A systemic lack of empathy increases the odds of business failure.
I don’t intend that as a maxim of corporate responsibility—although it surely applies in that vein. No, an empathetic approach toward viewing customers when developing products, marketing, and communications is essential to closing the gap between a business and the needs of its customers.
Why Empathy Matters
Just as no one wants to take advice from the out-of-touch relative they see once a year, no customer wants to do long-term business with a company out of step with her daily life.
Empathy lessens the effects of what sociologists call social distance—the separation of individuals or groups who are physically close but culturally disparate. Organizations create social distance when they categorize audiences using depersonalizing marketing terminology (viewers, eyeballs, non-respondents, etc.) without balancing these quantitative methods with qualitative tactics rooted in the psychology of the audience.
In Chris Hayes’ recent book, Twilight of the Elites, the author recounts several psychology experiments showing how leaders are more susceptible to falling out of touch with subordinates or audiences they seek to reach and finding that “those in power pay less attention to the characteristics, views of, and details about the low-power people they encounter, and are less empathetic overall.”
That concept of social distance is equally pertinent to consumer marketing strategy. If you’re even the slightest bit removed from the day-to-day experiences of your customer, you risk falling behind the competitor that remains in tune.
The importance of empathy in eliminating social distance is simple, but equally overlooked: Empathy is our link between another person and his or her most important psychological needs. The prevailing framework today guiding how we typically discuss consumer needs is fundamentally flawed. You’ll often hear marketers and executives refer to the needs of their customers, but most often, they’re just repeating a functional description of what it is their product or service intends to do. But to close social distance and empathically engage with a target audience, it’s better to target people’s deeper emotional needs—self-expression, control, recognition, belonging, care, and growth. Studies show that these needs (or variations thereof) are universal in all humans, and those needs are often unconsciously active when interacting with brands in the consumer marketplace.
Here’s a brief illustration of how this works: Years ago, one of my clients, a leading meat producer, encountered a problem of social distance head on. They had developed a new lean, tasty pork product that could be cooked in half the time as traditional pork. They assumed it would be an instant hit and set about launching the product—to disappointing and confusing results. Though the product did very well in controlled taste tests, field reviews of actual consumers were consistently poor. To investigate, our firm conducted in-home research with consumers, and it found that, despite clear instructions boldly announcing the shorter cooking time required, consumers were instinctively overcooking the leaner cut out of deeply ingrained safety concerns.
The manufacturer didn’t initially realize the powerful force our deeper emotional needs and concerns have on shaping our behaviors, and the difficulties they would have overcoming consumers’ deep-rooted perceptions and habits. So when a product called “pork” was designed to perform differently than the pork they knew, instructions were simply not enough to circumvent the consumers’ habitual control mechanism. The product had to be marketed as an entirely new meat, in line with a campaign that changed national perceptions of the fatty protein.
Listen to Your Customers
Inoculating an organization from profit-threatening social distance is simple: Don’t presume you know what clients, employees or customers need. Listen for their needs, observe their behaviors, and discover the psychological triggers underlying their decision making. Empathy-based, qualitative research, such as ethnography, in-depth interviews and focus groups, are still useful tools for providing key insights into the deeper needs, hopes, and concerns of your target customers. And the rise of technology has provided a plethora of new strategies—such as ongoing, online consumer communities—to obtain consumer insights through every aspect of developing and launching new marketing campaigns or products.
By making empathy and consumer understanding a priority and taking advantage of the tools available, companies can ensure they remain in touch with the hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers.