In an age in which understanding your customers and building relationships with them has become key to standing out in crowded marketplaces, empathy takes on a new level of priority. Empathy allows brands to build an emotional connection with their audience, to engage the people who use their products in real conversations and to inspire connection.
Customers want to know that brands “get them.” They want brands to feel their challenges and celebrate their wins. They want brands to feel friendly, comfortable and trustworthy. It’s a feeling of “Yes, this is me” that taps into customer identity and lets brands establish connections almost like friendships.
So, what are the top four things you need to know about empathy when you are building or developing your brand?
1. Show Compassion
Quitplan, a Minnesotan smoking cessation service, employs compassion as its main audience pull. In one ad, Angie tells a personal story about being pressured by everyone around her to quit smoking. In just 30 seconds, Quitplan explains how hard it is for smokers to give up and what can be done to make it easier for them. Their mottos are, “No judgment, just help” and, “Empathy is the best way to help a smoker.”
Empathy is particularly important in “burden categories,” or areas people don’t want to deal with or spend money on. According to Christen Ostrom, Business Development Manager at the creative agency Clarity Coverdale Fury (which created the Quitplan ad), tax software, insurance and smoking cessation are all “burden categories.” It is difficult to get excitement out of customers about tax season, or car insurance. Because these areas are necessities rather than fun or enriching purchases, traditional advertising methods don’t work.
As Christen says:
“Putting a happy face on tedious obligations does not resonate with consumers.”
Instead, brands should be (or at least seem to be) genuine and transparent. This creates an emotional connection with the consumer, who believes the brand understands their struggles, maybe even shares them.
2. It’s Not Enough To Sell A Product, People Want To Make A Connection
Millennial and Gen Z consumer, in particular, don’t want to be sold to, but they do want to make a connection. That’s why companies are investing more and more in building relationships with their customers. While for the last few years the focus was on the customer themselves, it is now about building relationships between customers and a brand.
Now that we are illustrating our personal brands on Facebook and Instagram, commercial brands have the opportunity to not just advertise, but to create an identity.
In her talk at SXSW, Shama Hyder questioned whether brand development is still about asking: “What does our brand stand for?” Hyder concluded that it is no longer so much about the brand itself, but what a brand’s identity can mean for the personal identities of every one of its users.
“Historically, we have been asking: what does our brand stand for? But what if that’s the wrong question? (…) The right question to be asking is: What does doing business with us allow our customers to say about their personal brand?”
What does an association with a brand mean for a customer? What are the opportunities for brands to create connections?
Marketing professionals should keep in mind that it is now most important that customers believe brands get them. Even something as small as, “this brand understands my lifestyle,” or “this brand understands how I consume media” can begin a relationship, and a relationship with a brand means a customer is likely not just to buy from that brand but to return to them repeatedly. Brands need identities, and those identities should reflect the identities of their customer base.
3. Your Brand Narrative Has To Resonate On An Individual Level
Dana Neujahr, a digital marketing specialist and SVP at the Los Angeles based creative agency Something Massive, reminds us, in a panel at SXSW,
“If you think about your favorite ads or piece of content you couldn’t wait to share, a big part why it’s a favorite is, because there is some insight in there, some nuance that is so true, so funny or so relevant to who you are and where you are in that moment of time.”
The connection an individual consumer feels can come through humor, inspiration, or relatability, amongst other things.
Sports brands and beauty brands often use inspiration to reach out to customers; Nike pushed this to its limits with an hour-long documentary on the attempt to beat the two-hour marathon barrier, combined with #breaking2 for smaller hits of content.
ASOS, on the other hand, nailed relatability recently when they struck deals with Instagram influencers who then modeled and discussed ASOS products on their channels. Instagram influencers and micro-influencers are often more relatable to consumers, helping stories to resonate on an individual level.
In order to have a resonant narrative as marketers, we must realize we aren’t aiming our brands at everyone. Narrow it down. Who is likely to buy your product? Who is likely to respond to your brand? Consumers aren’t just numbers or stats. Think about what your friend Liza wants and how she lives her life. Would she connect with your narrative? Having a concrete person (who belong to your target group) in mind is a popular writing hack which helps connect to that one person, and hopefully to many other people as well.
4. Brands Need To Be Real
One way to connect with consumers is to present an image of “realness.” This creates compassion and connection, presenting a brand as “just like you.”
In the 2017 Forbes article titled ‘Imperfect is Perfect,’ Lauren Stephens heralded the rise of more authenticity and realness in advertising. Stephens claims that imperfection creates trust in customers. This is why many well-known brands have been using “real” models in their advertising, taking the lead from Dove’s campaigns which started in 2013.
Perfect images are great, but consumers have been bombarded with them for decades. In an age in which we all know about airbrushing and fake perfection, we want to see “real” people using products. We want to see smokers having a hard time quitting or a glass of Malbec making someone feel better after a bad day.
Buying a product is a journey, from discovering a product or service exists, finding out about the product or service in detail, to purchasing the product. Good marketing strategies walk their consumers from one step to the next. Using all of our suggestions to build empathy should help you hold the hand of your customers, bringing them with you all the way.
Rebecca Vogels is founder and CEO of the Brand and Story-Agency All of the Above. She is a Keynote Speaker, Forbes contributor and was named Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Tech by the California Diversity Council. She offers workshops about personal branding, story, and purpose. You can find out more about her #storyfirst approach here.