How Can Marketers Close the Empathy Gap?

Charles Trevail

CEO at C Space

The following article is based on an episode of Outside In, the customer centricity podcast.

Some people believe that marketing is losing its influence. Customers are no longer persuaded by traditional marketing tactics like branding and advertising. Customers have a lot more to choose from, and it’s the actual products and services that differentiate a brand, not its marketing.

If we take a wide-angle view, marketers tend to operate with two different goals: to generate profit by meeting customers’ needs better than the competition; and, to distinguish a brand from its competitors. But, what’s more important: meeting customers’ needs or differentiation?

Obsessing over differentiation only serves as a distraction, according to Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School. “The job of marketers is to help companies focus on what matters most to customers,” he says.

I recently spoke with Patrick for the latest episode of the Outside In podcast. He is an expert on brand marketing, advertising, and customer-focused organizational strategy, as well as an accomplished speaker and award-winning author.

For many years, I’ve admired Patrick’s thinking and have often sought out his advice. When I established my innovation consultancy, Promise (which was acquired in 2012 by C Space), it was his book, Simply Better: Winning and Keeping Customers by Delivering What Matters Most, winner of the American Marketing Association’s annual Berry-AMA Book Prize, that helped inspire my business. It still does to this day.

One of that book’s main themes is the need to shift the marketing mindset from brand differentiation to simply better. “Differentiation is something that’s much bigger in the minds of marketers than in the minds of consumers,” Patrick says. “What matters to consumers is delivering the basics really well and really reliably.”

When you think like a customer, that makes a lot of sense. Customers don’t really care – certainly not as much as marketers, anyway – about what distinguishes brand X from brand Y, so long as brand X gets the job done and fulfills their needs.

Patrick uses Toyota to illustrate the point. As automotive brands go, Toyota doesn’t have the sexiest ads, nor is it all that different from similar auto brands, like Honda (though I’m sure the marketing teams for both brands would disagree). From the customer’s point of view, what’s so attractive about Toyota is that it delivers what most people want from a car “simply better than the competition.”

The key for marketers is to understand, deeply and in detail, what customers’ needs are. But if companies only need to understand their customers then why is this so difficult?

Because it all hinges on having empathy for the customer. That’s a complex, long-term process, and the value is harder to prove than more short-term, quantifiable measures. As Patrick puts it: “Empathy doesn’t give you data.”

Yet, CMOs are relying more and more on data and metrics to prove their own value. They’re under pressure to perform against strict financial goals and demonstrate executional efficiency. That means that building customer empathy can fall by the wayside, and the gap between leadership and customers themselves widens. It’s a slippery slope that has direct brand consequences; marketers often relinquish long-term, strategic insights and brand-building initiatives for the sake of short-term, demonstrable gains.

The effects of the empathy gap are real – just look at the recent tone-deaf fiascos at United Airlines and PepsiCo. With technology, mobile, and social media, consumers now have greater access to – and interest in – companies and brands, and they are holding companies, and their leadership, accountable.

“There’s always been the need to bridge the empathy gap, to understand how things feel from the viewpoint of real people away from the C-suite. The trouble is, it’s got even worse now because you get punished even bigger and faster than before because of social media,” Patrick says.

The solution is not to double down on advertising and focus on combating negative reactions. Rather, it’s to build organic empathy for customers with leaders, and across the entire organization so they hear customers, feel for them, and ultimately help guide them in the right direction.

“A valid, actionable customer insight achieves absolutely nothing unless it reaches the decision makers and is acted on,” Patrick says. As the company’s customer cognoscenti, marketers are in the unique position to lead the charge. They can ensure the truth travels upward to senior leadership, as well as across the company more broadly.

By closing the empathy gap, marketers can really begin to persuade customers – in a genuine, authentic way – to gravitate towards brands. In the end, that is the ultimate differentiator.

You may be interested in:

The Lifestyle Experience

The Lifestyle Experience Thirty years ago, the brand was advertising. TV and radio commercials, billboards, print ads – these, along with word-of-mouth, were just about the only interactions customers had with a brand before they bought its products,...

Tina Sharkey, Brandless CEO: It’s Gotta Have Soul

Tina Sharkey, Brandless CEO: It’s Gotta Have Soul Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Tina Sharkey is an entrepreneurial force. Since the days of the dial-up modem, she has been building communities, companies, and brands “with soul.” Today, she’s...

What Retailers Need to Know to Own Customer Experience in the Apparel Industry

What Retailers Need to Know to Own Customer Experience in the Apparel Industry

by Robert Howie (C Space)
Apparel Magazine

Although the market has proven uncertain for several brands, retailers can survive these difficult times. For the apparel market to succeed in delivering better experiences for customers, it needs to go back to basics.

Jeff Beer, Fast Company: The Best a Brand Can Be?

Jeff Beer, Fast Company: The Best a Brand Can Be? Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Trend chasing does not make for great advertising. It’s not a business model, either. As Jeff Beer, staff editor at Fast Company sees it, advertising is everything a...

Customer experience metrics must be adaptable

Customer experience metrics must be adaptable

by Sarah Ramirez
Luxury Daily

As more luxury brands are getting up to speed with ecommerce, companies also need to adapt how they value and measure customer experience.

Beth Comstock: An Outsider Inside

Beth Comstock: An Outsider Inside Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: As Beth Comstock sees it, most companies simply aren’t ready for the massive change happening in the world. After nearly three decades in senior leadership roles at GE and NBC...

Is Optimism Dead?

Is Optimism Dead? As we approach 2020, the future feels less certain than ever for customers. So that’s why we’ve launched Life as a Customer, a window into the worlds of 700 customers, powered by C Space. We share our first findings in this article......

Customer Experience Lessons Retailers Can Learn From the World’s Best Companies

Customer Experience Lessons Retailers Can Learn From the World’s Best Companies

by Rieva Lesonsky
Small Business Trends

How can your retail store deliver a best-in-class customer experience? Learn from the best, that’s how. Global customer agency C Space recently released its report on the best customer experiences of 2018, and retailers dominated the top companies on the list. Nine of the top 25 companies were retailers: Trader Joe’s, L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, Amazon, Costco, REI, Bath & Body Works, Sephora and Aldi.

Best Agency Above £20m and Best Place to Work: C Space

Best Agency Above £20m and Best Place to Work: C Space

by Katie McQuater
Research Live

At the 2018 MRS Research Live Awards, C Space was awarded Best Agency with a turnover above £20m and was also named Best Place to Work.

Rita Gunther McGrath: What’s Next for Strategy?

Rita Gunther McGrath: What’s Next for Strategy? Subscribe to the Outside In podcast: Author and Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath is a world-renowned expert on strategy, innovation, and growth. Her work has been a beacon for companies...