Two weeks ago, US presidential candidate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced their candidacy on a platform of kindness and empathy. As the week of virtual convention activities unfolded, it was clear that these themes will remain part of the Democratic party’s hue and cry until (and hopefully beyond) the November 3 election.
Hard as Democrats may try, empathy is STILL in short supply in our country today, and it is taking its toll on our citizens. Today, NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee reported that most citizens are simply unsure when the next pandemic or political shoe will drop. We are in a constant state of high alert.
Think about how many customers this might affect in your universe: Among U.S. adults, JAMA’s recent study revealed that “depression…prevalence was more than 3-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.” That means nearly a quarter of our population (and likely our teammates and customers) are experiencing depression symptoms.
If you are still using the same communications, PR, investor relations, and messaging strategies from the pre-COVID era, your brand and your company’s future viability is at risk.
A deeper level of empathy is also in short supply in a lot of marketing communications—even as we stand squarely in our sixth month of the pandemic.
We can do better.
During one of my August LinkedIn Livestreams, I sat down with Martin Lindstrom, an empathy and culture expert with a deep background in neuroscience, to unpack this important topic. We are both colleagues in the MG 100 community of global executives, authors, and community leaders.
You can watch the LinkedIn Live replay here.
Martin is a pioneer in the fields of consumer psychology, marketing, and neuro-marketing research. Based in Switzerland, Martin has published seven books, including Buy-Ology, Small Data, Brandwashing, and others.Here are my key takeaways from our important discussion:
- Trauma is a trickster.
Here’s an example. Last week, I reconnected with “Ralph,” a local C-Suite executive and angel investor. He has a Harvard MBA, a string of successful startups under his belt, and a lifetime’s worth of cash in the bank. Yet while we were on Zoom video, Ralph was visibly shaken.
The pandemic put his nervous system into a tailspin, and he has been diagnosed with clinical depression. “Lisa, I feel lost. All of my pre-COVID plans are shattered. What do I do next? I grew up with my family and a boss telling me how my career should look. Now, they don’t have any answers!”
We are all experiencing a collective state of grieving and it needs time to express itself – in meetings, on Zoom calls, and among teams. And we cannot “think” our way out of grief. We have to feel it, breathe it, taste it, and accept it.
- Isolation and masks make empathy harder to express.
In Lindstrom’s ebook Buyology for a Coronavirus World, he says: “I realized the masks did more than minimizing the virus. The masks also eliminated empathy.” When you add a 6-10 foot distance to the equation, it exacerbates our ability to make eye contact and sense someone’s true emotion.
This is the reason I speak out often against personalization and account-based marketing as replacements for live conversations for complex B2B offerings. They certainly scale more quickly than a salesperson or BDR. But does circumventing our audience’s emotional reaction drive the kind of conversations and connections that lead to lifetime loyalty?
- Marketers and communicators often choose the easy empathy path.
We can choose from three different levels of empathy, yet we default to the one that requires the least amount of effort: cognitive empathy. This simply requires us to put ourselves in someone else’s place and see their situation. We are not feeling that other person’s pain, just recognizing it. This works well in a few cases, such as negotiations.
Then, for some reason, we expect BIG results from our campaigns.
Remember the tsunami of bland, impersonal email messages you received from hospitality and airline providers last March? They came from the same playbook known as “we know this is a challenging time.” Someone in Marketing or crisis communications pressed the cookie cutter cognitive empathy SEND button. They were barely one notch above SPAM. I deleted every one of them.
Consider other options that help us connect more deeply to our audiences. These include emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.
Emotional empathy expresses itself when we feel the other person’s emotions—it’s almost as if we caught them. We also feel defeated when we watch a sporting event and our favorite athlete suffers the agony of defeat. We also run the risk of feeling overwhelmed by that emotion. Emotional empathy requires a modicum of self-control and high self-awareness.
Compassionate empathy takes us one step even further—we feel someone’s suffering and take action to help them or mitigate their problem. Five years ago, Lindstrom visited over 2,000 homes and lived with total strangers. He wanted to fully understand and apply how they were using a product. His ability to immerse himself in emotional empathy allowed him to help a coterie of world class companies redesign their offers and their brands. These include Lufthansa, Lego, Burger King, and Lowe’s.
As you review your COVID communications portfolio and brands, try these steps:
- Take stock of your content strategy for each product or service.
- Honestly rate the level of empathy each communications channel expresses.
- Determine where you can express greater empathy while remaining true to your values.
As CEOs and marketing leaders, we can flatten the pandemic curve through suppression measures. That’s true.
We can also help to flatten another curve that kills slowly: mental illness. With a true commitment to listening and caring about our communities and our customers, we can do our part.
Take that one to the polls.