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Empathy: Not a Method, but a Mindset

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Empathy. These days, it’s a term often thought of as a mere buzzword and often confused with sympathy. Empathy is about “feeling with others,” and more companies, brands and enterprises today are inclined to list it as a company value or as a “step one” to problem solving.

More organizations are also compelled to proudly embrace empathy to be more human-centered, likely hoping to project a more humanized culture than their competitive set. But there’s a reason why empathy genuinely matters today in branding and marketing: Consumers and decision makers, overwhelmed with choices and the compression of time, need to make quick, reflexive and intuitive decisions (System 1 Thinking), and are likely to engage with brands or companies that intuitively signal “we get you.”

It’s been a journey for us as marketers, strategists, project managers, designers and creatives to realize that “empathy” isn’t a process—it’s a mindset. Empathy isn’t just a box you check and move on. This approach requires a culture of empathy where everyone is innately wired or conditioned to be sensitive to human needs and become a student of human motivations all the time. It’s not just confined to understanding users and customers to make a sale or increase consideration, but also applied to decision makers and stakeholders to create better internal and external experiences. When fully applied, empathy unlocks a new way of being a better company and ultimately a more distinctive brand, not just doing better business.

One of the best examples of a rising brand grounded with empathy is Chick-fil-A. In the last five years, Chick-fil-A went from a brand scrutinized by its conservative views, to a brand seen as having a positive impact on its community and is revered by customers for its service and attentive staff that is empowered to attend to their customers and end every interaction with “my pleasure.”

Chick-fil-A has also built a foundation on character and values and have started from the ground up. Employee training videos such as “Every Life Has a Story” inspire their service crew to emotionally connect with the people that come into the restaurant everyday. The video invites Chick-fil-A employees to see people as individuals with unique challenges that remind us all that we’re just human.

In a report by Morning Consult Brands, Chick-fil-A has translated this internal push into a positive impact where the brand has the highest community impact among all brands. The positive brand push has also netted higher business results according to The QSR 50 List that shows that the brand generates more sales per restaurant than its established competitors.

Empathy goes beyond the product or service you’re selling. Grounding every touchpoint with users in mind from the very start, creating experiences specifically for those users, and putting a line in the sand when it comes to values and promises, is key for a successful and modern brand.

About the Author: As Associate Partner, Strategy Director, Joe applies his rich background in marketing and design thinking to help lead strategic brand development and research at VSA. He does this for clients such as Nike, Kleenex (Kimberly-Clark), Beam Suntory, Goose Island Beer Company and Strayer University. He joined VSA from Y&R, where he worked with Hotels.com, BMO Harris Bank and multiple Sears brands as Director of Strategy and Innovation. Prior to Y&R, Joe oversaw strategy for Leo Burnett clients Travelocity, Samsung, Symantec and Sony PlayStation and worked on passion brands such as O’Neill and Patagonia. He holds a Master of Design Methods from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Joe can be contacted at jnio@vsapartners.com.

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