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    Blind Consultancies: Why It’s Time to Bring Back Consumer Empathy

    By Freddie Luchterhand-Dare - Jun 29, 2018
    Blind Consultancies: Why It’s Time to Bring Back Consumer Empathy

    When viewed from a human evolutionary perspective, being ‘nice’ doesn’t make that much sense: it is, after all, hard to reason with a hungry lion. Despite that, empathy appears to have been as sharp a survival tool as a spear.

    Much of our increased neural volume over the last 2.5 million years has been dedicated to growing our interpersonal capacities. From understanding and attachment through to cooperation, it might be argued that the complexities of relationships have driven human evolution. We are, after all, distinctly social animals.

    Nevertheless, modern life has not been kind to empathy. Ever since Hobbesian and Freudian dogma painted a rather dark depiction of humanity, people have largely been cast as essentially self-interested creatures with highly individualistic ends.

    It didn’t take long for the peddlers of Madison Avenue to become hooked on the belief that people will behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional feelings and desires.

    Such introspection defined much of twentieth-century behavior, which posited that the best way to understand who we are, is to look inside ourselves and focus on our own feelings, experiences, and desires. It created a sort of alchemical dream of changing one’s personality through the remaking, remodeling and elevating of ourselves. For evidence, look at the self-improvement books that fill bookshelves or the well-trodden path to your local yoga studio. Yet, embracing these selfish inner drives risks setting each of us on an island of one.

    Empathy, as a result, has been reduced to a sort of warm and fuzzy emotion, equated with acts of everyday kindness; the emotional equivalent of a hug. At worst, it is even seen as a weakness, a misguided predisposition of the most sensitive of souls. The consequence has been too big a swing on the see-saw, and if we don’t rebalance intro- with outrospection, we risk unseating the empathist in all of us.

    Indeed, empathy has suffered equally at the hands of commerce. It didn’t take long for the peddlers of Madison Avenue to become hooked on the belief that people will behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional feelings and desires.

    Go on, drive the car that really reflects you. Cigarettes? You mean, torches of freedom. However, whilst the admen could argue it was an effective means of gaining competitive advantage and driving the bottom line, this kind of thinking somewhat vacuums the moral content from empathy. It shows little concern for consumers as living people, nor does it try to solve the real problems that blight their everyday existence. It was, instead, about stepping into other people’s shoes in order to sell them a new pair.

    To build real use value, we need a new playbook. It requires consultancies baking affective empathy into the process from the outset. That means getting out there, inhaling the user’s world, and making the imaginary leaps required in order to identify ways to improve people’s lives through their potential brand interaction.

    When taken together, we might diagnose an ‘empathy deficit.’ Not only have we encouraged an individualistic self-preservation society, but also stocked our shelves with a swathe of meaningless brands.

    Consider this: in a Havas consumer study, people said they wouldn’t care if three-quarters of brands simply vanished tomorrow. It is little surprise then that 75% of concepts tested by Nielsen do not fundamentally address any need for people. That fact is not easy to sweep aside, and as brand stewards, the alarm bells should be ringing. Loud. 

    The FMCG juggernauts, in particular, are guilty of having lost sight of what made them so powerful in the first place: knowing their consumer inside and out – as an individual person with a unique set of needs that their products can help resolve. With business growth, though, has come an empathetic distance.

    Unsurprisingly, monolithic companies suffer from atrophied matrix organizational structures, weaving a web of reporting relationships that obfuscate ‘ownership’ of decisions and diminish agility and responsiveness.

    The strength of any brand is intimately 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 creates brand value.

    In essence, size and operational imperatives have pushed the consumer further away. Their lives feel increasingly unfamiliar and distant, with the capacity to genuinely understand and care about them consequently impaired. It means many brand strategies have been pursued on the basis of aging logic. Relevance is a moveable beast: what built ‘big brands’ cannot necessarily sustain them. 

    Just look around, what appeals to people is in flux. Take the preference for small and local, a development seemingly missed by the established FMCGs. Young users are now applying Haeckel’s skin cream in the morning, eating Halo Top ice cream and washing it all down with pints of Young Masters. In reality, these small brands are not stealing share because people don’t care about the ‘big brands’ anymore, but because they are more clued in about what people are demanding.

    Each brand has been empathetically built to service a particular need. Given the evidence, some commentators have judged that the days of organic growth from the core is over for large FMCGs. To keep competing, the options in front of them are limited: either launch small brands and risk fragmenting focus and resources, or pursue deep cost-cutting to increase earnings.

    That, however, misses an obvious, but overlooked point. Whilst, on the surface, preferences have shifted, the fundamental drivers of consumer demand have remained remarkably consistent over time: people are not all that fickle, nor are they particularly hard to predict.

    It might seem an obvious point, but the brand-building process is too frequently imbalanced: weighted more towards the creative end, not the immersive beginning. It’s not to say consumer insight has been neglected, but it is often the victim of short-cuts.

    Indeed, their core needs and desires – whether it is to pamper, energize, relax or perk up – are nothing new. What is new, is the ability of smaller brands to identify and tap profitably into under-served needs. Take coffee as an example. Consumers have always sought out drinks that serve as a pick-me-up, so Peet’s or Blue Bottle did not create a new need, but had a better (more relevant) idea about how to fulfill the existing one.

    At the heart of brand success today is the ability to be useful: it is what drives relevance. The strength of any brand is intimately 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 creates brand value.

    Success now requires moving away from the adland model of manipulating desires to one that instead focuses on understanding needs. It is far from an easy task, so the imperative for brand consultancies must be to take on the role of ‘resident human’ (to borrow a phrase from a wise former colleague) for their clients.

    It might seem an obvious point, but the brand-building process is too frequently imbalanced: weighted more towards the creative end, not the immersive beginning. It’s not to say consumer insight has been neglected, but it is often the victim of short-cuts.

    Most guilty, perhaps, is the instinct to turn to the Internet for the answer. Yes, the web can provide endless, information and opinion about people, but it creates an illusion of proximity when it actually keeps us further apart. Facts anesthetize, rather than illuminate; providing only a part of the picture. At the same time, it is too blunt of a research instrument.

    Google Search is all too often the entry point for a great deal of strategic thinking, coughing up syndicated data that is applied loosely to convenient catch-all groups like ‘Millennials’ or the ‘Silver Generation’. It can lead to the lazy assumption that all constituent people have similar needs, regardless of context or culture, and that they don’t change from one day of the week to another.

    In truth, there are 7.6 billion different realities out there, each with distinct needs, wants and daily struggles. At worse, in the absence of effective upfront empathy work, insights are crafted with a level of professional deformity – or ‘me marketing’ – where conclusions are built on ‘what I like’ or ‘what I need’, rather than a deeper understanding of the actual users.

    Even in an ‘Alexa’ world, the brands that can retain and layer the human aspects amongst the technological will stand a far greater chance of thriving. Empathetic understanding is how we can turn function to meaning – ensuring a brand enhances well-being and enriches people’s everyday lives.

    So, to build real use value, we need a new playbook. It requires consultancies baking affective empathy into the process from the outset. That means getting out there, inhaling the user’s world, and making the imaginary leaps required in order to identify ways to improve people’s lives through their potential brand interaction. Rather than starting with old-hat demographics and attitudes, we must become more demand-centric in our thinking.

    To do that, we need to take a forensic approach to the customer and build the brand around them: it requires locating the intersection of context, person and their emotional/functional needs. It’s simple: ask the right questions, articulate the demand space(s), assess the targetable – and often unmet – needs within it, and then generate the insights that underpin them.

    Take Nigel. He’s a tired 21-year-old going out with his mates at 9pm and wants something to get the night going because people need to be motivated to get up and leave the house: this might be termed the fire up’ space. Then the question becomes, how could a drinks brand answer that need?

    Consider, for instance, the space for ‘an interesting drink but without any of the alcohol and calories’ that Seedlip has so profitably tapped into. Or, indeed, Hilton’s efforts to understand what its true use value was for guests.

    Google Search is all too often the entry point for a great deal of strategic thinking, coughing up syndicated data that is applied loosely to convenient catch-all groups like ‘Millennials’ or the ‘Silver Generation’. 

    After many-a-conversation, the hotel chain was able to create a map of what really mattered to guests. In doing so, they were able to identify the ‘recharge and refresh’ space as the most brand resonant. Their successful transformation speaks for itself – and, overall, brands that have targeted a specific demand space outperform the alternative options [BCG, 2015]. None of that can happen without empathy. 

    Going forward, strategic decisions cannot keep being made in the twilight between thinking we know and knowing: competitive advantage will once again be rooted in how well a brand knows it’s consumers.  Strip it back, and branding will always about emotion, experience and fulfillment.

    Even in an ‘Alexa’ world, the brands that can retain and layer the human aspects amongst the technological will stand a far greater chance of thriving. Empathetic understanding is how we can turn function to meaning – ensuring a brand enhances well-being and enriches people’s everyday lives.

    To fix the empathy deficit, the onus is on both clients and consultants. It too often has felt like a case of the blind leading the blind. So, here’s a call-to-action: clients, demand it of your consultants. Consultants, demand it of your people. Together, we can crack the frozen sea.

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