The E of Empathy

Connecting on the emotional level with the consumer

Empathy in marketing is the art of connecting with the consumer on an emotional level and follow through on what you learn. Empathy can be driven by (perceived) quality, association with a certain lifestyle or sympathising with the brand’s social or environmental values. It is a strong driver of brand consideration and loyalty, and a very valuable E in the E³ formula to win Consumer Love for a lifetime.

In order to excel in this E, companies need to build around their purpose, use qualitative research to create the right mind-set, go beyond the data and align their organisation.

Just a little of that human touch

Data are crucial for today’s marketing professionals and brands. Using data brands can increase their relevancy and the chance of sales success. However…

Relevancy alone is not enough to build long-term relationships with the consumer and create a position that frees brands from price wars.

A real emotional connection is needed to do that.

The way to do this is simply by showing natural human interest and understanding. Interest that goes beyond data, and provides insights into the needs and wants of your audience. Needs that your audience feel on a deeper level.

As all companies are made out of people, every brand is able to understand and show human interest.

It is simply the willingness to take action that determines the success.

CPGs: Stepping up the Empathy game

Traditionally, Empathy has been the stronghold of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies.

These companies have always been best at creating brands that evoke emotion in consumers by virtue of the intangibles they encompass. When consumers associate with (an image of) a brand, the tangible product often becomes a mere accomplice in their journey.

Brands can fulfill people’s needs to feel empowered, to feel entertained, to feel happy even. A shampoo is just a shampoo, but some CPG brands really understand what drives and motivates their customers. They understand that it is about looking good when having little time. That hair is about confidence, joy and creativity. Those brands not only use these insights in their communication, but they also connect to their audience by building content and events around it.

They invest for the long run, for loyalty, for love. Based on the emotion of their clients, not the rationale.

Though CPG companies have the advantage of understanding this for decades, transparency is what will push them to the next level. As people get more and more environmentally conscious, not using recyclable plastics, for example, will no longer be a secret. CPG companies therefore need to be even more real. Not only do tomorrow’s consumers like to believe a good story, they also want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the story is actually true.

Retailers: Sending your love online

Retailers know a thing or two about Empathy as well. In the brick-and-mortar business, one of the key ingredients of running a successful store is having empathetic staff. Staff that can almost build a personal relationship with their customers.

However, the retail landscape changed enormously with the arrival of e-commerce. Retailers now have to scale the effect that their staff in the shops can have. In theory, they are well positioned to do that due to all the conversion touchpoints with their customers. In practice, traditional organisational structures like the separation of e-commerce and offline sales hold retailers back in their success.

Tech players: Can you feel the love?

Technology players are well positioned to create Empathy because of their access to the personal data of consumers. Today they are unstoppable in their growth as they succeed in the human need of instant gratification. A need that they helped create by continuously launching new tech based services that save time.

However, when competition rises they too cannot rely on the quality of their service alone. It is true that rational factors such as price, promotions and loyalty programmes shape the customer-brand relationship, but emotional factors drive brand loyalty. The question is whether the technology players have the culture and DNA to translate the data advantage they have into emotional connections. Will they be humble enough to go beyond the practical and functional advantages and invest in emotional understanding?

Learning to love

Empathy is king in enabling long-term sustainable growth.

As every human is able to show Empathy, one would think it should not be too hard for most marketing departments to get better at it...

However, most companies are not taking the time to understand the consumer beyond the data they get from their shops or online business due to short-term revenue goals. Some companies simply do not have the right mind-set and are still very much product-focused. Others do not have a reason to change as results are still great.

For the latter category, there are many examples of companies and brands that failed to understand the ‘why’ of their users and consequently failed to reinvent themselves in time. Just think about the chains of video stores, analogue photography film manufacturers or the manufacturer of the first successful basic mobile phones.

Luckily, there are also companies that do get it. Companies that understand how customers feel, how to make them feel special and how to build lasting relationships.

I understand just how you feel

Imagine you are an outdoor clothing and gear company. You are not the only one and you want to be successful. You understand that preserving nature is as important to you as it is to your customers.

This understanding could be used in marketing communications or in undertaking actual action. Action by repairing worn-out clothes for example, so your customers do not need to buy new ones. Or taking old clothes in and creating new gear from them. These kinds of tangible actions create emotions of surprise, honesty and belonging; making your brand authentic.

You’re special, so special

Some brands understand that people want to belong, but would also like to stand out. Take the fashion brand that understands people buy fashion because they would like to have something special. The brand focuses on the product and not their service, which is not on par with what may be expected these days.

Their audience however is waiting in line to get the products as they not only get a product, but also a cool story to share to further build their image. A story about waiting, persevering and, in the end, succeeding to get a product that not everybody else has.

Sweet emotion

By mirroring the qualities of positive human relationships, brands can cultivate the kind of connections that will convert customers into loyalists. Beyond marketing, emotional and contextual data can foster deeper emotional connections across all key moments with customers to increase their lifetime value, while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood of them switching brands.

Empathy provides brands with a perspective of how to build long-term relationships with their audience. It allows brands to see the richness of people’s emotions. It is this different kind of data, this human data, that fuels creativity to design, message and make connections in more meaningful ways than just a transactional one.

Let your purpose guide the way

Purpose is the starting point of your empathetic behaviour. It is why your brand could relate to people. Showing Empathy with a strong purpose makes you authentic, believable and attractive.

Think of a fruit drink company that has the purpose of leaving the world in a better shape than they found it. Let’s say that in their qualitative research they discovered that parents worry about their kids getting the right nutrition at school. The company could anticipate this need by sponsoring juice bars at schools. As their purpose is well known, this marketing tactic will resonate to the overall emotion people feel for the brand. (And in case the purpose would not be clear, it still could only be perceived as a genuine and nice gesture.)

Once a company sees their customer as the starting point of everything they do, Empathy will follow.

Such a shift could occur by a change in leadership, competitor movements or because results are under pressure. Once this happens, marketing departments should focus on three key areas:

What’s the organisation like?

The need for organisational alignment is a major challenge for established companies. Personal egos and ambitions often get in the way of flexible marketing budgets or a truly integrated marketing and sales department. Key performance indicator settings are often not optimal because every department has its own goal. In such an organisation, it will be a difficult feat to adopt Empathy quickly. To force change the purpose and mission of the organisation needs to be crystal clear.

What’s the organisation like?

Who’s the audience?

People connect most easily on the level of emotional values. To find out how to connect and how to create Empathy, a company can research the values of their target audience, and research ways to tap into those values. There are a lot of useful techniques in the field of design-thinking that help to understand audiences. From talking to customer-focus groups, to going on service safaris and analysing data for insights. Bringing on board psychologists and anthropologists could also result in different and profound insights. These capabilities are as important as the ones data scientists deliver. In the end, your competitors have access to the same data and technology. That’s why the magic will happen when you get multiple perspectives from the emotional insights and combine these with other types of data.

What’s the organisation like?

How’s the customer journey?

Often customer journeys are designed with the sole purpose of luring people through a maze and then sell them a nice piece of cheese. They are based on behaviour and focus on the short-term sell, not on building a relationship. When you bring Empathy into the design of the customer journey

What’s the organisation like?


1. Have a little faith in me

You will be more patient with regards to when and what you communicate. The understanding that it is about deeper emotions will allow you take time to build a relationship. You will be more at ease when somebody does not react to an email or banner ad. Getting to know someone, dating if you will, also means trusting the other person and giving them some space to catch their breath.

2. Get off the beaten track

You will go beyond just digital means. As it is easily measurable, customer journeys are now often built from a digital starting point. But there are of course lots of opportunities beyond digital that you can pro-actively use in your customer journey design. Use the perspectives that Empathy brings you and get creative.

3. Be spontaneous and courteous

You will be more spontaneous in your execution. As you take your customer even more seriously, you become able to benefit from unforeseen opportunities that come by. Stay in the falling-in-love-phase with your customer. You know, the phase where doors are still being held open for the object of your affection.

Getting ready to commit

When companies adopt Empathy in their marketing practices they will be able to connect with their customers on a deeper level. To get there, the customer should be central in everything they do.

It’s all about taking a human approach focusing on a long-term relationship.

Key recommendations:

  • Know and live your purpose and mission and align your organisation around it.
  • Take qualitative research seriously and validate it with data analysis.
  • Involve the emotional level into your customer journey design.


of consumers feel they have a relationship with a brand.

Trustworthiness (83%), integrity (79%) and honesty (77%) are the emotional factors that consumers feel most align with their favourite brands.


of long-term customers use emotional language to describe their connection to favoured brands.

Get in touch

Are you ready to build around this E? Feel free to get in touch with us to discuss where to start and how to excel!

Adgild Hop


Retail industry market lead

+31 (0)88 288 1671


Michiel Van den Heuvel


Consumer Products industry market lead

+31 (0)88 288 4542


Stefan van Duin


Consumer industry analytics expert

+31 (0)6 1234 4457


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