• 06.27.13
  • content and pervasive creativity

Empathy Sells

Empathic brands do better at checkout. Here’s how.

Empathy Sells

Have a look at the Volkswagen ‘Smiles’ commercial and try hard not to smile. Or watch P&G’s ‘Thank You, Mom’ video from the London Olympics. Try hard not to tear up. If that didn’t do it, try ‘Dear Sophie’ from Google.


It’s easy to forget that each of these advertisements is actually selling us something – cars, packaged goods, a web browser – or that the spots are in fact advertisements at all. It doesn’t feel like we’re being peddled anything. As the millions of views for each suggest, we love them. So much so that we buy more of their stuff.

Emotive communications like these tend to far outsell informative communications. One analysis of 880 campaigns found, on average, that emotional campaigns outsell informational ones by 19 percent. Another examining the profitability of 1,400 campaigns found that purely emotional communications performed about twice as well as purely informational communications. As Google’s VP of global marketing put it: “If we don’t make you cry, we fail.”

So how does that work? How is it that advertisements not advertising much of anything advertise so effectively? And what do the answers mean for how marketers develop creative content that sells? In the case of each of the videos above, there’s a common element at play. In each, we take on the feelings we’re observing on the screen; we experience in part what the characters are experiencing. Each has us sharing in the observed emotions of another. At play in each is empathy.

Yes, there’s that buzzword again: empathy. It risks being relegated to the jargon graveyard. But it shouldn’t. As the spots suggest, empathy is often what’s behind such strong emotional content. And while the science of empathy is still in its infancy, we now know this: brands that employ empathy to drive creativity produce more emotionally resonant content and are rewarded warmly at checkout. As marketers, wielding empathy in creative work requires first understanding how it works; second, it requires exercising it ourselves when developing content.

First, a bit on the science. How does it work? If you’re like most people, you probably smiled all the way through the Volkswagen spot, quite literally mirroring the emotions you observed. In neuroscience-speak, it did just that: it triggered our mirror neurons, a type of neural reaction in which we mirror an observed emotional experience, taking it on as our own. Volkswagen is cleverly provoking our affective empathy. We see happiness, and we feel happy – a visceral reaction to the observed experience of another. (Coke does affective empathy particularly well. Check out ‘Love Seat’ to see what I mean; again, try hard not to smile.)

But not all empathy is the same. With content like ‘Dear Sophie’, it seems like there’s something much deeper going on. We feel connected to the work not because we see and mirror the dad’s emotions. We don’t actually see much of the dad at all. More complexly, we step inside his world. By being placed in his shoes (or his email), we feel what it’s like to be a dad. Or in P&G’s spot, a mom. We feel what those proud moms are feeling because we see the Olympics through their eyes. At play is cognitive empathy – we see the world through the viewpoint of another. We actively step into the perspectives of mothers and fathers and share in their joy.

The ‘It’s time’ video produced for Get Up! is cognitive empathy in its purest form. The advocacy group’s spot – which has more YouTube hits than Google’s, P&G’s or Volkswagen’s – is a literal perspective-taking exercise for viewers: the camera doubles as a person’s eyes in this two-minute love story, following a relationship from first-sight to marriage proposal. By seeing a relationship through the perspective of a gay man, we have little choice but to feel his happiness, humanizing a politically fraught issue. The content’s creativity is a byproduct of its empathy.


So if resonant work starts with empathy, then it follows that marketers themselves must be empathic. Projecting perspectives requires first understanding them. Roman Krznaric, in his fantastic animated video on empathy, gives the example of George Orwell (at minute 3:00) who, before writing Down and Out in Paris and London, immersed himself in East London’s street life, living among those on the social margins. He shared in their experiences, getting into the gritty details of the poor’s worldviews so that he could in turn authentically write about them.

Which is more or less what marketers should be doing. Infusing empathy into creative work starts with marketers committedly exercising it – the imaginative effort of extending ourselves into the emotions behind consumer attitudes and behaviors, and translating those emotions into the work. The content above tightens our chests because it taps into some insightful truth about the experience of a group of people. Uncovering those truths requires that marketers first investigate and share in consumers’ perspectives.

This is all ultimately in service of forming that elusive connection with consumers. If any group has a leg up in that quest, it’s empathic marketers. They tend to unearth more potent insights, inject more emotion into content, and, ultimately, create stronger bonds. Why stronger? Because brands that recognize our feelings and validate our humanity are hard not to like.

Grant Tudor is a strategic planner at Ogilvy & Mather.

Flickr image by evanblaser