People aren’t stupid: The case for authentic empathy in marketing

Empathy in marketing by Steve Davis, Talked About Marketing Adelaide. Puppy evoking empathy. Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

If people are failing to buy from you or stay with you, the first thing to check is how well you've embraced empathy in marketing.

But what has "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another" got to do with your marketing efforts?


No matter how much we convince ourselves that we make buying decisions based on cold, hard data, the fact is we make decisions based on our emotional needs first and THEN our brains (or management systems) overlay our decisions with a camouflage of logical arguments to justify our actions.

And the same applies to our clients or customers.

If you're bristling at this point thinking, other people are like that, not me, grab a copy of The Elephant In The Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. Or, if you're a podcast listener (in other words, someone who uses their time wisely to fuel curiosity and embrace lifelong learning), listen to episode 119 of the Sam Harris Making Sense podcast, in which Robin eloquently explains the process of how our brain acts like Donald Trump's official spokesperson.

He says that when we go ahead and do something (sensible, silly, selfish, you name it), within a split second, part of our brain has developed a set of justifications and arguments for that action. It is a staggeringly powerful description of how much we deceive ourselves - and how that act of deception helps us survive and thrive in a society.

So what does that mean for us in marketing?

It means we need to be mindful of the thinking and feeling processes at work in us as well as in our clients and customers.

Empathy is a starting point

When a new customer or client approaches your counter or attends their first meeting with you, there is a lot going on in their minds and emotions.

  • In the case of a traveller arriving to check in, they might have chosen your accommodation because the usual place they stay in is booked out, or they might be resenting doing more travel for a boss who takes them for granted, or they might be using every last penny of their savings for a special trip and are anxious to make sure things go well.
  • In the case of someone attending their first session at your exercise physiology clinic, they might be very self-conscious about the extra weight they are carrying and are dreading the conversation about it, or they might jealous that other friends seem to stay in shape without having to make this much effort, or they might be excited about the new future that lies ahead and they're hoping their trainer will share that excitement.
  • In the case of someone attending their first consulting session with you, they might still be dubious about your abilities but feeling like they have no alternatives other than to meet with you, they might have never paid consulting rates before and are panicking inside over every moment spent on tea/coffee chatter, or they are thrilled to be finally sharing their ideas with someone who will help their vision become reality.

What these three scenarios above should remind us is that there are many underlying thoughts, fears, and motivations within the minds of our clients and customers and people with empathy are the ones best placed to be able to connect in these situations, with sensitivity towards things both said and unsaid.

In other words, if you and your staff can start from a position of empathy with every interaction, you are like to see and hear things relating to your customers and clients that otherwise would have been missed.

And in my experience, having interacted with more than 8,000 businesses over my 20 years in marketing, we miss these cues and opportunities for connection when we simply "go through the motions" of our processes and see the world through our systems without operating with empathy.

Connections are the starting points for relationships and relationships are the starting points for long term loyalty and trust.

Sadly, even Google's preferred definition of empathy in marketing by Unbounce, still conveys a sense of using empathy as a means to an end, rather than as a starting point for life.

Empathy: The capacity to share and recognize the emotions felt by another being. In the context of conversion marketing, empathy allows you to understand your target audience, create relevant offers and engage with them in an authentic way.

I want to finish by unpacking that definition and leaving you with some things to ponder.

Authentic empathy in marketing

Who wouldn't want to be surrounded by people who genuinely care for them and who listen to them actively as they try to understand what's being said?

This is what empathy means, which is why the Unbounce definition above rubs me the wrong way.

As you can see, it is invoking the use of emapthy so you can understand how to create an offer that will get what you want from a group of humans aka your target audience.

Do you see how that is using empathy as a means to an end?

My argument is that empathy should be how you set your compass, how you conduct yourself in all relationships (personal and commercial) and from that position, THEN you will understand how you can HELP those around you.

Yes, maybe that's a subtle difference but when you consider how surprisingly astute our brains are, you can be sure that people around us will be able to read our motivations.

It doesn't mean that fakery won't get you everywhere. I have known some salespeople who are so slick they can smooch up to their enemies and make them think they're their best friend as a means to an end. And, as Robin's book reminds us, we might still let such a scenario draw us into a deal or a relationship by crafting some justifications that explain why we are doing something so seemingly stupid.

People are not stupid, we are complex and we come with a very powerful storyteller who can spin justifications after the fact. We are amazing.

In summary, here are some points drawn from markempa's article, What is empathy-based marketing. This is one of the few articles that gets this topic right and I hope these three points give you food for thought this week.

  • The best marketing feels like helping (because it is). I don't get out of bed in the morning to scrape dollars from the world. I am motivated by the privilege of being able to help others. If you're marketing and sales efforts feel like they're stuck, it sounds like we need to put a little time aside to empty out the box of assumptions, habits, hurts, and busyness, so we can rebuild our understanding of who your ideal customer or client is, develop a specific persona of that person, and then do a little thinking about their journey towards, with, and beyond your business. In my human-centred marketing approach, such exercises with clients have never failed to yield insights of things that had become taken for granted and overlooked. Yes, there are answers all around you but sometimes it takes some exercises carried out by an outsider to unlock that wisdom.
  • Give useful content people will want to share. Instead of just churning out content to tick a box, taking time to craft blogs, papers, online discussions, courses, and other communications that are genuinely valuable (or strive to be) means you are putting your customer first and trying to be helpful. As the markempa article says succinctly, people don't need more content, they need to find solutions to problems and answers to questions. My long and rambling article (sorry) has been an attempt to share the value of leading with your heart in your marketing and sales so you know the cut of my jib, as they say, and get a sense of what it is going to be like working with me if that's what you choose to do. However, I am also hoping that many readers will be able to reflect on these words and catch a glimpse of some things they hadn't noticed before and start delving more deeply into their marketing thinking immediately.
  • Practice empathy personally to set an example. This importance of this rule cannot be overstated. How can we genuinely write and conduct ourselves with empathy if we don't practice it in daily life? Humans have good bullshit detectors and we can tell when someone's trying to be nice for an ulterior motive. Just remember time spent dating!

And a final thought for you, and for me: if people are failing to buy from us or stay with us, it's worth taking some time to look at ourselves and our enterprise they way others do, earnestly. Maybe we'll see the situation more clearly by starting with a mirror?

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