Feeling Their Pain

By Danny Villanueva, Group Account Director

Want to get ahead of the competition? Try stepping into your customers’ shoes and feel their pain.

Marketing is about highlighting a brand’s solution to a consumer problem. And while some people think of empathy as a touchy-feely, “soft” skill, the truth is that it isn’t. Empathy is a hard business skill that is absolutely critical to a company’s bottom line. It’s not about being nice–it’s about feeling someone else’s pain.

The most successful companies zero in on their consumer pain points, obsessively. In the mid 2000s, for instance, Blackberry had a lock on the phone market for business users, making deep connections with its consumers. While Steve Jobs may not have had a personal reputation as an empathetic leader (nor exactly does Jeff Bezos for that matter), he was able to see that what people really needed wasn’t a clunky office gadget with dozens of tiny buttons, but rather a trimmed, versatile, app-driven iPhone.

Jobs’s famous quote stating that “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” is sometimes seen as arrogant, but if you really think about it, it’s the highest expression of empathy: addressing customer needs before they’re even aware of them.


Go The Extra Mile 

Simply feeling the customers’ pain isn’t enough. Too many marketers get this far only to slap a quick fix on an existing problem, masking the issue but never getting to its root. Real empathy requires going beyond the Band-Aid solution and investing in an actual cure. It’s rarely easy, and the process of getting at the core problem is sometimes costly and full of wrong starts, but it’s where true innovation comes from and where we can reap huge rewards.

Whatever your feelings on Amazon’s reputedly breakneck work culture may be, the company has built an empire on empathizing with consumers. And empathy doesn’t just work for Amazon. Progressive companies, almost without exception, are experts at intuiting customers’ discomfort and acting on it.


Be Flexible and Adaptable 

Though empathy isn’t merely a foundation to build a business on, it’s also a way to adapt when the market inevitably turns. Without it, it’s far too easy to just keep doing what you’re doing–doubling down on what’s bringing in revenue, without asking whether consumer attitudes are silently shifting.

Examples aren’t hard to find, even with at once-great companies. Kodak threw everything it had into its tried-and-true photographic medium while the world went digital. Blockbuster insisted on renting videos in bricks-and-mortar stores, even as the Internet was opening up far more convenient channels for consumers, leaving Netflix to stream away its customers.

While being “nice” can be an important virtue in business, real empathy is something different and deeper. Truly acknowledging and addressing someone else’s pains and frustrations is hard. It requires serious investment and a long runway. Not to mention, it isn’t just customers who need to be considered, but employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders too (a lesson Amazon could take to heart).

But marketers who manage to master the art of empathy have developed the habit of disrupting the world they live in. When you can step into your customers’ shoes and see the world from their perspective, not yours, it’s easier to walk miles ahead of the competition.


Put Yourself (and Your Brand) Out There

What if your brand is built on social purpose and you need your customers to know what you stand for? Expose yourself. That’s what the shoe company TOMS did with their One Day Without Shoes campaign earlier this month. The impact was amazing. A quarter of a million people participated in over 1,600 events worldwide, posting their photos, videos, and stories. The end result is brand building the right way–through consumer empathy.

No matter whether you call your process consumer insights, big data, or market research, the mindset you adopt is key. Being empathetic to your consumer as you strive to understand them will help you build a brand that is empathetic and in tune with its audience on a human level.

Yes, we’re all wired to feel at some level for our fellow humans. But as we grow up, that sense can become dulled. In the drive for quarterly sales or our fourth year working in a particular category we may become blinded to the points of connection with our consumer. Without them, we put our brand at risk – simply skimming the surface of a potential relationship. So how can brands be more empathetic? The answer can be traced to how deeply they seek to understand their consumer in the first place.


Center Your Consumer

Consumer empathy lies at the heart of every real-world business. Businesses that use empathy to put customers, clients, and end-users at the center of the problem-solving equation are far better off than those that rely merely on gut or tons of data.

Ask yourself: Does your company’s message reflect your empathy with your consumers? Do you know what value your customers place on your brand pillars? Do you even know what the compelling truths of your brand are? If not, it just may be time to expose yourself to get closer to your customers.


Dieste Inc