News & Views

Empathy, Inc


It’s rare you have to pay for not using a company’s products. But I get my broadband through a certain provider in the UK, and for my sin only using their broadband service, and not getting satellite TV  it costs me a few pounds every month. Compounding this indignity, I recently told this service provider I was moving house, and could they please swap my broadband to my new house without a gap? No, they said. It would take five to seven working days where I would be without internet while they fitted the phone line.

I patiently explained that my girlfriend is studying for her MBA online as well as working full time, hence we need the internet. Could they send us a dongle, perhaps, to tide us over? No. That’s only for people who are without internet for more than two weeks. I paused, said thanks, and after hanging up quietly plotted my move to another provider.

I rationally get why they do this – triple play, ARPU and so forth – and the amounts of money involved are small. Equally, dongles aren’t free (they’re about £10, actually). But emotionally (unnecessarily stressed girlfriend, inconvenience while we're moving) I really, really resent both these things.

There’s reason behind this rant. Last week we held our annual Now Next Why event in London and New York. A theme that kept emerging among the talk about new technology, cutting edge innovation and emerging behaviour was understanding, respect and empathy. And I think empathy is being undervalued in business terms. If you’ve been reading Wieden+Kennedy, Portland creative director Dan Hon’s daily newsletter you’ll know empathy is something of a crusade of his. (If you’re not signed up, you should be. It’s excellent.) Empathy, he argues, should be something embedded into companies from the ground up, and should be part of every interaction between a company and its customers.

My colleague Arwa and I talked about privacy at NNW, for example. It’s easy to abstract away the fact that data is, in essence, the intimate traces of someone’s life through digital channels. As one respondent in the qualitative interviews we conducted as part of my Now Next Why presentation said: ‘To take someone’s privacy away is to play God.’ And although data is doubtless an invaluable tool, marketers sometimes fail to understand that it’s personal. They lack, in short, empathy. And by using data in a certain way they damage something exceptionally valuable: their brand. Blake Cahill, global head of digital over at Philips wrote a fascinating piece about that over at the Guardian recently, arguing that how data is collated, stored and used is bound up with people’s feelings about a brand. He called that Trust Capital, and the value of that has been explored in some depth by Forrester and Edelman.

Now, charging me for not using a TV service might not really have mattered twenty years ago, except for a ‘Yours in disappointment,’ complaint letter. But it matters today, and not just because I’m a journalist. ‘Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel’ should be updated for the era of billions connected to the web, with a digital quill and a platform with which to excoriate those who are unscrupulous. Treated badly? Why, what better place to share that than on Twitter. Or better yet, buy a sponsored tweet to pillory British Airways publicly to many, many others. 

Because of this pendulum shifting in favour of people, and the resulting radical transparency, brand value is intertwined with how empathetic companies are across every part of their business. I’m sure charging me for not using their TV service generates additional revenues, and even pushes some wavering customers into subscribing. But when I cancel my service provider (which I’m planning now), what’s the lifetime revenue loss of me swapping? Perhaps more intriguingly, what’s the damage done to the brand in what I say about it publicly and write in reviews? Are brand effects being measured and factored into these business decisions? In the competitive business climate and sector in which they operates, can it afford to risk losing existing customers for a few quid a month?

Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen’s recent book Absolute Value argues that those tweets, reviews and comments matter. People, it turns out, are heavily influenced by each other over brands. In my case that's my colleague Alex, who searched Which? magazine, to which he subscribes, for the best internet providers by review. It’s Zen, a brand I’ve never heard of, or seen advertised anywhere. My service provider spends millions to advertise, but that doesn’t matter compared to the scores of glowing reviews and five-star ratings, and my experience.

Lucky General’s planning partner Andy Nairn came in to talk to us recently about the future of planning. He summed up the role of planning very simply and elegantly as ‘understanding people.’ And I think that’s where advertising agencies, trying to figure out their role these days against digital publishers, technology giants, digital product/service design and design agencies, management consultants and others, can excel. Planning was originally meant to be the voice of customers in the advertising process, and through advances in behavioural psychology, anthropology, ethnography and most recently behavioural economics the industry spent a half century getting to know what people want and why, intimately.

This, of course, is hardly new (Stephen King based the entire planning discipline on that bedrock). But marrying that with data analytics and new service delivery technologies, judiciously used, can be a potent force. With this wealth of tools at agency’s disposal empathy should be applied to any part of a business, bringing them closer to their customers, and in turn deepening and strengthening the relationship between brands and agencies.

There's a couple of ways to do that. First, mapping empathy into every interaction between people and brands: Dare's Nick Hirst has written about Experience Architecture, taking the language of software development (UX) and applying it to how people feel at every part of the user journey.  

Second, injecting a human perspective into areas where agencies haven't traditionally ventured, including customer service, service design, pricing, product development and privacy agreements, something Wieden+Kennedy, Amsterdam's Martin Weigel has written in the past in applying Stephen King's Consumer Buying System (a user journey before there were user journeys) in the modern era.

Successful businesses find something people want, and through operational/design/engineering ingenuity deliver that at a sustainable profit (I’m wildly simplifying, of course). At its best, marketing finds insights and matches them with clever ideas that address people’s emotional and rational needs in everything from product, to service and experience. But that all starts with empathy. David Ogilvy’s famous quip is as true today as it was 50-odd years ago: ‘The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.’