In turbulent times, empathy is the foundation that brands need

In turbulent times, empathy is the foundation that brands need
By Jackie Hopkins
Managing Partner, Communications and Marketing
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Both consumers and brands alike face challenges from current social and economic uncertainty. As brands look at how to act and respond to the times, leaning into empathy and authenticity will allow them to remain relevant and grow deeper connections with consumers.

However, this is often easier said than done, with common pitfalls that brands frequently run into along the way. Consider these important practices to effectively navigate these complex times:

1. Prioritize listening

Paying close attention to the needs and wants of your consumers during turbulent times can quickly become overwhelming. However, this is not the time to deprioritize gaining a deeper understanding of your consumer—even if you feel like you need to in order to preserve your bottom line. The pandemic dramatically changed what consumers expect, how they operate, and how they engage with brands. The current landscape only furthers that evolution. Brands must understand where consumers are on a day-to-day basis so that they can engage with them correctly.

2. Change is constant

Knowing your consumers means you make decisions based on that knowledge—and evolve with them with an agile mindset. In times like these, “business as usual” is a horrible trap for brands. As consumers change, the way that brands engage with them must change, too. A brand can’t execute the same traditional ad or social campaign that might have been impactful just a few months ago because consumers are not at the same place they were at that point. They have been through a lot since then and want—rather need—something different from you.

3. Center on authenticity

Authenticity is a must, which sometimes means walking the fine line between giving into culture and being totally oblivious to it. Some brands dig their heels in and refuse to be swayed, while others have knee-jerk reactions and pivot completely for fear of consumer backlash. Instead of flopping back and forth, lean into authenticity—speaking and acting from your core values as a constant north star, all while remaining agile to meet consumers where they are.

4. Personalize, personalize, personalize

When it comes to connecting with consumers, a one-size-fits-all approach never really worked. That is truer now than ever before. Using a generic approach to communications and brand strategy, rather than tailoring your approach to engage a multi-generational, multi-socioeconomic, multicultural audience, will result in your brand not showing up for those diverse populations in relevant ways. Consider who you are as a brand and how that relates to your consumers as individuals—that's where relationships are both created and nurtured to generate advocacy and loyalty.

Many brands commingle brand value and the brand value proposition, leading them down a path to some of these challenges. Brand values are the core of your brand regardless of what you're selling, how many products you're selling, or what you're asking someone to do. It speaks to who you are as a brand. The value proposition, however, is a simple selling message. Without an intentional and authentic connection to your brand values, communications tend to be overly focused on the value proposition, losing the meaning and ultimate connectivity with consumers.

Consumers see right through a brand that's just trying to sell them something, meaning empathy can’t be ancillary to your marketing and communications efforts—it needs to be front and center. Show consumers what you stand for and who you are, and then invite them along on that journey. Show up consistently, focus less on mere value propositions and more on delivering what the person on the other end values. Something as simple as being authentic and ingraining empathy into your messaging and activities helps draw people in and ignites participation.

5. Lead the way with empathy

Brands need to listen more and be selective in their responses. We live in a world with a cacophony of voices—it's very easy for brands to get swept up and respond too quickly without taking a moment of pause. Brands that actively listen will understand the right way and the right time to respond, building authenticity and empathy into each moment of the consumer journey.

To listen successfully, brands need the right omnichannel approach—meeting their consumers where they are on their journey with your brand. Brands need to show up where their consumers are, whether that’s on TikTok, on your website, or in your comment section, and be consistent in messaging that ties back to brand values. This demonstrates through action that you're listening and operating with their interest at heart.

6. Provide a sense of comfort through trust—and lean into it

The spotlight on brands is heightened during chaotic times because consumers look for comfort, craving familiarity and control when everything else feels so turbulent. They want to rely on your brand to show up like it has in the past and to trust that they can rely on their past experiences.

Brands must be engaged. They must show that they provide consumers with the comfort they seek from their product or value proposition in addition to modeling their values to do good in the world or help consumers thrive. Society is collectively experiencing a seismic shift. Consumers need brands that listen, are there for them, and actively benefit their lives, whatever that looks like—in big ways and in little ways—with an eye towards empathy.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the author
  1. Jackie Hopkins, Managing Partner, Communications and Marketing

    Jackie is a senior leader in communications and marketing with over 25 years of experience developing and executing data-driven ideas that deliver cultural relevance, resonance, and a strong return on investment.
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