The Role Of Empathy In Marketing

Walker SmithMay 28, 20243 min

The most underdeveloped skill in marketing is empathy. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

When I say empathy, I’m not talking about sympathy, or compassion, concern or caring for someone. Rather, I mean seeing the world through the eyes of someone else. To walk in their shoes (to mix metaphors). To imaginatively get inside the gritty lived experience of someone else.

The marketing lens on the world tends to be an outside-in view, not a view from the inside-out. When marketers conduct research, consumers are put in the spotlight and asked to present their attitudes and behaviors to be recorded. This means that nearly everything marketers see is performative, not authentic. Empathy is impossible when everything under the microscope is performative.

This observation is nothing new. Researchers have long known that research is an artificial construct that has an impact on how people answer. The interviewer, whether in-person or implicit, is an audience for respondents.

The reluctance of many Trump voters to put their opinions on display to the interviewer is a performative effect. So is the difficulty of getting honest answers about socially unacceptable behaviors like drug use or the challenge of calibrating over-enthusiasm for new products.

I am not suggesting that qualitative is better than quantitative research. All forms of interviews entail a structured interaction in which consumers have a certain role to play. I would argue that the people in the room and behind the mirror make focus groups even more performative than surveys. And social media are performative by definition.

But performative doesn’t mean unhelpful. The shopper journey itself is a structured interaction with a small number of fixed roles for consumers. Every aspect of shopping, from watching ads to browsing stores to paying for something, is also an artificial construct.

Marketing research needn’t be about people’s true selves (whatever that means). It should be about the performative selves that people step into when they shop. Over time, the artificiality of research has become well-tuned to the artificiality of shopping.

Marketing research is not about getting behind the shopping mentality that people use to perform what they need to do in the marketplace. That shopping mentality is exactly what research must study if it is to be helpful to marketers.

Again, what I’m saying is nothing new and seems obvious to me. Yet, authenticity is often held out these days as the gold standard for research and marketing. It is a tacit element of the call for customer-centricity. It has become perhaps the most important metric of accuracy in our age of fluid self-expression and cultural affirmation. With authenticity comes the high priority currently placed on empathy.

My point is not to dispute authenticity. I believe it is part of an important socio-political shift, not merely a fashion. But I am not convinced that authenticity is the true measure of marketing, nor that empathy is a muscle that marketers need to pump up.

That said, there is one sense in which empathy is relevant. The best brands are always built by satisfying core needs. This means something vital in a genuinely human way—which, of course, is a fuzzy concept. I interpret it to mean cutting through the guff to deliver something fundamentally beneficial.

Benefits can be hard to sort out, though. In Maslow’s hierarchy, the performative needs of self-actualization and self-esteem are no less important than any so-called authentic physiological or security or belonging needs. Moreover, most markets today are developed enough that performative constructs are the ways in which physical and emotional fundamentals are expressed. Meaning that marketers need only focus on what’s performative rather than struggle with empathy to get to something authentic.

Perhaps empathy means nothing more than getting behind the performative mask. But if that’s all that empathy is, it loses any real meaning.

Marketing is supposed to sell. Marketing research is supposed to help marketers sell more. Maybe that requires more empathy. Maybe not.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar

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