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Where we stand on Empathy.

My job as as commercial storyteller often pushes my thinking into that of a de facto brand strategist. The same brand DNA I utilize to create a spot or campaign for a client is the same DNA the company has (hopefully) used to create their brand. (No, a company and a brand are NOT the same thing. For more on that, google Marty Neumeier.) Companies with great brands like Nike and Apple are very much aware of their brand DNA and it seeps into everything they do. The creative briefs that came down from Nike HQ were art in themselves. Now, not all my clients are the Nikes of the world and many of my smaller clients struggle with company and brand identity. Something many people in my shoes are constantly trying to fix.

We can all agree that that life (and business) will look different coming out this Covid-19 worldwide shutdown. What people don't know is when that will happen, how it will look and feel and what the short and longterm effects will be, on both people and profits. People much smarter than myself are no doubt working tirelessly to provide the world with those answers. But all we do know is that it will be different. Very different. People at large have the ability to weather the storm and collect data on how this will affect them, brands, however, do not. From a branding perspective, my clients need to be waaay out in front of this for a few reasons, mainly to ensure their safe passage to the other side of this moment in history. But more importantly, brands need to control their narrative moving forward, now more than ever before. But the questions remain: What will that look like?... and how will that feel?

It is my firm belief that the root of this push in branding is empathy. Now, empathy alone will not solve these branding problems, but it will, however, act as the kernel in which we, as a branding community (and the world at large) can build a beautiful pearl around. If brands start to lead with empathy on the tip of their 'branding spear' so-to-speak, then part of their customers' daily lives could then 'be infected' with the tenents of empathy.... if they stick their spear in the correct places, that is.

Picture this: It's December 22nd and holiday cheer abounds. You get little smiles and acknowledgments from those you pass on the sidewalk. A friendly driver gently waves you in front of him in a long merge line. We've all seen it (and fingers crossed, we have all been on the giving end too!) and understand the simple joys it can bring to be on either side. Now fast forward to January 17th. Most of that holiday cheer is in the rearview mirror. No courteous smiles, and that same man who so graciously waved you into the merge lane now cuts you off leaving to 'suck his tailpipe' as he speeds off.

Of the two above scenarios, the former seems like a much nicer place to live, grow up, raise a family, etc,...right? How do we get that 'holiday cheer' to permeate our culture (perhaps globally) and exist more permanently? The answer: increased empathy. The key to humans and brands upping the level of empathy first has to do with understanding the current levels of shared trauma in the world at this moment. Trauma is usually something that we deal with on a small or localized level. A terrible accident to a loved one, a local or regional famine... the list goes on. No matter the level of trauma experienced by those effected, it unfortunately has little impact on a person on the other side of the globe. We hear these stories, we try and empathize, yet we are able to turn off the television or put the newspaper down and go about of our lives and the issues (and the inherent levels of trauma) we are personally dealing with. Their plight often leads us to do very little other than mull it around in our heads or have a new way to break the ice at the workplace.

This is why this current situation is unique, and why companies have a unique opportunity to make empathy work for their brands. The trauma that the CoronaVirus has brought to the world is unique in a way in that it is a shared trauma to a great extent. Now, some people have lost loved ones and others might not personally know anyone who even tested positive, but the experience of this worldwide event and quarantine has given us all a shared experience. From a psychological standpoint, shared experiences bolster the sense of belonging to those afflicted... in this case, the entire world. Although we can break down the trauma into secular groups, as locales and regions are going through their own unique versions of this trauma, but it is shared worldwide nonetheless.

Now it might seem a bit heartless for companies to see this as a way to capitalize on current affairs, but I am taking into account that CEOs, VPs and department heads are experiencing this trauma as well. But what I hope to point out here is that brands pivoting to provide an increase in empathy within their marketing can have a profound impact on humanity far beyond the measure of dollars and cents.

Empathy in branding is not a new idea. Not even close, actually. But there are a few new ways in which brands now have to use (or at least be considerate of) empathy in the new post-covid world.

  • Shared Trauma

As mentioned above, the world now has a generational shared experience. Brands can focus less on targeted marketing and use empathy as a general language that can permeate all cultures, regions, etc. Advertising works, so if brands show more empathy in ads and commercials airing globally, then the global level of empathy could rise.

Creative agency Artisans on Fire recently released a project produced 100% remotely in quarantine lockdown for a cannabis dispensary that brilliantly utilizes the idea of shared trauma to make an impact. This is a brilliant example for two reasons. First, the ad perfectly encapsulates the shared emotions of those dealing with the 'new normal' that is quarantine life. Secondly, it was produced by those living quarantine life. The agency used employees (some recently furloughed) all working remotely to record and email voiceovers for the ad. Footage for a different campaign was repurposed to complete the spot. It delivers the message, and at the same time, has a meta quality about it where the medium is the message and, at the same time reinforces that message.

  • Interactions with Brands

Brands, especially those in any type of retail, now have to be cognizant of HOW customers purchase their products. This excludes online shopping to a degree, but any business where people congregate or need to be in person to shop now have an increased duty to the customer and the public at large, to be empathetic to those interactions, however brief. I feel this might actually institute the most change for companies as the empathy displayed here could potentially save lives.

Grocery chain Whole Foods has revamped the procedures for customers entering their stores, besides pushing online ordering through parent company, Amazon. First, they were one of the first chains to give seniors priority early AM hours, allowing them a less risky and more fruitful shopping experience. They have implemented crowd control measures and spacial guidelines and have a team sanitizing carts and baskets after each use. Stores are closing 2 hours early to give workers a chance to restock and sanitize the store without risk to customers among many other efforts behind the scenes that all ad up to a better, safer and more efficient retail experience.

  • Sustainability

Empathy doesn't have to stop at interpersonal relationships. Brands now have a heightened opportunity to show empathy to nature. Again, sustainability efforts in business are by no means a new idea, but brands who go beyond and can show their empathy to mother nature are going to win even bigger. This can come in the form of source materials, packaging or the products themselves. The more sustainable a product or brand, the more staying power it will have.

Sportswear giant Adidas recently unveiled their partnership with Parley for the Oceans, in which the first soccer and running performance products were made from upcycled marine plastic waste. (For the record, Nike has a similar program in which they repurpose scraps from their own factory floors, although Adidas was first to strike.) Their commitment to the environment not only makes an environmental impact, yet also shines a light on the impact their customers' actions can have. Now the question is how long until a company upcycles a bi-product of this current covid-19 situation a la Kingsford charcoal?

So where does this leave us? Hopefully in a position where brands see the enormous inherent value in empathy across all platforms. Look, companies by definition have one singular goal, and that is to increase margins and profitability for their shareholders. The smart companies will use their brands to increase the level of empathy within their marketing and structure to hopefully make life post-covid a little less rough around the edges moving forward...and hopefully we all follow suit.

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