Why Every Brand Needs To Practice Active Empathy

Lee Hartley CarterNovember 4, 20194 min

Not so long ago it used to be that the role of marketers, communicators, and politicians was to fall in love with their target audience. We would spend time learning about our customers. What they did when they woke up. What kind of coffee they drank (or didn’t drink). Through market research, we knew everything about them, and we loved everything we discovered. Fast forward to today. We know more about our customers than we ever have before, and we love them less. In fact, if you are honest with yourself— do you even like them?

It seems like the more data we have, the less intimate we’ve become. As someone who mines and analyzes this data, I can say it’s a huge problem. Frequently we give our clients information about their potential clients’ preferences but hit a wall because we find we can’t make them care. Persuading someone to give you what you want starts with intimately knowing that person and caring about who they are and what they need. We need to practice what I call, active empathy.

Empathy is a word used to describe a wide range of experiences. I am defining empathy as the ability to understand other people’s emotions, values, and behaviors. This does not mean you have to agree with their emotions, values, and behaviors, but it does mean that you are willing to suspend your own judgment long enough to be able to see the world from their perspective.

Active empathy is a three-step process that covers:

1. Emotion: What emotions will make it possible or impossible for me to effectively communicate with my audience? How can I address our respective emotional states so that we can have a constructive conversation?
2. Values: How can I better understand the values that are most important to my audience so that I can communicate about what matters to me in language that resonates with them?
3. Behaviors: How can I better understand my audience by looking at what they actually do in addition to what I think they do or what they say they do?

One of the greatest recent brand strategies to come out of this kind of intimate knowledge was Dove’s. Industry colleagues tell me that in 2004, Dove was actually about to shut down the brand, based on weak sales and the executives’ perception that the brand wasn’t sexy enough. They sent their researchers out to find out how they could “make Dove sexy.” Well, after talking with hundreds of women, the researchers came back to say, “You don’t.” The research team made the case that the brand needed to be about the real beauty of real women, authentic, unretouched, and honest. The executive committee responded, “That’s crazy. Who does that? No, we’re going to close.”

The researchers were devastated. They knew their data was right. They knew the strategy they were offering was right. They also knew they had gotten one thing very, very wrong. They hadn’t told their story in a way that would resonate with the executive team. They had failed to have empathy with the decision makers. So they went back to the committee and asked if they could talk to members of the committee’s families. After doing this, the researchers brought the executive committee back into the room and showed them a video of the women in their own lives— their daughters, wives, mothers, and girlfriends— talking about how much they hated their appearance, sharing all their insecurities and fears about their bodies, faces, and hair.

And this time the men got it. The brand went back and started truly listening to their customers about their weight, about aging, about never feeling like they measured up. Then, instead of taking the approach every other product line on the market did— “Oh, we can give you something to solve that”— they told their consumers, “You are perfect just the way you are. We celebrate you. And we’ve made these products to make you feel like the best version of yourself, flaws and all.” It was groundbreaking and turned the company into an industry leader.

In Persuasion There Is Only One Truth That Matters: Theirs

At our company, we say that there are two truths: yours and theirs. In persuasion, there is only one truth that matters: theirs. If you aren’t speaking to that truth, you aren’t engaging with them. And without that engagement, persuasion is impossible. Oftentimes we get frustrated with our target audience when they don’t understand. When they don’t listen. I will tell you what we tell all our clients: if they can’t hear you, it’s not their fault. It’s only once you know your audience as much as you know yourself or your product or your company that you can begin to communicate with them. In a world that is filled with clutter, content, advertising, and noise you have to find a way to break through.

Your target audience is just one click, swipe, search, or email away from the information that will speak to them. If you don’t meet them where they are, they will find the content that will speak directly to them— and that might not be to your benefit. I can’t underscore this point enough: persuasion is an act of empathy. It takes total commitment and focus. It takes discipline and energy. But if you do it right, it will be worth it, because once you really understand the other, you will be able to engage and move the needle.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Lee Hartley Carter from her book Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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