Does marketing have an empathy problem?

​Good marketing has always had its finger on the pulse of what the people want and has worked hard to put this at the heart of the business.

Yet as businesses are working out how to be more inclusive and brands are navigating the implications of this for their focus and activity, there is a growing community who are impatiently waiting for you to catch up to their needs, wants and aspirations for our future together.

We’re at a time in society when the need to use genuine empathy as our guide has never been greater. With a significant shift in people’s expectations for the contribution of brands to wider social issues, the Endelman report of 2020 shows growing an upward trend of new demands for brands to get where they are and what matters most to them.

When it comes to inclusive marketing, people are asking brands to be more active in the fight against systemic racism and discrimination and to be visible in celebrating diversity and inclusivity. There’s sensitivity to how identity is used, to be smarter about seeing whole people not just one aspect of identity, and to walk the tightrope of balancing authentic representation with authentic intentions. Diversity is as much about what happens behind the camera as what’s shown on screens. People want genuine activism on issues preventing black and brown joy so that the celebration of them has backbone and substance.

Brand owners navigating this landscape need the full power of empathy to get there.

The kind of empathy that is multi-faceted and is about understanding the outside as much as the inside. Yet as our obsession with data has grown, we’ve lost connection with the humanity that comes from really understanding the full context of people, their world and how it intersects and is influenced by our own. We need to get back there, quickly.

One could argue that much of business understanding of people comes from a kind of empathy called cognitive empathy. This is a thinking empathy that exercised from a distance; outsiders looking in to better understand another group. We give lip service to their wider context, but mainly this kind of understanding others seems like othering and can feel quite intellectual. Probably so because we’ve looked at consumers rather than people most of the time.

But when we turn our marketing gaze to look at how we respond to these broader, bigger social issues, this limited kind of empathy is problematic. Not really connected with the whole person and their context, but more concerning that it comes loaded with all our bias, stereotypes and assumptions in how we decode what we hear.

So, whilst we’re walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, we can only take the route we know. With the obvious lack of diversity in the industry, there is a white, middle class monoculture informing that viewpoint.

Fundamentally, teams that lack diversity and operate at a cognitive empathy level are not equipped to find their way through cultural context and nuance and this means the risk of tokenism, cultural insensitivity and unintentional racism is potentially higher. We saw this in the white liberal feminism biased Women’s Hour interview of Zara Mohammed, the newly appointed Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain, criticised for being ‘white women’s hour’. It’s visible in the most recent ad from Walkers announcing their KFC collaboration with their complete disregard for their contribution to negative racial stereotyping and lack of understanding of the performative blackness that needs challenging.

What feels important to make much more space for is emotional empathy, that comes when we deeply listen not to what people say but how and why they say it. It’s this kind of empathy that allows people feel truly seen and heard. For an industry that prides itself on emotional connection, there’s not enough different people being truly seen.

In the work I do in embedding anti-racism in organisations, the biggest barrier to emotional empathy is being overly preoccupied with one’s own emotions and reactions. It drowns out others’ voices, distorts what we see and shapes how we interpret what we hear. Effectively, it stops us being there for others and keeps our fear as the loudest voice in the room.

When we can get out of our own way, we can use this empathy to start powerful conversations that enable perspective shifts, enrich worldviews, and bring us closer together. It can help us not only see the person but to better see more clearly how we are in relation to them. I loved the way Mattel’s vlogger Barbie used her platform to help a generation of young people and their parents step into a conversation about race with emotional empathy at its core.

What made it so powerful was the willingness of Mattel to show its own vulnerability as well as be a facilitator for honest, real conversation. Supported by a wider diversity mission it made the whole thing feel positively authentic.

Nike Japan ruffled feathers by sparking a conversation about the treatment of bi-racial and minority ethnic athletes, by showing the emotional impact of bullying and racism experienced.

​I truly hope that compassionate empathy is a destination that brands are aspiring to.

Those using empathic concern to guide real world action are already gaining the respect of the growing tribe seeking meaningful activism from brand owners. This sweet spot where genuine connection to what people need meets organisational power that responsibly and respectfully is helping to effect change. It brings humility, social responsibility and willing to learn into the work of business strategy. These are businesses that are genuinely doing the work inside and are now unlocking the power of their brands to elevate their impact externally.

We’ve seen this happen in impromptu ways, such as the collective response of retailers to the backlash of racism towards Sainsbury’s Christmas ad from Sainsburys. It’s also there in ambitious racial justice impact visions for businesses like Unilever who want to see a measurable impact from their brands on structural racism itself.

These commitments are not without risk, they take courage and a readiness to try out new ways of being and working. Ending hair discrimination is a huge undertaking by Dove and considering how much Unilever has benefited from white beauty ideals in the past and how ingrained those same ideals are in the mind of many black and brown women. But those in the full throws of leading businesses driven by compassionate empathy are willing to take risks, take on big fights and stand up for what feels right. Anti-racism is about using all the tools at your disposal to bring about change, so I say bring it on.

This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Marketing Society members-only publication Empower. Learn more about becoming a member of the Society, which includes Empower and many other benefits.