Let’s Get Personal (Through Empathetic Marketing)

When I first started my marketing career in the early ‘90s, account planning by and large consisted of studying primary and secondary research in order to arrive at a solid strategy.

Fast forward to today. In working with so many different, sophisticated clients and having been through the sea change of tech, the “discovery” phase is now comprised of so much more than studying traditional market research. It seems that my empathetic nature has helped immensely in developing solid marketing strategies. I always thought I was inherently good at walking a mile in another person’s shoes. The business world has also increasingly embraced the value of emotion in selling products. This approach is called empathetic marketing or empathic design.

Insights through observation.

I was first exposed to this approach when I worked at a game manufacturing company and visited an industrial and product design firm. They embraced ethnography, the systemic study of people and cultures, or more simply, observational research. I was fascinated. Observation is the baseline characteristic of empathetic marketing – by using ethnography to get to the goal of identifying latent consumer needs. At its foundation, it is watching consumers use products or services. But unlike in focus groups, usability sessions and other contexts of traditional market research, the observation is conducted in the consumer’s own environment, and in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such context, researchers can gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through other observation-oriented research methods.

If you’re truly walking a few steps in another’s shoes, and are sensitive to a customer’s wants and needs, you’re onto something. And, that something could possibly be mind-blowing.

Get real.

Although this is considered a highly specialized area, I do think inherently, a good marketer and strategist must be able to listen deeply. The learning here is that we need to observe and tap into our own intuition to truly understand what it’s like to be in another person’s situation. We need to “get real with our bad selves” by moving our biases aside, and understand that not all needs are cleanly articulated in just a survey or focus group, especially in any kind of linear manner. It is the notion that impassioned determination and listening goes much deeper than taking a solely systematic approach to research.

This theory is not common practice. But it is true that humans are hard wired for empathy, and consumer behavior is determined by the emotional stimuli that a marketing message delivers. Simon Sinek says this best in his Starts with Why approach – that this decision-making behavior is, believe it not, rooted in biology.

How can you apply empathy into your business approach with both research and common sense as part of your arsenal?

  • Get real with your bad self – keep your own biases from getting in the way of seeing other perspectives. Look deep into the impact your product or service has on people from all walks of life in various circumstances.
  • Think not-so-traditional – when thinking of ways to conduct research, also keep non-traditional ways in mind like eye tracking or ethnography.
  • Apply empathy in customer service – empathy reaches the consumer at a deeper level when it is carried through your organization. When talking to a customer, use language like “I can hear how frustrated you are and I’m sorry. Let’s take care of this.” Acknowledge how they feel instead of defending yourself. It’s so much like a personal relationship!
  • Market a mindset – if you can tap into one or two major barriers a customer may have about your product or service, you could create a breakthrough idea. Do your customers hate waiting in line? Maybe you have a service that allows customers to buy a product online and pick it up in-store to bypass the checkout stand.

Customers are going to connect with brands that understand them best. We’ve never been more advanced with ways to resonate with customers, but at times there is a disconnect between brand and consumer. And fixing that begins with empathy.

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