This post on empathy and marketing is an expanded version of the intro to my forthnightly newsletter, which features a letter from me to you along with ideas worth sharing and a healthy dose of fun. Not on the list? You can subscribe right here.
I moderated a panel about Empathy and Marketing last week at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
“Empathy” is one of those words that feels impossibly squishy and subjective in a business context: It’s scrubbed clean and sitting in the front row along with “authentic” and “engagement” and “best practices.”
But in marketing, I think of empathy as feeling with people—signaling through our actions, words, and tone that We get you. You belong here.
And it helps marketers articulate how our products or services fit into the context of their customer’s lives, and can make their lives better.
Too high-minded? I don’t think so. Neither did the SXSW panelists (Ben Mand from Plum Organics, Hanneke Willenborg from Seventh Generation, and Dana Neujahr from the LA-based agency Something Massive). We talked about how to keep things real vs. contrived.
We talked about how to research your audience to find out what matters to them.
We talked about slowing down the cadence of marketing to get voice and tone right.
We talked about humor and empathy.
We also talked about how empathy can signal understanding and acceptance of things we often don’t talk about.
And we talked about taking risks with marketing—creative risks that might offend people.
Empathy Both Ways?
At one point, I asked Hanneke Willenborg, the Chief Marketing Officer of Seventh Generation, whether she thought empathy could be a kind of double-edged… sword isn’t the right word. But couldn’t empathy play it both ways? Can’t empathy signal both belonging to some people and exclude others? Can’t it both attract and repel?
If empathy is an electromagnet that attracts an audience of iron or steel… doesn’t it stand to reason that it might in effect repel audiences that are… well, aluminum?
Hanneke said she probably would have answered that question differently a year or two ago—but considering the level of hostility and divisiveness worldwide… she thought it better to focus on inclusion, not division.
Empathy, Hanneke said, ultimately signals that companies are made up of real people who care.
And right there on the SXSW stage, I thought of Fred Rogers.
Suddenly, I was transported to my parent’s rec room, watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood while sprawled out on the wall-to-wall in front of a television set the size of a Chevette.
I loved loved loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and watched it with a kindergartner’s fervor that bordered on obsessive. (Shout out to the worrywart Daniel Striped Tiger! #literallyme)
And I thought Misterogers was one word.
The Misterogers world inside the television set sometimes felt more real than my own life because Fred Rogers talked about things—war, anger, sadness—that the grownups in my life didn’t quite have words for. At least, they didn’t have those words for kids.
He shored us up. But he also offered perspective: He encouraged us to consider what others might be feeling.
I couldn’t have articulated it at the time—because it would be decade before I learned the word—but Fred Rogers taught empathy.
Fred moved seamlessly before his actual neighborhood—someplace vaguely on the East Coast—and a fictional place, inhabited by puppets and royalty, called the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
I thought the Neighborhood of Make-Believe was an actual neighborhood—although the words “make” and “believe” clearly labeled it otherwise. (As a child, I was sometimes not on the ball.)
Fred Rogers died in 2003. But while he was alive he embodied the thoughtful mindset that is, I now recognize, the cornerstone of my As SLOW As Possible approach.
Fred at 50
His show turns 50 this year, prompting CNN to recall some of his memorable lessons, including slow down and chill the eff out. Although—re. that last one—Fred Rogers said simply, “Be patient.”
“In one episode,” CNN writes, “Rogers wanted viewers to hear what it sounded like when the fish in his on-set aquarium ate their food.
“He called in a marine biologist to install a microphone in the tank, but the biologist grew impatient when the fish weren’t eating. They could have re-recorded the scene, but Rogers kept it in as a lesson in patience and the appreciation of silence.”
Fred Rogers later wrote: “Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”
That’s a perspective we need to hear in 2018, don’t we? At SXSW. In marketing. In life.
Because I don’t think “marketing” is just about selling more stuff. Marketing has a higher calling—to actually connect with people who should know about you. Who need to know about you.
That day last week, on the SXSW stage, I wanted to ask Hanneke and the other panelists about Fred Rogers—because Hanneke’s answer was so beautifully Fred-esque. I briefly thought about bringing him into the conversation—right there in front of my 500 closest Austin SXSW friends (!).
But I didn’t. Because, honestly, it felt like any question in that direction would seem out of left field.
Some things make sense in your head, and then when they come out into the world too soon they’re just jumbled and weird.
So I’m instead sharing it now, with you.
P.S. Morgan Neville’s new movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? looks incredible. Here’s the trailer. How fantastic was this guy?
P.P.S. What kind of monsters give Mr. Rogers down-thumbs? 2,100 down-thumbs? Really? Who hurt you?