Empathy is the foundational brick of any business. Whether you provide products or services, you seek to relieve a pain point or fulfill a need that improves consumers’ lives.

Empathy is critical in product development, because you have to know what problem you’re solving with the creation and sale of your goods.

By putting yourself in the shoes of your target market, you develop a deep understanding of their needs and desires, and can tailor your products or services as the best solution for them. But if you can’t convince them you understand where they’re coming from, they have no reason to believe you can help them.

What Is Empathy?

Simply put, it’s the ability to understand others’ feelings, and share in them.

In business terms, empathy isn’t only useful from a marketing standpoint.

When your sales agents can understand an individual’s situation and recommend the best solution, the customer learns to trust your products and your business. When your customer service reps get to the bottom of a caller’s problem to understand why there’s a pain point, they can better fix it and keep the client happy. The research and development team creates better products when they understand on a visceral level what market gap they’re filling.

Empathy turns your company into a team of users in the trenches, where you feel the problems your products or services are meant to solve, and you can tailor them to succeed in the most effective way possible. By approaching from this standpoint, your customers can easily see that you get it, and what you’re offering will truly help them, so their money is well spent.

Effective Use of Empathy 

Unilever owns a number of household name brands, including Dove, Vaseline, Lipton, Bertolli, and Ben & Jerry’s. Selling with empathy for products like Dove and Vaseline seems easy, considering Dove is known for extolling the beauty in everyone, and Vaseline is touted to relieve literal pain of minor skin irritations.

But how do you appeal to consumers empathetically with pasta or iced tea?

By reminding people of family gatherings where Bertolli pasta is the centerpiece of the meal, or a picnic in the summer with loved ones isn’t complete without Lipton Iced Tea.

It’s not about the product itself, but the product supplementing those things people seek most: fond memories and quality time spent with loved ones.

Empathy in the Business Model: Unilever

Unilever, being a major corporation, also has room to prove empathy in their business model, by promising to help a billion people improve their health and well-being, to halve their environmental footprint, and to source 100% of their agricultural raw materials sustainably to enhance the lives of people in their value chain. Those are big promises, fit for a big company.

Empathy turns your company into a team of users in the trenches, where you feel the problems your products or services are meant to solve, and you can tailor them to succeed in the most effective way possible.

Snacking AND Substance: This Bar Saves Lives

This Bar Saves Lives takes that a step further, not only promoting their nutrition bars for people seeking healthy snacks and breakfast bars, but by giving food aid to places like Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and more. For every bar sold, a lifesaving nutrition packet is sent to a child to fight malnutrition. This is extremely unique marketing. Not only does it appeal to our desire for non-GMO, low-calorie, and gluten-free health foods so we know the company is empathetic to our nutrition requirements, they extend the ability for the consumer to pass on the empathy by helping less fortunate people around the world. In a society where pay-it-forward lines happen in the Starbucks drive-thru all the time, we have a chance to do more to help than perk up the driver behind us by buying their caffeine fix. We have the opportunity to really impact lives, all from purchasing a nutrition bar.

It’s Not Always About the Product

Sometimes, the product or service you provide isn’t designed to solve a problem at all, like Taco Bell, whose closest empathy path is to feed the late night cravings we all experience.

Other times, your business can solve more than one problem, like in the case of car manufacturers. While many car commercials tout the super-tough truck or the sleek design of a sports car, there are plenty of options to tug at the heart of a customer.

Cars get us from A to B, yes, but more than anything, they offer freedom. They are the literal vehicle for bringing us closer to far-flung family members, or taking a trip that leads to priceless memories. Companies like Volkswagen and Toyota have empathy nailed.

The Toyota ad depicting the meaning of a tree to a family was one of Catherine’s Best of 2017 picks in the Bright Planning Marketing Podcast episode, and they weren’t done reminding us they know how to do empathy. During this year’s Super Bowl, with the 2018 Olympics on the horizon, Toyota took the opportunity to show us they’re about more than cars by showing us the myriad ways they were a part of a Special Olympian’s gold medal journey. By extension, they’re promising to be a reliable company who understands not only do we need reliable vehicles for those times when our dedication drives us, but we need innovation to see us through, and Toyota is that innovator.

Not all empathetic marketing requires pulling on heartstrings. Volkswagen spoke to the kid in all of us when they released this commercial in 2011.

Not only did this commercial make us laugh, it showed off a feature of the car in a way that has nothing to do with safety, warming us up on a snowy morning, or solving a problem for us. No, VW pointed out that sometimes, their engineering and innovation is more than useful—it’s fun, and in a way many of us can relate to. Who hasn’t pretended to use The Force from time to time?

Empathy in marketing is the key to connecting with your target audience.

It proves you really know them, you can help them, you can enhance their lives in possibly unexpected ways, and when all else fails, you can make them laugh.

Bearing empathy in mind during your marketing strategy creation is vital to seeing your brand go from idea to success.