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  • Brent Marcus

Please Enjoy Our Sincere Hugs and Encouraging Statements

Empathy is pretty hot right now. Listening, kindness, support. All huge at the moment.

A culture that leans toward empathy is good. It’s certainly better than a culture that prizes self-centered arrogance. The preference for empathy creates pressure for organizations to jump on the empathy train. Again, that’s a good thing. We want companies to consider people, not just profit. You’d hope an empathetic orientation would result in better products, marketing, and beneficial acts of corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, empathy doesn’t come naturally to businesses. The emotional side has always been particularly challenging because companies aren't people. There’s no innate mechanism for a company to express or capture emotion - any emotional input or output is the result of special effort. And the incentives are usually fuzzy, which means it's difficult and lower priority. So, it’s not surprising that so many corporate attempts at empathy feels inauthentic. In the past the problem has been the inability to tap into emotion. But the current problem isn’t a lack of emotion - it’s too much emotion, the result of an overcorrection gone awry. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes requires a strong emotional element. However, there’s still an empirical side of empathy in order to fully appreciate and respond to an individual’s unique experience. Imagine someone walking down the street. They inhabit a specific environment and context. How old are they? What do they see? What do they hear? What’s the weather? What time is it? What day is it? The current trend is to take those contextual details for granted because they’re more mundane. In an effort to amp up the quality of their empathy-minded output, brands are chasing the emotional side and letting the empirical side take a back seat. The thinking seems to be that if some emotion is good, all the emotion is best. However, feeling all the feels isn’t a shortcut past the observational side that creates clarity. The intended attempts at super duper mega empathy comes across as sympathy, rendered as expressions of cloying pity. It’s how we end up with statements disconnected from meaningful insight or action. Things like black lives matter-inspired Instagram posts that attempt solidarity without considering the real impacts of racism, or the expressions required to address it. Or a month of corporate identities fused with rainbow flags and a pledge to do it again next year. How about light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel ads that nod toward a sparkling post-pandemic life, but no indication as to how we’ll get there? These big emotion/low impact statements are the equivalent of seeing someone with a flat tire on the side of the road and pulling over to give them a hug, then driving off while they’re still stranded. At best, it’s deeply weird. At worst, it’s downright hostile. Real empathy requires both an acknowledgement of the individual, but also an appreciation for their larger situation. There’s a high chance of failure for empathetic reactions that ignore reality. Context will continue to be king when brands want to avoid acts of partial empathy.

There’s an ebb and flow to these sorts of trends. It’s reasonable to assume that emotion-dependent empathy will give way to something more pragmatic in practice. In an ideal world, empathy remains a priority and we just get better at the striking a balance. Brands will still strive to express emotion. Just without being all weird about it.

Brent Marcus is founder of Scenario B - a modern consultancy that helps teams see things from a fresh perspective, and move in new directions.

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