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Freddie Luchterhand-Dare

Strategy Director

Landor SE Asia


The Blind Leading the Blind?

Why It’s Time to Bring Back Genuine Consumer Empathy

Commercial empathy is nothing new. Madison Avenue quickly became hooked on the belief that people will behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional feelings and desires. Whilst the admen could argue it was an effective means of gaining competitive advantage, this kind of thinking somewhat vacuumed the moral content from empathy. It showed little concern for consumers as living people, nor did it try to solve their real, everyday problems.

The resulting “empathy deficit” has stocked our shelves with plentiful meaningless brands. In a recent study, consumers said they wouldn’t care if three-quarters of brands simply vanished tomorrow. The FMCG juggernauts, in particular, have lost sight of what made them so powerful in the first place: knowing their consumer inside and out, as individual people. With size, though, has come empathetic distance. Consumers’ lives feel increasingly unfamiliar, with the capacity to understand and care about them impaired. Many brand strategies have been pursued on the basis of ageing logic. Relevance has ebbed away.

The fundamental drivers of consumer demand, however, have remained unchanged. People’s core needs and desires – whether they to pamper, energize, relax or perk-up –  are nothing new. What is new, is the empathetic ability of smaller brands to identify and tap into under-served needs in more relevant ways – all whilst the “big brands” are seemingly asleep. Such brands are not stealing share because people don’t care about big brands anymore, but because they are more clued in to what people want.

At the heart of brand success today is the ability to be useful: it is what drives relevance. The strength of brand is tied to what it means to people, both functionally and emotionally. Meaning, though, does not just stem from how a brand is positioned, but how it is used and experienced every day. In a nutshell, use value begets brand value.

Success, now requires moving away from the adland model of manipulating desires. It depends on focusing instead of understanding consumer needs. This is a far from easy task, so the imperative for brand consultancies must be to take on the role of the client’s “resident human”. It might seem obvious, but the brand-building process is too frequently imbalanced: weighted more towards the creative end, not the immersive beginning. Consumer insight has not been neglected, but has often fallen victim to short-cuts. A common pitfall is the modern urge to turn to the internet for answers. Yes, the web can provide endless information about people, but it creates an illusion of proximity when it actually keeps us further apart. “Facts” anaesthetize rather than illuminate, providing only a part of the picture.

Google is all too often the entry point for a great deal of strategic planning, coughing up syndicated data that is applied loosely to convenient catch-all groups like “millennials”. It encourages the lazy assumption that all constituent people have similar needs, regardless of context or culture, and that these needs don’t change from one day of the week to another.

At worst, in the absence of effective upfront empathy work, insights are crafted with a level of professional myopia – where conclusions are built on “what I need”, rather than a deeper understanding of actual users.

To create real use value, we need a new demand-centric playbook. It requires “baking” affective empathy into the process from the outset, enabling us to identify ways to improve people’s lives through their potential brand interaction. That means taking a forensic approach to the customer, so as to locate the potent intersection of context, person and emotional and functional needs.

It’s simple: ask the right questions, articulate the demand space(s), assess the targetable - and often unmet – needs within those spaces, and then generate the insights that underpin them.

Going forward, strategic decisions cannot keep being made in the twilight zone between thinking we know and knowing: competitive advantage will once again be rooted in how well a brand knows its consumers.  

Strip it back, and branding will always about emotion, experience and fulfilment. Empathetic understanding is how we can turn function into meaning – ensuring a brand enhances wellbeing and enriches people’s everyday lives.