Brand Empathy Is About The World Not The Market

Paul FriederichsenJune 18, 20204 min

As marketers, we know that brands carry a unique responsibility in the culture where they exist, because they are active participants in it; and as such, have the power to set the tone, provide the example, and inspire all to do better.

A parallel to the racial injustice movement, is the environmental injustices we saw decades ago. Pollution and global warming consciousness prompted nearly every brand to adopt standards, practices and certifications designed to protect the environment and natural resources. In turn, these brands have helped to raise the awareness and the expectations of consumers in the environmental efficacy of the things they buy. Invariably, some chose to take the shortcut to a green posture and were identified as “green washers”—brands that went through the motions or made false or inflated sustainability claims to compete. Such brands were merely catering to the environmental trend but not truly engaging it in practice. Brands like Interface Flooring, on the other hand, understood the importance of being a true sustainable manufacturer early on, incorporated real change into their policies and practices, and showed the entire world that “going green” and showing respect for the planet was not only the right thing to do, but a very profitable thing to do, as well.

I mention the environmental movement because it has been successful beyond what laws and regulations by themselves could achieve. That’s because the marketplace, driven by brands committed to change, made the difference.

Empathy Is An Action

I believe that treating people with respect and understanding is every bit as important as treating the environment with respect and understanding. It’s simply the right thing to do—whether they purchase your products or not. It’s how each of us, no matter what our race, would like to be treated. That’s called having empathy. So how should brands respond empathetically in this crisis? Or should they respond at all?

First, a reminder that empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. In a business context, active empathy is what matters. That is empathy is clearly demonstrated through business actions.

NASCAR responded with unexpected swiftness and boldness by banning Confederate flags from its events and venues. This was a profound example of brand empathy shown not toward its most ardent supporters, but to society as a whole. NASCAR has put its future on the line by the potential alienation of tens of thousands, perhaps millions of ticket-buying customers and TV viewers by doing the right thing. The brand is hoping that it may now attract a whole new fan base with money to spend. Time will tell. But just as in the Interface example, this is real change and is showing the world by its actions that brands have the power to set the tone, provide the example, and inspire all to do better.

NIKE also made a bold decision by using Colin Kaepernick in 2018 as part of their on-going “Just Do It” campaign, in spite of the heated controversy surrounding his kneeling protest during the National Anthem at football games. Shunned by the NFL, it now appears NIKE’s decision has been vindicated, with the recent reversal of the NFL’s stance about Kaepernick and the message his kneeling conveyed.

Citing that its product’s brand identity was based on a racial stereotype, Quaker Foods North America, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, retired the 130-year old “Aunt Jemima” label in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. According to Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer, “We also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.” It is rare that a company feels the need to jettison 130 years of brand equity, and rarer still is its earnest determination to examine further. This is an expression of brand empathy in action, albeit a very long time in coming. Here we have a reminder that brands are never finished and a deep evaluation of a brand’s role in a broader context must be a daily practice.

Brands Must Be The Change The World Wants To See

In these examples, NASCAR, NIKE and Quaker Foods have made decisions that carry a high degree of risk to the popularity of their brands and sales as a result. Not every brand will have that amount of visibility or be thrust into the national spotlight to choose a response to race relations or social issues. But these brands have. These are not what critics will call “virtue signaling” because they have real economic implications.

As marketers, it is up to each of us to do what Kristin Kroepfl at Quaker Foods is doing: We need to take a hard look and take action.

We have responsibility. We need to do what is right. And we need to have brand empathy for the world around us, not just our market.

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