The Problem with Empathy’s Rebrand

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(re)Introducing empathy

Everyone’s talking about empathy. And everyone’s talking about how everyone’s talking about empathy.

It’s an “empathy craze” of sorts, and is spanning industries and disciplines, from political theorists attributing systemic issues like poverty to an “empathy gap,” to neuroscientists tracking empathy in the brain via mirror neurons.

In marketing, empathy has been deemed the “key” to great campaigns, a crucial new success metric and subsequently “the new black” for marketers.

This makes sense as we’ve seen a shift from marketing that’s all about brands, to marketing that’s all about customers. It used to be that successful brands communicated their stories through brand tropes such as authority, legacy, reliability (think General Motors, Levi’s, IBM respectively). Today, brands matter because of the experiences they create for the people who consume them. So it follows broadly that, through a deeper, more empathic understanding of the interior and exterior worlds of our consumers, we can create experiences that have real impact on their lives.

So, what is empathy really, and why are we talking so much about it now? Will it make us better marketers, researchers, designers and advertisers? Perhaps more interestingly, will it make us better people? How do we use it and where can we get some?

The power of understanding

At Sub Rosa, we think a lot about empathy and crucially, its application. It’s how we do what we do. Empathy for us is simply about understanding—understanding your clients and their consumers, understanding your colleagues, and ultimately, understanding yourself. This act of perspective-taking informs and transforms everything we do from how we tackle client problems and structure our own business, to how we hire (and what we look for).

It’s a skill that some of us have inherently, and that others actively work at. It’s not a personality trait or a predisposition (though some of us may naturally index higher), but a muscle that can be conditioned and flexed to develop a stronger, greater ability to step out of your world, if only for a moment, and into the world of others.

We’ve found great power in the application of this deeper understanding and the power to be had by using empathy as a tool. This is an important distinction to make—that empathy is the how not the what—as there is a false tendency within our industry to characterize empathy as a value set or fixed characteristic of a brand that makes it better, nicer or kinder.

Empathy isn’t about being nice. It’s also not necessarily about doing good.

A common misconception is that empathy is about being nice. It’s not. Sociopaths can be highly empathic; they use a deep understanding of others to exploit and manipulate them towards their own will.

When we talk about empathy and brands, it also gets conflated with social impact, CSR initiatives and broadly “doing good.” Brands that are embracing “empathetic marketing” do sound nicer, which is exactly why it’s important to remember that empathy is a neutral means of perspective-taking. What one does with that greater understanding is up to them.

Arguably, Cambridge Analytica used data empathically to identify and exploit the psychographic of a vulnerable population, influencing the outcome of an election and the course of human history. The ability to precisely target a small group of voters based on personality traits was built on a highly empathic, data-driven model developed by psychologists to influence specific behaviors.

Through sophisticated “human-centered” data, empathy can be weaponized by any person or organization with access, ability and appetite. In this new world, we are all the vulnerable population. This may sounds extreme and it is. But it’s already happening on small scales with big data. Cambridge Analytica serves as one harrowing example of the potential misuse of highly empathic data, and the potential magnitude of its effect.

The problem with empathy’s rebrand

Empathy isn’t new, but it is notable. Notable because in the wake of a recession and amidst an increasingly fractalized sociopolitical climate, we’re desperate to be seen, heard and understood. Empathy is needed now more than ever to bridge the ever increasing [wealth/gender/political/fill-in-the-blank-problem] gap. However, presenting empathy as a new concept risks commoditizing, productizing and sensationalizing something that ultimately may not serve us, our clients, or their audiences that we are striving to be empathic towards.

We’ve been running towards empathy like oil, when really it should be the air we breathe.

Saying we are being more empathic isn’t enough. Showing how we are using the power of empathy, of deep human understanding, towards greater good for the people our brands serve is a start.

Empathy isn’t going anywhere. So, let us make sure that empathy is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. And that this greater interest and capacity for human understanding is in service of real human needs. Not just corporate ones and bottom lines. And ultimately, let us strive to transform and build organizations where those two outcomes are not at odds.

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1 Comment
  1. I enjoyed reading your informative and illuminating article. Thank you!
    You’re astute observation that empathy isn’t always about “being nice” drew me further into your observations and opened my mind to my own oversights of what “empathy” really is and how I can be a better person.
    In a day when property stricken immigrant are being tear-gassed at boarder crossing, I hope writings and analysis like this will shine hope on our businesses and branding to help us exercise our own empathic muscle more.
    Well done, Sub Rosa!

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