Walk a mile in my shoes… how empathy and marketing step out together

* New contributor Tim Banks is the co-founder of media and mobile agency Infomob. He tweets here

I recently attended an LBi ‘What’s Next In’ seminar that was billed as a discussion of storytelling, empathy and branded content.

To give this some context, LBi has recently delivered impressive branded content campaigns, for Sony’s Xperia range of smartphones and more recently Microsoft’s launch of its new browser, IE9, with a campaign called Brandon Generator

Both campaigns are creatively brilliant but creativity alone isn’t enough. You’ve built some amazing digital content but how are you going to get it out there, contribute it to consumers and influence behaviour, feelings and emotions?

This touches a familiar left/right brain theme where it is the job of agencies to fuse harmony and creativity with the client need for some sort of result – consumer action and behaviour.

The seminar was all about how best to understand and work the interplay between consumers, content and brands. The answer is storytelling that positions campaigns not as the shouty one dimensional spot ads of old, but rather something that accounts for how social media has given consumers the tools to create and own very personal spaces online.

These are highly complex and delicate places that contain video, photos, friendship groups, information about our tastes and interpersonal relationships.

It follows that for brands to have relevance in this space, there is a real need to understand content. Content that we want to Like, share or tweet, content that has special relevance to us and our friendship groups.

So aside from ‘Liking’ a picture of a cute cat or some spectacular accident video (which everyone will find some kind of commonality in) what makes content really relevant is empathy.

This may sound abstract but breaking in to the world of empathy explains so much of the new, delicate and often misunderstood relationships between brand and consumer.

Invited speaker and acclaimed authority on empathy, Dr Roman Krznaric (K-R-A-J-N-I-T-C-H) took to the stage to talk us through an erudite theory on how empathy works.

According to Roman, the 20th Century was an age of navel-gazing introspection that became unhealthily obsessed with material gain. His idea is that the 21st Century is becoming the age of outrospection (#outrospection) in which we find out who we are by discovering the lives of other people..

…and the key to outrospection is cultivating empathy. Empathy matters not because it makes you good but because it is good for you. It has the power to heal broken relationships, erode prejudice, inspire social change and more.

There are plenty of historical examples of how empathy has been used for social good. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was a master class in empathy and helped to change attitudes toward homeless people.

So, in the context of marketing the more empathetic we are the more we are able to understand the value of the rich, personal social spaces that we create online and rather than violate them with bad marketing, empathy helps us engage consumers in storytelling.

This sounds obvious but is all too often overlooked in favour of quick and dirty promotional campaigning that ignores the potential of a longer, richer, story based engagement with consumers.

Krznaric’s book, The Wonder Box – curious histories of how to live, is the last word on empathy – not as a marketing technique but rather a force for good.

It suggests that there are two types of empathy – Affective (where we share emotional responses with people) and Cognitive where we physically experience an alternate perspective.

It also breaks out the six habits of highly empathetic people.

– Cultivating curiosity about strangers
– Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
– Get into extreme sport
– Practice the art of conversation
– Inspire mass action and social change
– Develop an ambitious imagination

So, on one hand, consumers have in a sense become ‘the media’, owning personalised spaces that allow them to express opinion, however nuanced that might be, to their peers.

On the other hand, brands now have the opportunity to use techniques based in storytelling and empathy that help them find their way in to these spaces and establish meaningful bi-directional relationships. Marketing Nirvana?

Read Krznaric’s book its brilliant.

Monty (714 Posts)

Monty Munford has more than 15 years' experience in mobile, digital media, web and journalism. He is the founder of Mob76, a company that helps tech companies raise money and exit. He speaks regularly at global media events with a focus on Africa, writes a weekly column for The Telegraph, is a regular contributor to The Economist, Wired, Mashable and speaks regularly on the BBC World Service.