Great marketing starts with a good foundation of empathy

The recent furore of the controversial H&M advert has left many speculating how such a blunder could have occurred. Whilst the whirl of debates raged through social media like wildfire, many felt that an oversight like this could have been avoided easily. They should have researched the target audience landscape, they say. After all, it’s the logical thing to do. So why was it so hard? 

The answer lies in the complex concept of empathy. In recent years, empathy has become a buzzword in the industry, along with ‘human-centric’ and ‘authentic’. Yet it is still an approach that is met with a lot of resistance in many business environments, often dismissed as being too ‘hippy’ or ‘sappy’. 

On the other hand, those who do embrace it, often find it challenging to apply it successfully. Noah Fenn, head of video sales and strategy at AOL, highlights a phenomenon which he termed as ‘Collective Amnesia’. When a company's marketing teams embark on campaigns, they suddenly forget that they are also part of the population with whom their brands are trying to reach and engage.

Having said that, empathy can be difficult to understand. And without a solid of grasp of empathy, it becomes difficult to integrate it effectively into business marketing strategies. Business marketing without a good understanding of empathy is a precarious landscape to navigate, as one misstep can cause dire consequences for any business. Think how the H&M campaign, which was initially targeted at customers in the UK, went viral and resulted in the vandalism of South African stores.

Empathy goes beyond sympathy, a state with which it is often mistaken. According to observations made by Windahl and Signitzer (1992), empathy is more valuable to a communicator than sympathy. They define empathy as ‘the capacity to understand how other people perceive and interpret reality […] without giving up one own’s view of reality’. 

Additionally, having empathy is not the same as demonstrating empathy. Effectively conveying empathic emotion not only requires the ability to understand what others are feeling (Duan, 2000; Duan & Hill, 1996; Goleman, 2006), but also requires the ability to actively share emotions with others, and passively experience the feeling of others (Kellett, Humphrey & Sleeth, 2006).

Here’s where it gets hard. First and foremost, empathy requires a continuous effort of self-transformation. Yes, it starts with you. It begins with self-awareness, emotional receptiveness and mindfulness. 

It involves having the courage to challenge your own pre-defined conditioning, perceptions and beliefs. It requires actively listening in a world of increasing levels of distraction and embracing difficult conversations without getting defensive. It also involves sharing with no judgement and hopefully, walking away with a better understanding of what another person has experienced. It might even be necessary to confront your own pain from past personal experiences to identify with another on a deeper level. This can be brutal.

Only by raising your own consciousness to be aware of the needs of others, to feel what others feel and to be able to show it, can it be applied outwards into best business marketing practices.

It is indisputable that empathy plays a critical role in building relationships. For companies wishing to connect with their customers, empathy is invaluable to creating trust and enabling people to believe in a brand.

But what about empathy within a company itself? A lesser known benefit is the positive correlation between empathy and leadership performance, as pointed out in The Centre for Creative Leadership study “Empathy in the Workplace”. It was observed that the more empathic the people were, the higher the level of leadership and management performance. People who naturally exude empathy have a competitive advantage over their peers. As such, adopting a practice of driving empathy from inside an organisation outward to engage with its target audience can have a compound effect in creating positive brand associations.

The good news is that empathy can be learned or enhanced. However, it is also a perpetual work in progress, as there will always be more to learn. Most importantly, it must be practiced with vigilance. As the adage goes: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” While the journey of elevating your empathy can be a steep learning curve, active and consistent efforts in demonstrating it will often be appreciated. 

Thus, herein lies a golden opportunity for you and your business: to create a foundation of shared experiences to grow and evolve with your audience.

*Sophia Liu is a Johannesburg-based brand communications specialist and media strategist.

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