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BW Businessworld

The power and magic of empathetic communication

This is an inflection point in the shaping of brand identities. With the pandemic stretching out, brands that stand by their audiences will be built on a foundation of empathy.

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empathetic communication

Customers buy in to brands for various reasons: history, the cool quotient, wit, etc. With the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, the buzzword today is ‘empathy’. It’s refreshing to hear business leaders talk about it and to see brands resonate with audiences through empathetic content.

What is empathetic communication? Put simply, it’s communication that takes into account what the brand does, the way it does it and its impact on people – in a particular context. The last part is critical, and today – with all the negative impacts of the pandemic – it’s about how a brand is responding and adapting to a post-COVID reality. After all, this is the world in which all stakeholders – from customers to employees – exist.

This is an inflection point in the shaping of brand identities. With the pandemic stretching out, brands that stand by their audiences will be built on a foundation of empathy.

Different strokes

Brands have responded to the crisis in different ways. Some have stopped all communication while some have pretended that its business as usual and persisted with their marketing campaigns. Neither approach works.

Business objectives and projections for this year aren’t worth the paper they were printed on but that shouldn’t stop brands from trying to make a social impact to stand out. For instance, ask what customers value rather than what will sell. This shows empathy, spurring consumers to share and respond.

This, in turn, can be used to create customer personas that will help brands target more effectively.

Often, these personas will surprise you. Let’s take millennials – they are widely assumed to be self-centred and entitled. Nothing could be farther from the truth. YouTube statistics show that 70% of millennial users watched videos to learn something new. About 39% of them said videos they watched changed their perspective on issues.

It’s clear that consumers are not interested in consuming communication passively; they seek out content that catalyses change at a personal level and in the world around them.

The best communication, then, isn’t about the brand but the customer.

All marketers understand this but it’s easier to know than to implement. Adding a layer of empathy to an already difficult creative process is tough and complicated.

But it can be done and we’ve seen several such campaigns in recent times. Take HDFC Bank’s ‘Hum Haar Nahi Maanenge’ – a song of strength, hope and togetherness, all much needed in this troubled time. It brought together the musical genius of AR Rahman, the lyricism of Prasoon Joshi and the talent of other musicians to pay tribute to India’s spirit. It showcased the human-ness of the brand, had its finger on the pulse of the national mood and created a positive sentiment. It underscored empathy to say all of India is in this battle together.

Find the right balance

It’s important to send out updates about the company, products and services but it’s also vital to show how far you’re willing to go to make a difference. For example, Mahindra & Mahindra used its engineering expertise to design badly-needed ventilators for COVID-19 treatment centres.

Sweeping changes mean nothing if you don’t communicate them to audiences, but tailor the tone and content to the prevalent mood. Remember, there is less trust in brands today than there was a year ago. Empathy can change that.

All businesses want to keep their heads above water but beware of being perceived as insensitive if you simply pretend that nothing’s changed and proceed with the next thing on your to-do list.

It’s true that not every brand can afford huge gestures, but contributing even in small ways today will count on the other side of the pandemic. It’s time to show concern and to contribute.

It’s also time to be visible but in an understanding and reassuring manner. There’s power in empathy — it’s the difference between leaders and the led. And this is the time for it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Jaideep Shergill

Co-founded Pitchfork Partners Strategic Consulting LLP.

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