wrote:
". . . the first rule of marketing is that you are not the market. All your thoughts and immediate responses to things like advertising, price and packaging are not just incorrect - they are dangerous . . . Learning to separate your own instinctive thoughts and feelings from the actual insights from real consumers is, literally, the first thing a trained marketer learns to do well."
Recent research suggests that many marketers have more work to do to master this vital skill. Over the period of 2017-2020, Reach Solutions (the advertising arm of Reach, plc, the largest national and regional news publisher in the UK) published the results of four studies that provide a wealth of fascinating insights about the state of advertising in the UK. I've provided links to the study reports at the end of this post, and I encourage you to read them.
The first study in 2017 found that the relevance of brands and advertising had declined significantly in the UK, and it revealed that the UK advertising industry was out of touch with the mainstream UK population. The next three studies were designed to explore the potential causes of this disconnect.
The Reach research uncovered several stark differences between the people working in the UK advertising industry and the mainstream UK population. For example:
- People between the ages of 18 and 40 represent just 35% of the UK adult population, but they account for 84% of the UK advertising workforce.
- Less than a third of UK adults have received a college degree, but in the UK advertising industry, ". . . a degree is the minimum requirement for entry level roles."
- Forty-four percent of people working in advertising self-identify as being on the left of the political spectrum vs. only 25% of the mainstream UK population.
Just as important, Reach found that the people working in advertising and marketing do not have an above-average aptitude for empathy. Only 30% have high levels of perspective-taking and affective empathy vs. 29% of the mainstream population.
Reach concluded that the people who work in the UK advertising industry have cognitive biases that cause them "to literally see and experience the world differently from the modern mainstream" and that people in the ad industry "are driven by distinctive personality traits that are not shared by the modern mainstream."
The Reach research was conducted exclusively in the UK, but if comparable studies were done in the U.S., I suspect many of the findings would be similar.
The bottom line is, marketers must make a concerted effort to put aside their emotions, beliefs and cognitive biases in order to take the perspective(s) of their target audience(s). That's not easy to do on a consistent basis, and that's why truly empathetic marketing is hard to do well.
Image courtesy of Ian Burt via Flickr (CC).
Reach Solutions Research Reports
When Trust Falls Down (2017) (Note: Reach Solutions was formerly Trinity Mirror Solutions)
The Empathy Delusion (2019)
The Aspiration Window (2020)