Motive: Research and the power of empathy
by Kate Snyder. Empathy is a critical, yet commonly overlooked, tool for businesses, stretching all along the spectrum from research to strategy execution.
Empathy is one of the most fundamental emotions we share on this planet and, arguably, what makes us human. It’s a vital component to our relationships, both at home and at work, and is something all of us, the whole world, could use more of right now. When we both cognitively and emotionally understand another person’s experiences, it means that we can truly walk in their shoes, and feel what they feel.
These days, consumers are expecting authentic interactions with brands. This forms part of a larger, global trend where humanity, transparency, and care are expected to be integral parts of any brand’s products and communications plans. Take Unilever, for example, which found that its Sustainable Living Brands performed 30% better than the rest of the brands in its portfolio.
In order to understand what people really want and need, we have to experience what they experience, and empathy helps us to uncover these human truths. As researchers, we typically get caught between the big data (quantitative) vs small data (qualitative) paradigms, where numbers and statistics are often prioritised over one-on-one, human-level engagement with real consumers. What we learn when we talk to people about their emotions, rather than studying numbers on a graph, are the deeper reasons and explanations behind consumer behaviour.
This human-centred approach requires us to reframe our business question — not, “What must I do to increase sales?” but, “What can I create to solve people’s problems?” We have to know who our customers, what is important to them, and what drives their decisions. This kind of adjustment in our thinking can lead us to better designs, smarter solutions, and more-authentic communication with our consumers.
Implementing empathy as a tool within consumer research is a practice that is fundamental to the way anthropologists have been looking at and analysing the world around us. First, it requires seeing, not just visually, but looking at the bigger picture of the communities, societies or worlds that our consumers live within. We have to understand the structures and expectations that guide much of the way we interact with one another.
Secondly, we have to be able to listen, not just to what consumers tell us, but also what they don’t tell us. Reading between the lines of what people say and do is where a vast majority of insights arise from. When we can put ourselves in the shoes of others, we can more easily pick up on the anomalies between what someone says that they dream of one day and where their real needs and desires lie. It’s also important to ask the right kinds of questions, such as allowing someone to tell you a story and really describe their lives, rather than plainly telling you.
Finally, actively immersing ourselves in the lives of other people is necessary to insightful learning about consumers’ behaviours. This means opening yourself up enough to gain another’s trust and then joining them in their daily lives. A lot of us find it difficult to describe our most-mundane activities, but there are often rich insights to uncover when you’re participating yourself.
Call to action
We are all complex beings, not just statistics, and empathising with one another’s humanness may help us to have better outputs overall. Connecting with consumers and really understanding what we all want and need can only be a strong call to action in the minds of all of us — marketers and consumers alike.
Originally from the US, Kate Snyder is head of anthropology at Instant Grass International (IGI), which has a free report on the power of empathy. As a researcher and strategist, she helps brands and organisations to better understand cultural and human behaviour throughout the African continent. Kate is s especially interested in how individuals and cultures shape one another — how cultural pretexts often dictate individual beliefs and behaviours but, equally, how we all individually play a role in shaping and changing cultural constructs.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.