Empathic Branding

Take your mind back to when you discovered some of your favourite things. Favourite singer, favourite team, favourite drink. There is probably one person that you associate intimately with each of these discoveries. At that time, you shared a special bond with that person. You could practically feel what they felt, and experienced a rare feeling of communicating without language. This deep-seated feeling of knowing how someone else feels – that is empathy.

Empathy is the mechanism through which we adopt the vast majority of our core emotional traits, by relating to people we love and trust. Just like children acquire language and physical expressions by copying people around them, we all get a lot of our values and preferences from our emotional environment. This shared register has held communities together for centuries; and in our ever-increasingly connected world, it is becoming vital to understand how it works.

Empathy represents a higher level of emotional communication; beyond feeling good or bad, amused or inspired, it makes us feel connected; it gives us a sense of belonging that touches our very identity. This is why these tastes that have been forged in empathy are almost impossible to break. It is also why empathic messaging is so powerful. The political machines built in the 20th century have become so good at communicating simple, powerful emotions that they got entirely blindsided by the emergence of empathic messaging that delivered Trump and Brexit.

On a more commercial level, it is also what lies behind the rise of “purposeful” branding and advertising in the last few years, from the infamous Pepsi Kendall Jenner spot to the recent and wildly successful Gillette mini-film. The stakes in branding now go beyond emotional response and associations to aim directly at the values, trust, and personal identity of consumers. And the difficulty matches the stakes: to earn this kind of trust means feeling completely genuine, and any whiff of inauthenticity will miss the spot and earn immediate backlash.

Does this mean that any attempt at empathic messaging must appeal to big, profound, larger than life societal issues? Certainly not. There are a million ways that brands can get closer to their consumers, through small changes to the brand experience. Here are a few examples.

Shared language: Insurance as a field is traditionally rooted in a dispassionate calculation around risk and material possessions. Anyone familiar with the Millennial generation’s focus on experiences and holistic approach to life will see how they would naturally distrust and reject personal association with the field.

To tackle it, MassMutual pioneered its Society of Grownups storefronts, modeled like comfortable, down-to-earth coffee shops, where they held free talks on a range of subjects, from will-writing to wine to travel. Most importantly, these were staffed with hosts that scored very high on empathy. The result: brand scores that shot up and a steady and sustained flow of customer recruitment through a hybrid model of Direct-To-Customer sales and marketing.

Currency: Back in 2015, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide used new technology to develop a “magical” experience that they hoped millennial would want to identify with on social media. The SPG Keyless app enables guests to unlock their room door or order room essentials, services or room service through their phone, the chain removed formalisms to the experience to reach an immediacy previously never achieved.
This idea, which saw an overwhelmingly positive response from guests, was the result of a rapid prototype-testing approach aiming to get real ideas in front of real guests, to get their real responses quickly; bypassing the usual quantitative abstractions and reducing development time from 12-18 months to just 6 months.

Physical environment: Around the same time, Marriott approached the same goal of building a closer, more authentic relationship with their guests by expressing a global feeling in local languages. Realising the difficulty for a global hospitality group in delivering the rich, localized, multifaceted experience that millennials expect from their travels, the company instead relied on local personalities, entrepreneurs and hospitality stars.
They identified personalities scoring high in both local authenticity and general empathy, and empowered them to develop their own vision within the hotel space. The success of each of these unique, intimately crafted experiments has been measured not in pure dollar return but in longer term emotional metrics, including social media sentiment and endorsement by individual guests.

Involvement: After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook was in dire need of beefing up its security credentials, but communicating on reinforced security measures only served to worry users more. Their response was to set up a wide, diverse team of cross-functional experts, from communication specialists to marketers to designers to get to the bottom of the user experience.
They found that users wanted not only to know more about the security; but also to be involved and be part of it. This is a natural conclusion for a social media platform, where users have an active engagement in the brand and the system.

Simply put, these examples all share an effort to get a more immediate, more personal, more human view of who the consumers are, to better fit their real emotional needs, which can be almost impossible to anticipate and identify through abstract, data-driven methods. Marriott organised “safaris” to immerse executives at every stage of the research and development; Starwood stripped back their assumptions to build from the ground up, and let real guests react to them in 360 immersion; MassMutuals started actual conversations from person to person; and even Facebook, arguably the largest consumer data repository on Earth, took the time to stop and listen to actual people in their actual context to understand them better.

So if data collection and analysis models are no longer sufficient, what are the key tools and assets to develop a solid empathic understanding, and build corresponding solutions? How can we build brands that embed themselves in the current discourse and are rewarded for their strong, principled stance on things, without fear of appearing inauthentic, tone-deaf or alienating? The key is in having the right people. Empathy lies closest to our deepest selves; who we can relate to depends on who we are.

First, and this cannot be stressed enough: including a set of diverse people at every level of your team is critical. Diversity of background, age, gender, experience, expertise will not only give you truer, richer, more varied views of your consumers and your challenges; it will also spark internal conversations that are more exciting, stimulating, and innovative within your team. A team of ten identical collaborators will only reinforce each other’s existing positions, and eventually will fail to adapt and grow, and get left behind.

Second, bring highly empathic individuals into your teams, and make sure your team exercise empathy regularly. Empathy can be trained through dialogue, experiences, and the effort to open up to other people’s lives; like anything else some people will be better at it than others.

As chance would have it, a highly empathic and very diverse team of strategists, researchers and designers is exactly what Butterfly is. Our focus has always been on uncovering the deeper emotional drivers and identities of consumers, and the client-side experience of our senior team lets us see our clients’ challenges from their perspective. But most importantly for us, it makes it a great place to work together, to learn from each other, and to challenge each other to do better every day.


Sidi Lemine
Associate Director