Welcome To The Era Of Human Brands: Empathy & Humanity In A Time Of Uncertainty

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In this period of global uncertainty, adland veteran Kate Smither(pictured below) says empathy and humanity is vital. In this opinion piece, she says brands have a responsibility to create a sense of certainty and presence that tells people the world will right itself again and this will pass…

The scenes of singing passing balcony to balcony across a locked down Italy put humanity into the crisis that is Covid 19. It reminded us all that empathy is where the true conversation should sit and where humanity thrives. People are constantly fascinating, they disappoint, and they impress all at the same time. He’s not one of my favourite authors but Dickens did nail it when he said it was the “best of times. It was the worst of times” and right now, for every image of a punch up over toilet paper we get singing from the balconies or a fitness instructor leading an exercise class across Seville’s rooftops. 

Brands can learn a lot from people in times like this.  Human beings have a spirt that can’t be locked down or locked in and I suspect brands do too. They just may not have fully realised it yet. So, what can brands learn at this moment in time from these moments in time? They can learn to be human. 

In fact, I would say right now there are two words for brands, businesses, agencies, marketers …. human beings the world over… humanity and empathy

We seem to be on the verge of a new era for brands. Sure, this will be part of the new normal, but it will also be the time brands have been getting ready for all these years. More than having a purpose. they will now be looked to to be human and to act rather than just talk.

There will be a new kind of affinity, brands that act with empathy will be admired and held up. Brands that don’t and just carry on regardless of the context in which they live will be dismissed and potentially even despised. It is a tipping point where brand character will be tested just as much as people the world over will be. Yes, we will all live and work in a “New normal” but so will brands as they have to respond to increasing expectations that they will not just act but that they will lead.

We are already seeing brands act with empathy amidst the chaos of risk, uncertainty and crisis. They are doing what is useful and understanding what people need not just what works for the bottom line. 

Lush opening up stores for handwashing, Woolworths opening up an extra hour for the elderly and disabled, LVMH repurposing factories to make disinfectant gel, in acknowledgement of the conversation culture they have created, social media giants Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are working to protect the panic from inflammatory fake coronavirus stories. The World Health Organisation is even partnering with TikTok, yet another example of brands understanding people’s desperate need for information and these brands knowing that they are the places that people will turn to get it. In the UK, funerals are now being live streamed on Facebook to allow loved ones to attend and to say goodbye despite the limits being imposed on gatherings. 

These are all examples of brands redeploying their resources and acting with an authenticity that marketing hasn’t traditionally been associated with. For all the talk about customer centricity in recent years, a study from Bain identified an “Empathy deficit” and called out the 80:8 rule. Across 400 companies surveyed, 80% said they delivered exceptional customer experiences. Across the customers only 8% agreed.  The study was done in 2017 and I think we may be seeing the empathy deficit decreasing for the first time as we are seeing the best brands at their best 

Starting to look at brands as human will mean reconsidering how we define them, and ultimately how we measure their success. In her SXSW talk, Shama Hyder sums it up like this “Historically, we have been asking: what does our brand stand for? But what if that’s the wrong question? (…) The right question to be asking is: What does do business with us allow our customers to say about their personal brand?”. Essentially what she is talking about is a new proximity between customers and brands a shared reality that is the world in which they both live. She is asking where’s the empathy and the humanity? and challenging us not just to track a metric of “a brand for me” as a measure of success. People today want brands to reflect who they are and to demonstrate beliefs and values, commitment to the bigger issues we face. The current crisis is just the latest example of this new expectation.

A couple of years ago an Edelman study on earned media identified the rise of the “belief buyer” people consuming not because of purpose but actively advocating for brands that spoke out on issues that they expected them to have a point of view on, that reflected their values. I think belief buying was the bridge between the world of CSR and purpose and the start of this new proximity People don’t see brands as different to them anymore, they see them as human and expect them to act in an authentic way. It is the start of human brands and an era of empathy where acts will win out and just selling isn’t enough. 

So, in this time of madness. chaos and panic as we look at an unprecedented future what do brands do? They probably shouldn’t be sponsoring balcony singing and brand up every inch of a street, but they can create a sense of certainty, of presence that tells people the world will right itself again and this will pass. They can do everything they can and think differently about how they market. Ultimately, they need to think like human beings and show respect for the world and their customers so that they are with them through this. Just as the balcony singers showed the resilience of people at their best, now is a time when brands can be at theirs too. 

 

 

 

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