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Work & Wellbeing Brand Strategy Business Leadership

Forget empathy. Among widespread consumer concern, marketers must actually do something

By Dan Bowers | Chief strategy officer, TMW Unlimited



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October 20, 2022 | 6 min read

Great advertising has always traded off emotion, but right now people need something more, says TMW Unlimited’s chief strategy officer Dan Bowers. Moving beyond words to action is both the right thing and the way to earn genuine consumer support.

A movie clapboard

Time's up on empty commitments - and time to call 'action' for marketers? / Jakob Owens via Unsplash

We’ve all seen them: the advertising effectiveness studies pointing to the importance of emotion. Beautifully crafted campaigns rooted in well-researched, emotive truths that connect with people on a deeper, and therefore more persuasive, level. Emotion has always been at the heart of all great campaigns.

But we’re living through exceptional circumstances. At Unlimited, our Human Understanding Lab has been tracking the mood of the UK for years, and nobody will be surprised to hear that the nation isn’t in a great place. People are more worried and less positive than ever, with massive concerns about household finances. Not only are emotions higher and moods lower; the implications of the cost-of-living crisis are uniquely widespread. Even groups that are usually financially comfortable are feeling vulnerable, and things are feeling bleak for many of us.

All of this presents an important question for brands and marketers, especially relevant as we approach Christmas: what are we actually going to do? Because now doesn’t feel like the time for gooey schmaltz if it’s not accompanied by solid, tangible support.

Beyond empathy

The received wisdom, often from strategists like me, is that playing on our consumers’ emotions is key to delivering brand empathy. The issue is, in years like this one, terms like ‘brand empathy’ end up feeling more and more like meaningless cliches. Remember how every brand reacted to the pandemic in the same way, ‘we’re all in this together, guys’? It quickly became a hollow statement that didn’t provide much comfort to anybody.

Of course consumers need brands to show empathy, but some nicely written copy or an emotive voice-over isn’t going to cut it. People simply won’t believe it; they can quickly identify brands that present themselves as empathetic without any substance behind their words. At moments like this, people need brands to provide practical solutions.

We’re seeing higher expectations when it comes to brands solving societal problems. Take climate change: people expect corporations to play a role alongside government when it comes to improving society-wide sustainability. This is combined with more familiarity with the way brands react during crises, and a related cynicism of empty gestures and ‘virtue signaling’, especially if they’re seen to be enjoying excessive profits.

If customers don’t want companies to be silent, and they don’t want them to be insincere, the only answer left is that something more profound is necessary. More than ever, brands need to put their customers first. Not in a wanky, marketing jargon way, but in the genuine sense of putting people before short-term profit. This goes beyond the self-evident ethics; it could also be a crucial to protecting or boosting your brand.

Good and healthy

It’s difficult to overstate how much a company’s brand health could depend on how it reacts at this time of customer need. Tone and storytelling are as important as ever, but any empathy-led campaign that is perceived as disingenuous runs the risk of provoking a serious and damaging backlash.

We’re already beginning to see more pragmatic responses being offered to the public. In the UK, Asda released their Dropped & Locked range, where they froze prices on many food items for the rest of the year; Iceland’s Food Club has introduced interest-free microloans to help families spread the cost of holiday food shops; and Channel 4 has announced a bespoke ad break exclusively consisting of helpful, brand-led content from seven different advertisers.

If brands can be attuned to what their customers need, and brave enough to react quickly, they just might make a serious difference, and earn some genuine praise in the process.

People have long memories when it comes to times of crisis. Brands that find ways to help will reap the rewards in the long run, and those that are seen as exploitative could regret their short-term thinking. Are you listening, energy companies?

Work & Wellbeing Brand Strategy Business Leadership

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UNLIMITED is the UK’s leading conversion agency. Our mission is to create genuine business advantage for clients, and we do this by uncovering behaviour-led insights from our Human Understanding Lab.

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