Have you ever noticed how many people confuse sympathy with empathy? Turn on the TV today and you’ll hear scads of marketers telling you, “We’re in this together.” Really? How so? Isn’t that just sympathy masquerading as empathy?
In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as empathy. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves first seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, then sharing his emotions.
Today, I get dozens of white papers dealing with marketing during COVID. Some bring real insight into the situation while others offer me content that essentially regurgitates what is already out there. But almost all of them get one thing right: they suggest that brands need to double down on empathy. At Moroch, we believe that too, but actually practicing empathy is a lot harder than preaching it.
Empathy is about more than just sharing someone’s perspective. To be truly empathetic, you must imagine yourself as him or her and, more than that, imagine yourself in his or her particular situation at the time. In order to do this, brands have to be able to step away from the balance sheet and actually see people as more than consumers. To move beyond sympathy and try to focus their efforts while generating content from the perspective of someone else. This chart from Psychology Today helps explain the difference between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
As the nation starts to poke its head out of the sand and get back to some semblance of a functioning economy again, marketers need to be extremely careful not to come across as obnoxiously Pollyanna. Because many things will never be the same again, and wide swaths of the population will still be struggling. People will still be dying, and the abysmal jobless rate is not going to suddenly evaporate. You don’t have to be morose. It’s okay to be optimistic, but remember to spend a little time in their shoes. If you were them, how would this message make you feel?
Admittedly, a few brands have moved beyond empathy to compassion. And good for them. Compassion is when you actually do something about another person’s situation. Whether that’s free meals for first responders or loan forgiveness, every little bit helps. But each market is going to be different, so make sure you’re listening.
As a special treat, I’m including one of my favorite videos about empathy so that if none of what I said makes sense, perhaps Brene Brown can explain it in a way that does: