Empathy: The Overlooked Secret

By Mark Clevenger

Mark Clevenger is the President of Clevenger Associates, a marketing research consultancy specializing in human behavior.

Empathy is for practical people

The question:

“Knowing our customers is important, but isn’t empathy getting into la-la land?”

Mangers worry. How can we improve efficiency? Detours are the enemy. Stay focused. Find the quickest path to our goals. When living in the fast lane, empathy for the customer and their tribe can seem like a detour!

Unwittingly, our cultures morph into a dim tunnel, jam-packed with speeding deadlines, hidden from the richness of our tribe members lives.

Tribe’s life?

How odd to say the “tribe’s life” when fixated on the fastest practical results! But there is a secret code: marketing that begins with deep empathetic understanding of tribe members, leads to practical results — faster.

Empathy is job one

An objection:

“Sunday school marketing always sounds nice. I have to work in the real world.”

Harley Davidson, Betty Crocker, Salvation Army, Purina and Vicks took the time to learn empathy and discover the power of their tribes’ emotional lives. Look what happened.

What if these trusted brands hadn’t spent the time? With the constant need for speed, it might have seemed legit to skip over the empathy step, but they didn’t. By contrast, they used customer empathy as the secret code to their goals.

Empathy: a communicator’s definition

A common misconception:

Tribe empathy means listening to the “customer voice” about my product or message.

Empathy means understanding the emotional (often unconscious) ways your customer feels life.

Seem too broad? Not if you want to connect. Seem impossible? Not at all.

Customers give “voice” to only part of their needs. It’s magic, when you discover both the emotional and unconscious (unspoken) needs of your customers. Empathize with the “whole mind” of your customer (rational, emotional & unconscious). Your experiences and stories will then carry surprising weight to connect and motivate.

Empathy enables differentiation

A Problem:

“We have to stay focused on concrete things we can execute quickly.”

When managers invest primarily in what seems concrete (product differentiation), the result is detached, commoditized marketing messages. To the tribe mind, these are boring!

True differentiation means embracing tribe emotions, with enlightened perspective. It can seem like an indulgence, unimportant to success. It may even feel like a detour. But if empathy is a detour, so is trust and loyalty.

Herein lies the secret code…

Differentiation that connects to tribe members, comes from the outer rings: 1) the tribe member’s life context where they encounter your organization (including occasions) and 2) the emotional reason for that life context.

Your organization is not the star performer. Instead the lead on this stage, is emotional empathy. Our task is to learn our emotional lines, found in the outer rings. We then follow the expression originating from the emotional (and often unconscious) rings of our customer’s deeper desires. That’s empathy. It transforms boring messages into authentic brand loyalty.

Empathy is the “aha” experience

A Tendency:

“I’m interested in a breakthrough that is similar to what I already know.”

If you’re a father, have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a mom? On an unconscious level, being a mom is a different galaxy. From Dad’s point of view, pregnancy (when the child is part of mom’s body) ends with birth of the child. We assume the same for moms. But when we studied the unconscious emotions of being a mom, we discovered a quasi-physical attachment continues. Moms experience their children as an extension of themselves forever. The drive to feed, protect, nurture and coach is completely altered by these primal drivers. This is empathy for the tribe of people we call “moms.”

If you are marketing daycare, breakfast products, snacks, clothing, this deep empathy with moms is an “aha” experience for the male population! It’s not at all similar to previous knowledge.

What if you are marketing to dentists, doctors, school principals, students or people who snack on cheese? Each of these tribes has its own unique world of emotions. Empathy brings “aha.” It brings connection.

Empathy means pretending and feeling

A  real-world doubt:

I’m trained in real-world marketing and action, not pretending.

A shocking statement:You must pretend, because your tribe’s world is not remotely like yours.

We all discovered how to pretend at a young age with games and imitation. Why stop now? Study your customer and her tribe’s emotional needs, with no assumptions about your organization, mission or category. See what they see. Use the language they use. Feel what they feel. Pretending leads to empathy, creativity and connection.

Find a behavioral research partner to show you how to pretend and feel your customer’s unique world. The result: you will find a new domain for creativity!

Empathy is the genesis of an authentic story

Marketing-speak for story:

“Our organization has a clearly differentiated story.”

Ask any marketing research professional about authenticity. They will tell you, people of all stripes complain that organizations, brands, and content lack it.

Our Map-of-Choice™ studies reveal the core problem. Longing for authenticity is driven by the absence of human empathy and emotional connection. A successful organization needs a story that projects authenticity. Empathy is the food for your authentic brand story. Differentiated descriptions will come naturally after a story fed by empathy.

Empathy is leadership

The Goal:

“I want to be a good leader and make a difference to my organization.”

Take four concrete steps to move your organization through the empathy pathway. To deliver breakthrough communications with efficiency, each step is significant.

  1. Conduct behavioral research that embraces the tribe’s whole mind. The whole mind has three parts: rational, emotional, unconscious.
  2. Treat the results of whole mind empathy research differently, not as a report, but as the catalyst for new thinking for your team. It’s a tool for a new way of seeing customers. Rally around it.
  3. Boil down the nuance of your “aha” experience to concise, elegant internal communications. The new “aha” needs to be “socialized” through the whole organization.
  4. Challenge your designers and writers to embrace empathy findings in all creative work.

Empathy first and for all

Empathy seems like a topic best suited for those in the “helping professions.” But we are all helping and providing value. We are all in the people business. Empathy is the first required step. Empathy is the quick pathway for leaner, more persuasive marketing that connects to your tribe. Empathy is the overlooked secret code, waiting to perform for your organization.

About Mark Clevenger

Mark Clevenger is the President of Clevenger Associates, a marketing research consultancy specializing in human behavior. The company’s WholeMind™ research identifies the most influential drivers of customer attraction and preference.

With expertise in behavioral economics, neuro-linguistics and anthropology, Mark helps clients discover the deeper causes of customer preferences and choices. Mark’s work has guided major brands including Pepsi, Colgate, Pop-Tarts, Soft Soap, Pringles, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Minute Maid and Dial.

Clevenger Associates uses the Map-of-Mind™ and Map-of-Choice™ methodologies to predict customer behavior and help companies connect with their customers.