The Set List: The Age of Empathy 
Kseniya Sharin in The Set List, brand strategy

Photo by Andrew Robles on Unsplash.

Editor’s note: this blog is part of a series discussing trends and insights into the world around us.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’” – Henry Ford

Anticipating what people need (especially when they don’t know) is critical to innovation. In the business world, the focus on emotional intelligence as a new critical asset in understanding the unfamiliar brings empathy to the forefront of key skills to cultivate. The power of empathy allows us to perceive our emotional impact on others, as well as imagine their perspective. With increasing cultural uncertainty, diverse identities and globalised populations, having an empathetic understanding of your target audience is key for brands looking to be more effective and authentic. As our economy shifts to serving our psychological and emotional needs more, brands are adopting truly customer-centric mindsets to allow them to fully connect with their consumer.

Business soft skills

With artificial intelligence continuously expanding into the human realm, the automation of jobs (i.e. driverless cars, banking clerks, typists) is looking more real than ever. A huge emphasis is being placed on our innate human qualities. ‘Soft skills,’ that give us the ability to relate and connect to others can never really be automated. Empathy training is being built into the workplace learning of many top companies, including tech companies such Vodafone, who has retrained thousands of staff in soft skills, and Sky, who gave their senior leaders a year-long development program centred on emotional intelligence. These examples illustrate the extent of which empathy has now overtaken traditional business skills.

Our empathy levels can now also be measured thanks to research being led by Empathy Business, who is creating a yearly ‘Empathy Index’ to determine which companies have the most empathetic culture. Human-centred design approaches, such as service design, are also becoming increasingly crucial in helping organisations to see their services from a customer’s perspective. These design services aim to create high quality holistic and seamless experiences by balancing users’ needs with business goals.

Service as a differentiator

With an overly saturated product market, new technological possibilities and the culture of instant gratification, customer expectations of seamless services are growing exponentially. Services present an opportunity for brands to create engagement with their audiences and adopting an empathetic approach is key to anticipating consumer needs and creating successful emotional connections. The emphasis on the quality of services has never been as important as it is today, pushing brands to use their service strategy as a differentiator in cultivating lasting brand loyalty. Lush is a great example of a retail brand that exceeds in this area, training its passionate staff to understand customer needs and go above and beyond in their role to look after each individual who walks in the store. Lush has been voted as one of the top brands in the ‘Customer Experience Excellence’ rankings thanks to its well-defined customer experience strategy.

Photo by Lily Doughball on Unsplash.

Brand-driven empathy

Understanding those who are less familiar to us is also something that’s becoming more challenging. Growing societal divides, political uncertainty and digital immersion could be to blame, but by using technology as the medium, brands are keen to play their role in opening up to the world. Fashion brands such as Toms are leading the way in this new wave of social responsibility. In 2016, Toms included a ‘Viewed with a VR’ headset in every box of purchased shoes, showing a 360-degree video that follows a customer as he travels to Colombia to meet a child helped by his purchase. Hyatt’s recent advertising campaign called, “For A World of Understanding,” also strives to evoke empathy in its customers by presenting moments of compassion in travel experiences across the world. Through this campaign, Hyatt promotes themselves as a socially responsible brand, while creating an emotional connection between the brand and consumer.

The power of being human lies in empathy

As the transformation economy continues to evolve, brands will be at the forefront of helping customers live their best lives. Huge investments in service-led approaches—like John Lewis’s recent announcement to devote 20 percent of retail space to services and hire an in-store brand experience manager in its new Oxford store—will only increase as more brands take an empathy first approach in a bid to boost footfall. An employee’s ability to create meaningful connections, whether internally in the workplace or externally with their target consumers, will be the key to real innovation and lasting brand success.

The future of this trend ultimately lies in our ability to stimulate this aptitude across children and adults alike, and luckily for us, empathy is a skill that can be taught and continuously practised. As Jean Lin said at this year’s Cannes Lion festival, “The power of being human lies in empathy – something that cannot be automated or outsourced.”

Kseniya is a lifestyle strategist in Gensler’s London office who collaborates with her clients and teams to design environments that facilitate enriching experiences. Fueled by a curiosity to understand human behaviour and cultural trends, she is intrigued by the intersection of design, research and consumer needs and the roles they place in creating meaningful spaces. Contact her at .
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