A Call for Empathy

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

As the tumultuous year of 2020 nears a far-from-normal finale, historic events of social unrest, racial strife, global illness, and political division invite a question of whether our shared new normal is to be one of tension and oppression, or perhaps we have hit a nadir, and a modern-day renaissance will now begin to emerge.

Societal trend research and data point to a reawakening of empathy, where people are regrouping along new social lines and holding each other accountable to recognize and respect the other.

Accountability extends beyond individuals and now includes public and private institutions and organizations. Corporate and brand purpose, and substantive contributions toward better social outcomes are also in the spotlight. Consumers will increasingly avoid transacting with companies that act contrary to their values and, increasingly, will vote with their wallets, and they will tend to share their influence with others across their networks.

Marketers are tasked with determining how brands should walk, talk and engage with customers into 2021, on the other side of this difficult year gone by, with changed outlooks and high expectations.


As social media trends have demonstrated, the days of one-way brand-building efforts have long since been rebalanced. Campaigns and communications designed in a boardroom and pushed at consumers now only account for a portion of what drives brand equity and image perceptions.

Person with a laptop & phone

Consumers have gained significantly more control over how brands are shaped and built up, or inversely brought down. Brands are now creating highly personified images online; they are shared, liked and discussed with or without corporate involvement, and they are assessed by way of their actions and values above and beyond their products and offers.

The implications are significant:
  • Consumers have further heighted their expectations of how brands should behave
  • Communities of interest are defining a new view of segmentation
  • Empathy includes everyone: It is diverse and holds mass-audience appeal

Consumers are expecting brands to engage and participate directly in the societies that buy and consume their products, not merely observe from the sidelines. To deepen brand equity and fuel business momentum, marketers must keep pace and fully understand these expectations.

Contemporary research suggests brands need to extend beyond commercial interest, demonstrate social commitment, and relate to people at a human level.


Consumers expect brands to understand, respond
and act responsibly.

Nine in ten Americans continue to think that brands need to show empathy with actions and not just words, and 86% think that showing empathy is critical to creating greater loyalty.
Ipsos survey for Pepsico, May 2020

79% of people agree that a company, through its brand, should respond to issues of social crisis.
Axios/The Harris Poll 100 – June 2020

Observant of not only a brand’s commercially-motivated messages, consumers are increasingly aware of when companies and brand actively participate in social issues and act responsibly. When brands do engage, a majority of people feel it demonstrates leadership by example. Conversely, not taking action can imply a lack of social values. Companies that stand up and speak out will see gains in their overall perceived reputation. A challenge to bear in mind is that the very notion of responsibility is subjective which complicates determining how to align with audiences who are more polarized socio-politically than ever in modern history.

Brands are expected to demonstrate
empathy towards those in need.

69% of people expect brands to display empathy to those who suffer from discrimination.
Ipsos Brand Response Research, June 2020

Across all the possible actions a company might undertake including messaging, education and internal policy, consumers have identified that the top, most-important effort they expect is a demonstration of empathy towards those who suffer from discrimination. As it pertains to social cause and purpose, consumers are indicating they expect a brand to recognize, understand and prioritize those who are most vulnerable and discriminated against.

Silent brands risk being seen as
out of touch and lacking integrity.

53% of people believe a company that remains silent on social issues is out of touch with what is happening in the world and lacks integrity.
Axios/The Harris Poll 100 – June 2020

Company silence 53%

49% equate silence and inaction with a lack of compassion and empathy.
Axios/The Harris Poll 100 – June 2020

Much as how many people notice the brands who actively participate and contribute to social improvement, they also keep score of brands who do not engage and who remain silent. For many consumers, what brands choose not to do is just as representative of their values and purpose as what brands do follow-through on.

Silence is complicity


Younger consumer generations
are redefining communities.


of Gen Z (born 1995-2010) believe communities are created by causes and interests, not by economic backgrounds or educational levels.


of Gen Z value brands that don’t classify items as male or female.

To demonstrate empathy towards communities of interest, brands will need to evolve and elevate how they identify and reach those communities. These communities will be united based more on shared values and beliefs than on traditional factors such as age, gender or income. What a brand believes in, and cares about – and how the brand expresses that caring – will matter increasingly beyond what it is selling and marketing.

Gen Z and Gen A are empathetic generations

“Empathy didn’t used to matter at all. And then it began rising steadily … the part of the U.S. where people are least interested in empathy is Washington D.C.”

Grant McCraken, Futurist and Anthropologist, “MappingtheFuture.com” August 2020

From the 1950s onwards, the public interest and importance placed on demonstrating empathy towards each other has been increasing, and as of late, accelerating. By the time Generation Alpha emerges as the next demographically-driven wave of consumers, they may become known as the empathetic generation. Having experienced such constant anxiety, divisive and polarised politics and destruction of the middle ground, they will be the generation that rebuilds bridges to bring people more together, and seeks greater tolerance of each other.

Women embracing


Empathy is positive

“Empathy does seem to be linked to well-being, both- so within individuals, empathy is associated with more happiness and well-being, but also across cultures, we found the same thing.”

Sara Konrath, PhD, Social Psychology
Indiana University, December 2019

Empathy is inclusive, not exclusive

“Empathy does seem to be linked to well-being, both- so within individuals, empathy is associated with more happiness and well-being, but also across cultures, we found the same thing.”

Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing,
NYU Stern School of Business, November 2020

Mural: make people feel loved today

Continuously understanding and respecting people on a fair and equal basis is culturally defining, and highly inclusive and diverse. Brands that participate and involve themselves in a positive culture shift by contributing to social progress will be seen as part of the solution versus part of the problem.


To maintain continued trust and respect, corporations, organizations and brands must tangibly demonstrate empathetic values such as listening to their customers’ needs, understanding the challenges people are going through, and investing in a customer/user experience that is helpful and supportive versus purely transactional.

Black lives matter protesters embracing

Some best practices:

Listen to customers, understand them as people
Create brand experiences that resonate by understanding customers as people, and relating to their challenges and realities uniquely, free of stereotypes.

Build a brand from the inside out
Every customer interaction with staff and e-channels is an opportunity to personalize the experience and demonstrate empathy at an individual-by-individual level.

Communicate actions being taken, once done
In planning social responsibility actions, communicate and develop messaging in support of the steps that have been taken as concrete examples of brand purpose.

Maintain authenticity, recognize and build on past actions and messages
Continue to advance solutions on an ongoing basis, and approach inclusion at the outset of any social effort by being relevant and genuine to brand DNA.

Reimagine what empathetic consumerism entails
Transform products into services to serve new communities of Gen Z and Gen A consumers. These audiences seek subscriptions over ownership, broadcast individuality and opinions, and their every purchase is balanced with ethical considerations that align with their deeply held beliefs.

Some great brand examples:

Recognizing the rising need for mental health support as the coronavirus pandemic continues to march around the globe, Esports company Skillshot in partnership with mental health organization Rise Above the Disorder (RAD) leverage the gaming platform as a way to connect with players. Players are invited to partake in actual therapy sessions while they’re playing an actual game. The campaign will also include psychotherapy education sessions for content creators that will be streamed on Twitch.

Skillshot Gamer Therapy initiative

In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month this October, Oreo released a heartwarming Pride video that tells the story of a young woman introducing her parents to her girlfriend for the first time. “Oreo and PFLAG’s Proud Parent film tells the story of love, family ties, and celebrating authenticity, while championing the notion that a loving world starts with a loving home,” Oreo said in a press release. In addition, Oreo is giving away 10,000 packs of limited-edition Rainbow Cookies to reward acts of allyship that benefit the LGBTQ+ community. Each pack of the colorful cookies, not available in stores, comes with seven different colored creme fillings inspired by the colors of the Pride flag. To try a pack for yourself, you can participate in Oreo’s #ProudParent campaign by being one of the first 10,000 applicants to share a photo of what allyship means to you on Instagram or Twitter.

Ad: Oreo and PFLAG’s Proud Parent film tells the story of love, family ties, and celebrating authenticity, while championing the notion that a loving world starts with a loving home

In entertainment, television or film programming is no longer able to simply air controversial subject matter without editorial notices. For example, a recent FX program “A Teacher” – about an illegal student-teacher relationship – includes both a trigger warning at the beginning of each episode, as well as an ending message directing any survivors of abuse to helpful resources. These same types of commitments can be found in programming that includes content with suicide, eating disorders, gender issues, or other abuse. Networks are no longer able to simply share the content; they must frame it and use their platforms to provide resources and support.

FX program “A Teacher” – about an illegal student-teacher relationship

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