Branding, Leadership

How Leaders and Brands Can Embrace Empathy

Happy New Year! As an author, speaker, podcast host, and educator, I’m often asked for trends that I see on the horizon of a new year. Twenty twenty-one was no exception. However, with the traumatic year we’re leaving behind and the hope that a new year brings, answering this question this year proved a daunting task.

Luckily, I’d just spoken with a guest on the On Brand podcast who helped me crystalize my thoughts. As CEO of insight strategy firm Ignite 360, Rob Volpe serves the world’s leading brands across a range of industries. He’s also a thought leader on the role of empathy in marketing and the workplace. During our conversation, he mentioned what he sees as a big trend for the year ahead—empathy. I couldn’t agree more.

As businesses face one of the most challenging climates in history, brands will need to demonstrate empathy in dealing with strained customers—working to accomplish their goals with limited budgets—in a challenging environment of their own. Within organizations, leaders will also need to lean into empathy more and more dealing with a workforce pushed to the brink, running in “overdrive” for nearly a year.

This is easier said than done. With empathy, it’s much easier to talk the talk than it is to walk the walk. It requires a level of listening and understanding that we don’t regularly extend. Let’s take a look at how brands and leaders can demonstrate empathy in 2021.

Understanding Empathy

I know what you may be thinking. Why do brands need to be more empathetic? You just said this is one of the most challenging times to be in business and it is! What’s touchy-feely empathy got to do with anything?

First, let’s get a handle on the two types of empathy—affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is the emotional, squishy thing that can be hard to grasp. However, cognitive empathy is perspective-taking, which is critical in the world of work as we’re constantly trying to understand people from our consumers to our colleagues.

Again, easier said than done. “Empathy is something that every human has but our empathy muscle has atrophied,” said Volpe during our interview. So how do we get better at being empathetic at a time when we’re struggling with a collective empathy deficit? Volpe suggests focusing on asking questions, actively listening, and integrating these insights into understanding.

But how can brands approach this work?

Empathetic Brands

In the new year, brands need to consider cognitive empathy in the form of perspective-taking. Where are your customers at now? Where do they want to be? What’s most important for them? And how can your brand help?

The first step in demonstrating empathy as a brand is to align your touchpoints with your customer’s perspective. Have you surveyed your customers recently? Even if you sent a survey early in the pandemic, perspectives change. We’ve been pandemic-ing for months now. Your customers may still be in lockdown mode. Or they may be lurching toward their own new normal. Do your best to find out exactly what that is so you can align your brand’s messaging with that.

One brand that’s done a great job aligning with their customers’ perspective is Peloton. While offering the leading at-home workout solution is partially a case of being the right brand at the right time, Peloton keeps customer perspective top of mind. For example, starting at $1,895, their bikes aren’t cheap. With so much economic uncertainty, this can be a big, scary investment for many. Peloton knows this which is why their messaging includes frequent references to “risk-free” and “worry-free” trials. They also frequently talk about their customer’s “achievement” and state that they’re “proud” of them.

While empathy has external benefits, it’s also useful to organizations internally as well.

Empathetic Leaders

Ten years ago—in the “before times” as we’ve taken to calling the pre-pandemic period—Google set out to learn what traits make the best managers and leaders. Their “Project Oxygen” data proved once again that emotional intelligence is often more critical than technical skills. Specifically, compassion and empathy are key.

CEOs from organizations such as Airbnb are standing out during these challenging times by demonstrating empathetic leadership by communicating with compassion and clarity as they face uncertainty. “For leaders to show empathy, they first have to notice and be aware of what employees are going through,” says Amy Colbert, Leonard A. Hadley Chair in Leadership at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. “Leaders who are good at this seem to be able to pick up on small cues despite everything else that is going on in their environments.”

Colbert also notes that leaders are more likely to show empathy if they’re taking care of their own needs as well. “On an airplane, we put on our own oxygen masks first so that we can more effectively help others. We need to do the same thing when dealing with the stress and uncertainty that we are all facing right now.” When leaders do this it can have a ripple effect, creating more empathetic cultures and relationships both internally and externally.

Early in the pandemic, I had the opportunity to interview Tom Peters on the topic of leadership in turbulent times. “The way that leaders behave relative to the people that work with them throughout this crisis—what they do now and the way in which they do it will be the landmark of their adult career,” said Peters.

Once again, the foundation of empathetic leadership is listening. As we closed, I asked Peters what someone wanting to have an impact can do in the next five minutes. His answer? “Ask people how they’re doing. Ask them how they feel. Ask about their families.”

These are simple questions that can have a big impact—either in your career as a leader or to your brand at large. That’s why you should focus on empathy in the new year ahead.