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You Gotta Have Heart: Driving Advantage Through Empathetic Marketing

As 2020 inches toward a close at what feels like a snail’s pace, phrases like “new normal,” “unprecedented,” and “challenging times” have begun to sound like nails on a chalkboard. However, as tedious as it may have become to talk about how different things are, the fact remains that the problems facing marketers today differ from those they’ve faced previously.

According to Kelton Global’s COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Waves, 61 percent of consumers believe we’re in an extreme racial crisis, 49 percent believe we face an extreme public health crisis, and 43 percent believe we’re in an extreme financial crisis.

Seeing so many consumers so unsettled, then, begs the question: How do we meet those challenges?

Given the emphasis on how “uncertain,” “unprecedented,” and “challenging” these times are, you may be surprised to see how much the answers lie in a return to basic guiding principles, with empathy chief among them.

The truth is that there’s never a bad time for empathy—especially in marketing—but as we struggle to meet the challenges we currently face, this is a great time for empathy.

“Who” on first.

At Austin Williams, we firmly believe that all marketing begins with “who.” It’s simple, really: To reach your desired targets, you have to know and understand who they are. That understanding is the basis of what empathy is all about.

But it’s not enough.

Knowing who your targets are is one thing. Knowing what they’re going through is another. The two concepts are related, but they’re not the same.  In order for your marketing to resonate with your constituents right now, you need to understand where they are right now and what they’re going through right now. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that your marketing is going to fall flat, especially because one thing that is “unprecedented” and “challenging” in these times is that it’s extremely difficult to anticipate consumer sentiment.

If you want to learn, shut up and listen.

The good news, however, is that while it may be hard to anticipate, it’s not hard to listen. According to Material, Kelton’s parent company, consumers are talking about companies more than they have at any point in the last three years, particularly when it comes to brand values and where companies stand in regard to the issues of the day. In this environment, smart listening can produce valuable insights into the consumer mindset.

But what, exactly, is smart listening? Start by establishing what it isn’t. As convenient as it is to have high-tech tools for aggregating consumer sentiment via social media monitoring, the task of the moment requires a more active, involved approach. The most valuable tool for negotiating this marketplace is the human brain, so sit down and do real listening, and put the time in to analyze and evaluate what you hear.

Also, make sure that what you hear goes beyond your own brand. It can be tempting to focus on how your brand is perceived and build a strategy from there; but with that approach, there’s a good chance for something to get missed. Instead, put in the time to understand how people are feeling, and then figure out how to meet them where they are.

The customer is always right.

If you’ve never heard this old chestnut, chances are you haven’t been in business very long. However, while this phrase is usually invoked in the midst of a dispute—something that has gone wrong and left the customer feeling unsatisfied—remembering and acting on it much earlier on can be a key to empathetic marketing.

If you’re working on developing product and service offerings for these times, make sure you understand what your customers need, and build solutions for their problems where you can. The best thing you can market to consumers is something they feel they need, and the insights gained from listening can guide you in creating that offering. After all, no one knows your customers better than your customers themselves.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Cliches aside, there’s truth in the notion that these are “unprecedented times,” especially from the consumer perspective. The events of 2020 have left families and consumers across the country with an unsettled feeling, and successful marketing will have to contend with that feeling in order to truly connect. And, in order to contend with it, you have to understand it, even if the specific concerns you’re answering differ from the next marketer’s challenge.

As consumers made a run on toilet paper, Cottonelle attempted to calm down the panic by assuring there would be plenty to go around, and launched its #ShareASquare initiative to donate one million rolls of toilet paper to the United Way. As St. Patrick’s Day approached with typical festivities cancelled, Guinness reassured consumers that life will eventually return to normal, and in the meantime, celebrating with family or close friends will do just fine. And in April, with baseball’s opening day delayed and stadiums empty across the country, Adidas delivered a reassuring message about the return of sports as part of normal life, and used the Ready For Sport campaign to deliver powerful messages about resilience, social justice, and gender equality. These are decidedly different concerns, of course, but concerns nonetheless—for some of us, anyway, and they’re just a sampling of the unsettled feelings marketers around the world have to respond to.

Want to understand what these unsettled feelings mean for you and your brand? You can with AW Actionable Insights, our customized research, discovery, and strategic action plan.

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