How to succeed with empathetic marketing


Empathetic marketing reached an intense crossroads in 2020, when the pandemic prompted many brands to respond to collective grief – some successfully, and many turned out to be completely deaf. That doesn’t mean brands should shy away from channeling empathy into their marketing, though; authenticity and authentic connection are more important than ever. To that end, the author recommends three strategies for brands to forge real relationships with customers: 1) keep an ear out, 2) give customers the power to choose, and 3) set the tone with visuals.

Empathy is the basis of an effective marketing strategy. But it’s not always channeled tactfully. Almost immediately after the pandemic hit, marketers rode the wave of “unprecedented times,” rolling out message after message in support of frontline workers and banding together. Two years later, however, this kind of mass messaging amid compounding collective heartbreak rings hollow. But that doesn’t mean emotion and brand connection aren’t necessary — quite the contrary, in fact.

To be truly empathetic means to be true, and emotional marketing campaigns created to capture cultural moments come across as insincere at best and manipulative at worst. Authentic empathy breeds authentic connections between brands and customers.

Nike and Ikea stood out with particularly powerful narrative ads at the start of the pandemic. But many other brands – from fashion companies selling new clothes for fancier “stays” to Loon offering a 20% discount on e-cigarette purchases with a “staysafe” promo code, to name just two examples – awkwardly attempted to weave their way into the “we’re in this together” conversation with little to no success.

To that end, these three strategies can help you personalize your message, evoke genuine compassion, and forge powerful connections with your customers:

1. Keep an ear to the ground.

If the past few years have taught you anything, it’s that a lot can change in a short time. With that in mind, you need to keep a constant pulse on your customers’ wants, needs, and pain points. Otherwise, you will look completely disconnected.

How you engage customers to collect this information will differ depending on a variety of factors, including your specific industry and whether you operate in the B2B or B2C space. However, be sure to balance so-called “anecdotal data” (i.e. evidence based on stated personal preferences as opposed to actual behavioral data) with data on real the decisions people make.

Sometimes people’s true preferences differ from their stated preferences because humans tend to answer questions based on idealized versions of themselves. This is why someone may claim to be an avid NPR listener (stated preference) when in fact they hang out with Britney Spears on their morning commutes (revealed preference).

For example, if you’re a pure e-commerce business, you might use focus groups and ask users to complete surveys, but you also need to monitor actual website user behaviors and compare results. Plus, consider adding interactivity to learn more about your customers’ browsing and buying habits. Being able to truly understand another’s point of view is the foundation of empathetic marketing. Seeing the world from a user’s perspective puts the customer at the center of your strategy and execution.

2. Give customers the power to choose.

Holiday campaigns are a valuable way to raise awareness of your brand and showcase its personality. Unfortunately, holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be painful reminders for some people about lost or estranged loved ones. That’s why marketing teams at brands ranging from Pandora to the Democratic National Committee have recently experimented with “unsubscribe” emails for major holidays. Consider, for example, this post from Etsy:

“We understand that Mother’s Day can be a difficult time for some. If you would prefer not to receive emails from us regarding Mother’s Day this year, let us know by opting out below. We’ll always keep you posted on unique finds we think you’ll love, just without the Mother’s Day messages.

Although some may argue that offering an opt-out can be After trigger than traditional marketing emails usually send, I firmly believe that allowing customers to choose how they interact with you is the ultimate act of empathetic marketing. Plus, marketing technology is advanced enough to make it easy to segment your audiences to send or retain specific messages.

While this is the first year luggage brand Away has offered an opt-out choice on Mother’s and Father’s Day emails, it won’t be the last. According to company representatives, more than 4,000 Away email subscribers have unsubscribed from holiday emails and another 250 have sent messages to the company expressing their thanks for its thoughtfulness. Expect more brands to follow suit.

3. Set the tone with visuals.

The last thing you want is for target audiences to perceive your empathetic message as superficial or false. To minimize the possibility of your message appearing superficial, use visual design to set the tone. And whatever you do, make sure it matches the brand you’ve created.

A wonderful example of visually authentic design is professional services firm Ernst & Young. The topic is relatively mundane, but when you visit its website, you see photos of diversity, nature and aspiration, which dovetail well with the brand’s empathetic slogan: “Building a better working world”.

Additionally, ask yourself: can you redesign your design to be more accommodating and tactful? According to The Vision Council, three-quarters of people use some kind of vision correction. So a more accommodating approach to design that isn’t cluttered and doesn’t strain your eyes can position your business as an empathetic and collaborative one.

Again, authenticity is key. Avoid visuals that promote toxic positivity (which will come across as insensitive) and definitely avoid Hallmark stock footage. Make sure your brand visuals take into account the multiple experiences people can have: the good, the bad, and the not so good.

The ability to understand other people’s perspectives has always been paramount in marketing, and this rings especially true in times when it feels like we’ll all be engulfed in collective grief. However, to be successful with empathetic marketing, it must be personalized and authentic. There’s no such thing as faking it until you make it, so get to work.


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