Blind consultancies: Why it’s time to bring back consumer empathy

When viewed from a human evolutionary perspective, being nice doesn’t make that much sense—after all, it’s hard to reason with a hungry lion. Despite that, empathy appears to have been as sharp a survival tool as a spear. Much of our increased neural volume over the last 2.5 million years has been dedicated to growing our interpersonal capacities. From understanding to attachment to cooperation—and everything in between—it can be argued that the complexities of relationships have driven human evolution due to the fact that we are distinctly social animals.

Nevertheless, modern life has not been kind to empathy. Ever since Hobbesian and Freudian dogma painted a rather dark depiction of humanity, people have largely been cast as essentially self-interested creatures with highly individualistic ends. Such introspection defined much of twentieth century, as the leading thinkers of the day posited that the best way to understand who we are is to look inside ourselves and focus on our own feelings, experiences, and desires. The result was a sort of alchemical dream for changing one’s personality by remaking, remodeling, and elevating ourselves. For evidence, just look at the self-improvement books that fill our shelves or the well-trodden paths to the local yoga studio.

Yoga class

Yet, embracing these inner drives risks setting each of us on an island of one. It also reduces empathy to an unnecessary aptitude—a sort of warm and fuzzy emotion equated with acts of everyday kindness. At best, empathy is seen as the emotional equivalent of a hug. At worst, it is seen as a weakness, a misguided predisposition of the most sensitive soulsThe result is a major swing on the introspection-outrospection seesaw, and if we don’t rebalance it, we risk unseating the empathist in all of us.

Empathy and brand

Empathy has suffered equally at the hands of commerce. It didn’t take long for the peddlers of Madison Avenue to become hooked on the belief that people will behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional feelings and desires. Go on, they said, drive the car that reflects you. Cigarettes? You mean torches of freedom. While the Ad Men proved that playing on emotion was an effective means of gaining competitive advantage and driving the bottom line, their approach also created a vacuum that removed morality from empathy. Their thinking showed little concern for consumers as people, nor did it try to solve the real problems that blighted people’s everyday existences.

Ford Mustang

When we consider societal shifts and advertising mindsets together, we could diagnose a current “empathy deficit.” Not only have we encouraged a society focused on individualistic self-preservation, we’ve also stocked our shelves with a swathe of meaningless brands. Consider this: In a Havas consumer study people said they wouldn’t care if three-quarters of brands vanished tomorrow. It is little surprise then that 75 percent of concepts tested by Nielsen do not fundamentally address a consumer need. That fact is not easy to sweep aside. As brand stewards, the alarm bells should be ringing. Loudly.

In particular, the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) juggernauts seem to have lost sight of the very thing that made them so powerful in the first place: knowing their consumer inside and out, as individuals with unique sets of needs that products can help resolve. Instead, business growth has created an empathetic distance.

Unsurprisingly, monolithic companies suffer from atrophied, matrix-based organizational structures. By weaving together a web of reporting relationships, decision ownership becomes obfuscated, diminishing agility and responsiveness. This in turn pushes consumers further away, making it even more difficult to genuinely understand and care about their needs. As a result, many brand strategies have been pursued on the basis of outdated logic. Relevance is a moveable beast: What built big brands in the past cannot necessarily sustain them in the future.

For reference, just take a look at what appeals to the modern consumer. Preference and desire are completely in flux. Consumers yearn for small and local, a development seemingly missed by established FMCG companies. Younger users are now applying Haeckels skin cream in the morning, eating Halo Top ice cream in the afternoon, and washing it all down with pints of Young Master. In reality, these small brands are not stealing market share because people no longer care about big brands. They’re succeeding because they are more clued into what consumers desire.

What's Inside One of Hong Kong's First Beer Breweries

Given the evidence, some commentators have judged that the days of organic growth for core FMCGs may be over. These critics believe that to keep competing, FMCGs face limited options: They either need to launch smaller brands and risk fragmenting focus and resources, or pursue deep cost-cutting measures to increase earnings. That, however, misses an obvious but overlooked point. While on the surface preferences have shifted, the fundamental drivers of consumer demand have remained remarkably consistent over time—people are not that fickle or hard to predict.

Indeed, consumers’ core needs and desires—whether it is pampering, motivation, relaxation, or perking up—are nothing new. What is new is the ability of smaller brands to identify and profitably tap into underserved needs. Take coffee as an example. Consumers have always sought out drinks that serve as a pick-me-up—Peet’s and Blue Bottle did not discover a new need. Instead, they created a better and more relevant idea about how to fulfill the existing need.

At the heart of brand success is the ability to be useful—this is what drives relevance. The strength of any brand is intimately tied to what it means to people, both functionally and emotionally. Meaning, though, does not just stem from how a brand is positioned, but how it is used and experienced every day. In a nutshell, use value creates brand value.

Why empathetic branding is vital

Today, success requires moving away from the ad-land model of manipulating consumers’ desires to one that instead focuses on understanding their needs. It is far from an easy task, so the imperative for brand consultancies must be to take on the role of “resident human,” to borrow a phrase from a wise former colleague.

It might seem an obvious point, but the brand-building process is too frequently imbalanced, weighted more toward generating creative solutions rather than starting with immersion and analysis. That’s not to say consumer insight has been completely ignored, but it is often the victim of shortcuts. Perhaps worst of all is the instinct to turn to the internet for answers. Yes, the web can provide endless information about people, but it creates an illusion of proximity that actually keeps us further apart. Facts often anesthetize rather than illuminate, providing only part of the picture, and failing to capture real emotion, feeling, and nuance.

Google: Popularized by external brand communities

As a result, the internet can be an overly blunt research instrument. Google searches tend to spit out syndicated data that is applied loosely to convenient catchall groups like “millennials” or the “silver generation.” It can lead to the lazy assumption that all constituents have similar needs regardless of context or culture and that these needs don’t change from one day to another. In truth, there are 7.6 billion different realities out there from people with distinct needs, wants, and daily struggles. Worse still, in the absence of effective upfront empathy, insights are often crafted with a level of professional deformity—“me” marketing—where conclusions are built on “what I like” or “what I need,” rather than a deeper understanding of the larger user base.

The future of brand and empathy

To build real valuewe need a new playbook. It requires consultancies to bake effective empathy into the branding process from the outset. That means getting out there, inhaling the user’s world, and making the leaps required to identify ways to improve people’s lives through brand interactions. Rather than starting with old-hat demographics and attitudes, we must become more demand-centric in our thinking. To do so, we need to take a forensic approach to customers and build the brand around them, focusing on the intersection of context, person, and the consumers’ emotional and functional needs. It’s simple: Ask the right questions, articulate the demands, assess the achievable needs the brand can meet, and generate insights to underpin the approach.

Take Nigel. He’s a tired 21-year-old going out with his mates at 9 pm and wants something to get the night going because he, like many people, needs a little motivation to get up and get going. The need could be described as “firing up.” The question then becomes, how could a drink brand fulfill that need? Seedlip profitably tapped into this insight by creating a bespoke, high-quality range of drinks without any of the alcohol or calories.

Seedlip Spice Tonic Cocktail Recipe

For another example, consider Hilton’s efforts to understand what its true use value was for guests. The hotel chain conducted extensive interviews to create a map of what really mattered to guests. In doing so, it identified an opportunity to help guests “recharge and refresh.” The hotel brand’s successful transformation speaks for itself—and it’s not alone. BCG found that brands that target specific demand spaces tend to outperform competitors. None of that can happen without empathy.

Strong, future-proofed brands do not rely on strategic decisions made in the twilight between what we think we know and what we actually know. Competitive advantage is rooted in how well a brand is engrained with its consumers. When you strip it back, branding will always be about emotion, experience, and fulfillment.

Even in an Alexa world, the brands that can retain and layer human aspects with technological ones will stand a far greater chance of thriving. Empathetic understanding is how we can turn function to meaning, ensuring a brand enhances well-being and enriches people’s everyday lives. To fix the empathy deficit, the onus is on both brand managers and consultants. It too often has felt like a case of the blind leading the blind. So, here’s a call to action: Brand managers, demand empathy of your consultants. Consultants, demand it of your people. Together, we can crack the frozen sea.


This piece was originally published in Branding in Asia (29 June 2018). Republished with permission.