How Customer Empathy Is Damaging Your Brand


Getting into the mind of the consumer is widely seen as an imperative for high performance brand marketing. But, says a ground breaking study from Imperial College London, by trying to empathise with consumers, marketers may in fact be doing themselves more harm than good.

Being able to ‘think like the customer’ is a highly vaunted skill amongst marketers, and conventional marketing wisdom – in both academia and commercial practice – is that developing empathy for the consumer and being able to put oneself in their shoes is essential to developing and marketing consumer goods and services.

This conventional wisdom is also ingrained in the corporate psyche at the highest levels: a 2012 PWC study of over 1200 CEOs across 60 countries found that two thirds of business leaders believed that incorporating the ‘voice of the customer’ in management decision making is critical to business performance.

But a recent study led by Prof. Johannes Hattula (pictured) from Imperial College of London has rather set the cat amongst the pigeons. In a set of four quantitative experiments, Prof. Hattula and his colleagues put forth a robust challenge to the idea that ‘think like the fish… be the fish…’ is the key to effective management decision making.

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We know that conventional wisdom suggests higher empathy should mean more accurate predictions of consumer preferences. But does it? Although 76.7% of participants in Prof. Hattula’s study were convinced that putting themselves into the customer’s shoes would make them less susceptible to projecting their own preferences onto customer decisions, the research showed precisely the opposite.

Across a range of experiments in which managers were challenged to get into the mind of the consumer under various scenarios, Prof. Hattula and his colleagues found that, irrespective of whether they were discussing product features or celebrity endorsement, trying to empathise with the customer “activated managers’ own consumer identities and thus their personal consumption preferences”.

In other words, the more the study’s participants tried to get into the mind of the customer, the more their egos got in the way.

The cause of this, Hattula suggests, is deeply embedded in human psychology and our tendency to unconsciously take an egocentric view of the world. The human tendency towards situational or ‘role based’ identity also factors into this phenomenon.

So, whilst the managers in the study started the experiment in their ‘manager’ identity, as soon as they were asked to think like a consumer, their personal consumer identity was activated.  And because (lets be realistic), the average senior manager has little similarity to the ‘average consumer’ in most purchase categories, their projected consumer preferences showed a significant bias from the target market’s norm.

So, attempting to intuitively understand the customer has some distinct pitfalls – but businesses have the fall back of objective research, which should – given marketers’ articulated dependence on it – come into play to give a picture of ‘real’ consumers. Interestingly, the egocentrism generated by empathy has no bounds.  Not only did the participants in the study impose their preferences on the ‘consumer’, they also showed a tendency to ignore, discount or reframe any objective research they were provided that contradicted their own worldview. This mix of implicit bias and reframing of objective information can be very dangerous for brand positioning, taking brands down a path away from rather than towards their target market.

Whilst fascinating as an academic investigation in its own right (if you’re interested in such things, the full 55 page report is well worth a read), there are a couple of key take outs from this clever piece of research that can have immediate commercial benefit.

Firstly, the tendency to impose one’s own consumer identity when predicting consumer preferences is a naïve reaction that can be effectively overridden. This means, Hattula clarifies, that decision makers ‘can reap the benefits of empathising with consumers without generating self-referential predictions’ if they are reminded to avoid bias before attempting to predict consumer preferences. How to execute this in practice remains a topic requiring discussion; acquiring a new habit, after all, takes between 4 to 6 weeks of constant practice, something that may be hard to enforce in the average enterprise.

Assuming that intentionally ‘switching off’ bias could be a ‘hit or miss’ solution, an alternate way to translate the findings of this research into commercial value is by instituting a requirement for less emotive areas of the organisation to be involved in brand marketing, and encouraging the avoidance of unilateral decisions. Bringing in employees with strong analytical skills and a more quantitative/ less empathic approach may be extremely beneficial to ensure marketing’s decision making stays on track.

We have started to see this to some extent in more sophisticated players in the advertising sector, where data planners and quantitatively skilled planners are becoming more prevalent, but this is still something of a gap on the client side. One of the key signals this research conveys is that it is important for the intuitive executive to ‘buddy up’ with her more calculated counterparts in order to keep the ego out of empathic decision-making, and ensure any objective resources available are correctly taken into consideration.

This article originally appeared on

Anna Russell is a director at Polynomial, a Sydney-based analytics and strategy consultancy. Polynomial works with businesses to drive value from technology investment and develop effective data driven strategies for marketing and customer engagement


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