• Transform magazine
  • June 22, 2024

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Tomorrow’s winning brand strategies will let empathy lead

Howard Breindel

As business races forward, how can brand keep pace – to keep creating value? Howard Breindel, co-CEO of DeSantis Breindel, argues empathy will empower tomorrow’s leading brands to sustain human connection through rapid change.

Every brand sets out to be memorably different and mean something special to people – a challenge that gets more and more complicated as the speed of business increases. The company that’s first to market with an innovation today will have ‘me too’ competitors tomorrow. Mergers and acquisitions can redefine a business’s value proposition overnight. It’s dizzying for even the fastest movers; Gartner’s 2023 Strategic Planning Essentials report says only 38% of leaders believe their businesses “can change plans fast enough to respond to market changes.”  

Business’s relentless pace creates real challenges for brands, which need to keep their human engagement footing no matter what else happens. But there’s an answer: empathy. A deeper level of understanding of stakeholder hopes, needs and priorities.  

When brands make the effort to discover why people think, feel and act as they do, they can sustain stakeholder connections and quickly forge new relationships – supporting every business pivot with freshly relevant engagement. 

Intro to empathy as a brand tool 

People tend to associate empathy with good listening and compassion. But behavioral science breaks it down into distinct categories that help bring its application for brand into focus. Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman define three types: 

  • Emotional Empathy: the capacity to share feelings
  • Cognitive Empathy: the capacity to understand what someone else believes, feels or thinks
  • Compassionate Empathy: the motivation to act on shared feeling and/or understanding and help

Can B2B brands share feelings with customers? Not really. But when investing in insights to build strategies, they can use empathy as an investigative lens, delving more deeply into what people feel and why, what motivates them and when.  

Through invaluable qualitative research like surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews and/or ethnography, brands can achieve Cognitive Empathy. They can truly understand the most important, enduring bases of people’s choices – the first step toward connecting with them and influencing what they do.   

The benefits of brand empathy

Understanding employees, customers, partners or investors as people first empowers brands to affirm their stakeholders’ deepest priorities at the moments they make key decisions – like where to work or what to buy. By viewing the world through their eyes, brands can develop strategies for connecting with people today while nurturing receptivity for whatever’s next. 

Empathy’s payoff comes in pure engagement and relationships defined by trust. When people feel understood and validated, they welcome the rational, emotional and instinctive triggers in a brand’s design, voice, messages and experiences – maximizing the value it was born to create. Genuine connection drives them to speed past other options and choose the brand that understands them best.  

Brand empathy in action  

Consider empathy’s potential to create brand value in just one fast-evolving field: energy technology. DeSantis Breindel worked with a leading energy conservation company that needed to grow beyond its core K-12 education market in the US. But sales were slowing, and they had to question why. Was it new competition? A changing marketplace? Price point? 

We dove into research and ethnography – observing the pitch process closely and interviewing school superintendents from across the country. We mapped the sales journeys of company reps and their prospects. And we discovered the brand’s true barriers, which had nothing to do with their services and everything to do with needing to understand their buyers more deeply. 

Guarding their technology as a secret weapon, the company was selling behavioral science: offering to realize cost savings by helping to change habits. But DIYers believed they could change on their own. Stories about working with massive school districts didn’t move prospects; they needed to know the company understood the specific energy challenges in their geographic regions. The accelerated sales process also felt rushed, not giving prospects enough time to develop certainty. 

We renamed and rebranded the business as an energy technology company (making clear to the DIY set they could not do it themselves) and redesigned the entire sales cycle, making it regionally specific and introducing more information over longer, more engaged journeys. The result? Closing rates increased, sales grew, and the new brand attracted investment from one of America’s leading venture capital firms. It also successfully entered new markets: municipalities and universities. 

To evolve successfully, keep connections close 

Led by empathy, brand strategy can empower a business and the people it cares about to move confidently into the unknown future together. When the brand operates from a solid foundation of empathetic insights into its stakeholders, it can bring new meaning to ‘relevance’ at any time, shaping visuals, messages, experiences and moments that feel personalized and meaningful because they are. And that keeps people connected to a business – even as it transforms.