The role of empathy in marketing during uncertain times

08/11/2020 - Matt Mehus

“Dear valued customer from our database, during these uncertain times we want to assure you that we still have things we want to sell you.”

Sound familiar?

During times of crisis it can be difficult for marketers to understand how to best communicate with customers. Canned emails that begin like the above are becoming more and more common – at a time when that type of templated language is becoming more and more inexcusable. As Entrepreneur recently notes: “A brand’s greatest currency during a pandemic: empathy and purpose.”

Despite operating during a massive pandemic many organizations have not adopted a model of empathy that allows them to connect genuinely and authentically with customers struggling with a myriad of unique challenges. This is not just about making your customers feel understood, it’s about creating a real connection between your brand and your customer’s needs. A recent Edelman Trust Barometer report highlights the changing expectation of brands.

• 71% of respondents agree that if they perceive a brand is putting profit over people they will lose trust in that brand forever. Forever!
• 84% of respondents said they want brand advertising to focus on how brands help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges.
• 83% want compassionate connection, including brand messaging that communicates empathy and support with the struggles consumers face.
• 65% of respondents said that a brand’s response in the crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood of purchasing the product in the future.

So where do we begin? McKinsey has a solid starting point for better leading with empathy but I’d like to amend slightly. Here are four actions companies can do to better demonstrate empathy in their marketing efforts for their customers:

  1. Refresh or relook at your customer journey. Do you understand the role every touchpoint with your customer? Is there a purpose beyond just commercial that compels your customers to engage? Map out your customer journey with a lens of empathy to understand what touchpoints are still necessary, which need to be refreshed and which could be inappropriate during a pandemic.
    • Ex. Do your sales motions have sequences, steps or actions that will leave a bad taste in your customer’s mouths? If you have standard Support surveys, can amend to include asking how your company can help customers at this unique time?
  2. Insert empathy explicitly into your communications. Evaluate your brand identity as it relates to your tone. As expectations of brands shift, consumers will be looking for a more intimate relationship with brands in regard to how they relate to their needs. Are you hard selling when you should be adding value? Are you using language that is radically focused on the customer, or radically focused on your product?
    • Audit your existing communication plans and go beyond call-to-action to understand what you want your customer to perceive of your company based on the communication. When you can align perception and action into solving a common need you will strengthen your relationship with the customer.
  3. Ask different questions of your data. Instead of asking your data to segment based on buyer personas and who is most ripe to purchase, try segmenting based on the idea of a “needs persona.” Use your data to uncover archetypes in your customer base that overlap based on their needs during this pandemic, not how they buy.
    • Can you target those in high-risk regions with a unique message highlighting how your company can uniquely support them as it relates to COVID-19? Could you do the same by industries that have been affected in unique ways, for example hospitality or healthcare?
  4. Be helpful. There is no playbook for operating during a pandemic like COVID-19. Your customers are likely struggling, on some level, with the same challenges as your business. Now is an opportunity for you to be helpful – how can you support your customer’s business beyond the products you offer? What steps can you uncover for your customers that will support the livelihood of their business? Do the research for them and add value above and beyond your product or service offering.
    • Have your executive team host informational webinars or podcasts with leaders in your customers’ industries to help them map the steps to maintaining viability.

With all of that said, marketers are entering a new world and companies face a unique opportunity to not only genuinely connect with their customers but to be remembered. Not for how you survived COVID-19, but what you did for your customers and communities.

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