Why is EMPATHY the key to brand success in the 21st century?


In 2008, Karina Encarnacion, an eight year-old girl from Missouri, wrote to President-elect Barack Obama with some advice about what kind of dog he should get for his daughters.

She also suggested that he enforce recycling and ban unnecessary wars.

Obama wrote to thank her, and offered some advice of his own:

“If you don’t already know what it means, I want you to look up the word ‘empathy’ in the dictionary. I believe we don’t have enough empathy in our world today, and it is up to your generation to change that.”

(from the New Yorker)

In this article I look at empathy.

Why is EMPATHY they key to brand success in the 21st century?

And why do brands get it wrong?


In the early 1970s the Polish regime hushed up the results of a research project conducted by some government economists.

The survey found that the average female Polish worker got up at 5a, spent more than two hours a day traveling to and from work, 53 minutes queuing for food, nine hours a day working, an hour and a half cooking and on housework and less than 6.5 hours sleeping.

Despite a wealth of data access at their fingertips, the system was collapsing internally. The government surrounded itself with walls. By the end of the 80s, Poland as well as the entire Eastern Bloc was falling apart. Walls and regimes fell swiftly and irrevocably.

Poland’s government had all the data they needed but lacked the one thing that made the data relevant – empathy.

sherlock holmes possessed legendary capacity for empathy

sherlock holmes possessed legendary capacity for empathy

It’s the sort of scenario Sherlock Holmes would have relished. Often called in to unstick a seemingly unsolvable problem caused by stuffy and ineffective professional police detectives, Holmes would lend his seemingly extraordinary powers to these mere mortals with razor sharp insight.

In the Silver Blaze (1892) Holmes is called in to help a constable out.

By putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.”

Holmes provides the cues that enables the constable to solve the case but not without exposing the stuffy police force for being largely ineffective.


Empathy: the ability to understand the feelings of a person.

According to this source, the word Empathy was introduced into the English language by the psychologist Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term Einfühlung used by the German philosopher Theodor Lipps.

The German word literately means ‘Feeling into’.

More than ever understanding the emotions of a customer is a hard, quantifiable business edge.

What is empathy?Ability to feel the emotions of others
Why is empathy important?Because brand success is increasingly defined by brands who go deeper into customer lives, not broader in search of new customers
How does empathy affect marketing?Empathy helps marketers understand their pain points and social drivers. This information forms the basis of marketing strategy and product development
How does we increase empathy?You can’t train people to become more empathic – people are naturally equipped with skills of empathy. What you need to do is create the right business environment that allows empathy to happen naturally

A whole generation of young people are entering the workforce, occupying frontline positions for your brand with less empathy than ever. This generation, brought up with stranger danger, a generation that never played out until dark, a generation that years physical contact more than ever, has less ability to feel the pain of others.

College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new meta-analysis by University of Michigan researchers, which includes data from over 14,000 students. (source)

That’s why your average brand will become less empathic.

And that’s why, it’s companies like Amazon, Apple, Zappos and Starbucks that will continue winning their niches.

Sure, you can wax on about design but people buy on emotion and justify on logic.

“I like the design” is not the reason they bought, it’s a post rationalization of why they bought.

They bought because the company, the brand, the frontline retail staff made them feel good about the product.

“They really felt my pain”, said by no customer, ever.

But that’s exactly why they buy.


Empathy (Photo credit: TonZ)


  1. We buy on emotion and justify with logic. Empathy is key to understanding these emotional triggers
  2. Successful brands like Amazon, Apple, Zappos and Starbucks are built around empathizing with customer feeling
  3. Youth feel increasingly isolated and lack the social fabric of their forebears. Youth will pay a premium for companies that feel this pain


Data is easy and it’s clean.

You don’t have to leave your ivory tower both physically and mentally. You can interact with your subjects on your terms. Consider, for example, the Polish government who interacted with its citizens through a one-way mirror, a bugged microphone or a telescopic lens.

Data analysts could conduct their research without the subjects even knowing. The bumbling constable, too, had all the tools and authority to access the information he needed except the one skill to mentally leave his ivory tower and empathize, for a minute, with the needs and emotions of other people.

But easy and clean don’t necessarily mean right.

Data creates the impression of activity, of progress, but customers don’t care about your data, they only care about how you make them feel.

The more we fool ourselves into believing data is the answer, the more we end up disempowering the eyes and ears of the organization – the people at the frontline who collect insights, stories and create an empathic bridge between the company and the market.

Target T-1917 Mount Laurel, NJ

Target T-1917 Mount Laurel, NJ (Photo credit: j.reed)

That’s when you find organizations like Target trying to educate their employees that “not all Hispanics wear sombreros” or “eat Tacos”. In Target’s mind they are simply trying to be helpful and apply their data to employee decision making, but employees know this already.

Employees don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that one out.


  1. Data is easy and cheap to collect. A million Facebook likes anyone?
  2. If the organization has become inwardly focused, it will prioritize data over an empowered frontline to protect its long term existence. Data dehumanizes the organization by overriding the storytelling and empathic capabilities of the frontline staff.
  3. Data is a power play between customer and organization. An organization that believes in customer empowerment will prioritize customer storytelling. An organization fearful of customers will prioritize data.


Data led organizations are doomed to failure because the difference between success and failure is the experience and nothing creates more experience than empathy.

You could spend millions on a fun, clever ad campaign for your airline but one snide look or remark from the flight attendant could undo everything.

Gierek’s Polish Government spend 5 years soliciting all its agencies and data collectors on developing a long term production plan for the citizens. They had all the presentations, research and insight they thought they needed but when it came to effecting the plan they had omitted one small detail.

Nowhere in the plan did they country have capacity to fabricate hairpins.

Gierek’s administration failed on one major detail because nowhere in this male dominated team of agency robotniks did anyone have the capacity to empathize with the needs of the country’s womenfolk.

Clicking away at data may give us a sense of control but ultimately, as with the Polish Housewives, we are confounding our own confusion.

When we lose insight, we produce boring work. We become odorless because we fail to connect with the emotional meanings that Big Data cannot reveal. We produce worthless crap and spend millions on ad campaigns trying to shovel it uphill.

That’s why the auto industry is spending millions on pushing its wares onto the youth market. Creative agencies are throwing Chevy’s out of planes to make them look exciting and cool. Complete loss of empathy. What young people want out of auto is perhaps more than most auto manufacturers are prepared to admit but peeling off the layers of blindness that starts with ad agency driven youth marketing may be the beginning for these brands to effect change and stay relevant long term.

By contrast, Apple has extensive data but data isn’t the raison d’etre of the organization. Consider that 31,000 of Apple’s 50,000 US employees work in Apple retail.

Apple Store in Munich

Apple Store in Munich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That means 62% of Apple’s organization is dedicated to frontline contact with the customer. When nearly 2/3 of the organization touch the customer everyday they create empathy that turns those store numbers into stories.

A Genius crew employee feeds back information on how customers feel when the Home key breaks, or how they feel about unnecessary Firewire accessories or how they struggle with loading a particular iPhone app.

The whole organization of Apple is built around Empathy.


  • Data driven companies produce boring work because they don’t know why their customers buy
  • Data driven companies aren’t able to feedback customer insight to the core, resulting in a value-chain (i.e. departmentalized and inconsistent) approach to customer experience
  • Data driven companies pay big bucks for expert creative agencies to tell them about their customers rather than listen to the frontline staff


Many marketers know the power of empathy, but pay only lipservice to its implementation.

Any good marketer is tuned to their audience, but it’s typically for the purpose of their own thinly veiled commercial agenda. Of course, content marketers also have an agenda, but they know better than to lead with their brand. Such brand-forward attempts are often rejected like a foreign body in the bloodstream, undoing any efforts to make an emotional connection. – Jake Sorofman, Gartner

Empathy isn’t one of the soft fuzzy skills listed as a nice to have feature of an organization, it’s the lifeblood.

Without the stories that made Apple, all that data would be meaningless.


Empathy helps us stay ahead.

2006, Nokia was king of the world. Then it was Blackberry, then Apple and now even Apple is losing its crown.

When brands empathize, they know what customers want…next. You don’t need to chase the next big thing, if you have the right skills of empathy and know where your fans are, you have all you need.

Empathy is key to understanding social context.

And, by keeping empathy on the agenda, the top of the pile, we keep sharpening the saw of the organization. It’s that understanding of social context that helps us predict what will happen next.

Picture of the Genius Bar in the Apple Store R...

Picture of the Genius Bar in the Apple Store Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We understand how people feel when their iPad breaks, why they tell their friends all about it and why, therefore, we need to prioritize reliability out of the box. Real meaning is only transmitted face-to-face and when we build walls of data, clicking away in our ivory towers, we lose the insight we set out to find. Empathy turns those numbers into stories because emotion helps us understand the reason why.

We can understand why people change through empathy and, therefore, stay ahead of the curve.


Historically, empathy has been the prime mover in major changes in attitudes.

Consider, for example, the abolition of slavery in Europe and North America in the 18th century.

Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies.

Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the educated classes long believed in freedom and self-determination, they failed to empathize with the slaves. Case in point, the American Founding Fathers (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) who declared the humanist Declaration of Independence owned slaves. It wasn’t until activists started telling the stories of slaves and making people empathize with their plight did change happen.

The slave alphabet helped future decision makers feel the pain of slaves but stepping into their world, if only for a short time.

Campaigns published oral stories of former slaves and their lives and treatment which led to public protest and a critical trade boycott of sugar.

In the business context, if you want to stay relevant, your people have to have the ability to empathize with customers.

These days, change isn’t a once-in-a-generation event.

Change is happening all the time, and it’s massive.

Apple, Nokia and Blackberry highlight this point because success is the enemy of empathy.


That’s exactly why brands like Apple may fail.

Non empathic brandsBrands losing empathyEmpathic brands
Kodak, Nokia, Levi’sFacebook, Apple, Red BullAmazon, Monster, Threadless, Jet Blue, SouthWest Airlines, Ford Motor, Lego, Starbucks

Success will compel Apple to manage scale through more and more data, justifying the expansion of a major corporate headquarters away from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary man.

Will 62% of Apple employees in 2020 be working at the frontline, sharing and empathizing with customers on a daily basis.

Or will Apple like the Obama administration suffer from a massively overbloated core that serves little purpose but to protect itself?

According to scientists, success creates failure. The more power we feel, the more our brains shut down our innate mirroring systems that help us feel for others. We lose empathy.

“So if someone is promoted, you might see a reduced processing of people, a forgetting of names, or not knowing individual members of staff,” said researcher Obhi. “Being powerful might cause your brain to blot over those details.”

According to Obama in 2006, empathy should have become the core political focus:

You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

So how could the President, less than 5 years later be at the forefront of some of the least empathic policies of a generation?

When Obama was elected in 2008, he won the vote on the ticket of empathy.

More people felt that Obama recognized their pains than the next guy. He was “one of us” to quote a much hackneyed interpretation of empathy.

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. Español: Instalaciones generales de la NSA en Fort Meade, Maryland. Русский: Штаб-квартира АНБ, Форт-Мид, Мэриленд, США (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here was a man that was cut of a similar cloth to the man in the street, but once at the top of the pile, was bolstering the unpopular policies he promised to repeal – from NSA spying to torture to Drone assassinations.

Despite the widespread popularity of these policies, government officials still stand before congress and defend their actions with a degree of contempt for the average citizen. Why? Because they’ve completely lost touch.

The aim of the organization is no longer to serve the people, but to sustain its own lifespan.

Abandoned Kodak Store

Abandoned Kodak Store (Photo credit: www78)

Organizations become ghost ships like the Polish communist government or Kodak. Kodak organization so strangled by bureaucracy that they both destroyed customer relationships and ended up focusing on unsustainable products (like print or film).


The average person in the 18th and 19th century didn’t suddenly become a more empathic in the run up to the abolition of slavery. After all, the Founding Fathers where highly empathic individuals who kept slaves themselves. No, people were more exposed to the lives of others.

You could have spent years ignoring a neighbor only to bump into them one day at the grocery store and, after a good chat, conclude they were thoroughly decent. Both of you didn’t change.

That’s because it isn’t the people that create empathy but their environment.

Businesses spend billions on marketing campaigns and research but still end up labeling customers are “fickle” or “difficult to reach”. The challenge of the modern organization isn’t creating better technology and marketing but creating a better environment for empathy to happen naturally.

All the research in the world won’t change anything because empathy is a condition that arises out of the right environment, not right data.

Consider that statement for a minute.

Why empathize with your neighbor or a customer or a slave if they are not part of your life anymore? Why should Obama empathize with the plight of the average person in the street when he is surrounded by millionaires and powerful bureaucrats?


  • You don’t need to. Employees already have the capacity to empathize. They’re born with it
  • Empathy is like the health of the organization. The more you unblock the natural flow of the organization (breaking down the walls), the more the health flows.
  • Create a culture where employees know it’s okay to empathize with employees. McDonald’s popularized the term “the customer is always right”.  If a customer throws his meal on the floor, it’s the restaurant’s fault. While it may appear a radical empowerment of the customer, it isn’t. It’s the exact opposite. The adage of “customer is always right” disempowers employees because it implies “the employee is always wrong” and therefore the employee simply reacts to the customer and uses no common sense in determining the right course of action. The result is poor service.


Organizations fail when we build walls.

Organizations fail when the building of walls becomes more important than the building of bridges.

By relying on process and protocol, organizations often lose their empathic capabilities, rendering them impotent. Empathy is not just an afterthought to spice up marketing, empathy is marketing.

When we try to wall in our processes and people, we destroy empathy.


  • lawyers
  • policy
  • departments
  • focus group research
  • employee manuals
  • ad agencies
  • terms & conditions
  • customer policies
  • process
  • titles, authority
  • convention, tradition

and so on… necessary evils of the organization that end up destroying it.

TARGET employees know Hispanics aren’t Taco eating bandidos but disempowering their decision making ability strips them of that basic confidence. Rather than apply common sense, they defer to authority and authority has the data.

The key to creating empathy is creating an environment where people can empathize naturally.

Employees don’t need empathy courses, they don’t need to be trained in empathy – we all have natural empathic skills.

Call centers are made more efficient with flow charts that, based on extensive research data, drive the decision making process to the optimum solution. By mapping out the complete option tree for operatives, employees become disempowered.

English: This is a picture of the Zappos 2010 ...

English: This is a picture of the Zappos 2010 Culture Book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By contrast, Zappos famously ripped up its call center scripts, allowing empathy to happen naturally. The online retailer’s NPS scores stand as testament to the strong emotional bond customers have with the brand. Sure, employees may make mistakes but customers are prepared to forgive well intentioned decisions.

Zappos example – “a woman called Zappos to return a pair of boots for her husband because he died in a car accident. The next day, she received a flower delivery, which the call center rep had billed to the company without checking with her supervisor”

People respond to emotion, not a telephone guideline at a call center.

Zappos will be remembered for ripping up the script and creating radical change. In the future, call center scripts, like slavery may appear barbaric and yesteryear. How could normal folk ever put up with these ideas?


Acquiring data is easier and cheaper than ever before.

As a result we have a lot of data on what people are doing but the more we collect, the more we fail to empathize with those who we are studying, the more they distance themselves from us.

As data collection agencies push harder and wider into private spaces, people are responding by supplying unreliable data e.g. lying about age or occupation in their profiles. The brands that can really bridge this gap are the ones that rip up the script and go out there to the frontline where people are at.

Sure, use the data but use it to support the storytelling but don’t make the story fit the data.

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About Graham Brown

Co-founder of mobileYouth. Cultural explorer, ethnographer and digital anthropologist. Author of The annual mobileYouth report and books The Mobile Youth: Voices of the Mobile Generation, All is Social, The Youth Marketing Handbook, Fans and Youth Marketing 101.

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