There’s a common misconception about building a brand: that brands are outward-facing masks companies wear to sell more stuff. If you want to market yourself as environmentally friendly, for example, all you have to do is slap a green label on your products and add some copy about using recyclable materials, right?
Okay, but what about all that talk about being genuine and authentic? We do see a lot of messaging that mimics genuine, authentic storytelling, without the substance and depth. I call this “slapping a coat of brand paint over your business” and praying that it sticks. And while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, customers can absolutely tell the difference.
The truth is that there simply are no shortcuts to becoming a beloved, blockbuster brand, because your brand is not a mask. It’s your company’s heart and soul, the essence of its mission, and the core of its conduct. So if you want to build a brand with stronger customer connections, you’ve got to focus on building an empathetic brand from the inside out.
Your starting point: Walk your talk
There’s another reason brand can’t be a mask that companies put on and take off when it suits them: Brand has to be experienced. To perform optimally, businesses need consistency across systems, policies, and procedures, as well as throughout their cultures. If leadership applies the principles of empathy inconsistently, the resulting customer confusion will reveal itself in lagging business performance.
Take customer service, for example. Given consumers’ high expectations for connection and transparency today, front-line employees need more authority to address problems on the spot. For companies, this means trusting employees to react with empathy and in alignment with company policy. However, if company policy conflicts with empathy, employees will be forced to make hard choices.
In these ways, empathetic leadership, empathetic culture, and empathetic branding build on and feed off each other because a high-performing brand starts from the inside out, not the other way around. You can’t have an empathetic brand reputation unless there are empathetic leaders and employees driving it. So, if your walk and your talk feel disconnected, that’s where you need to start.
By authentically walking your talk, you’ll enjoy the benefits of building an empathetic brand reputation.
The benefits of building an empathetic brand
1. Healthy market performance and longevity: When your brand is genuinely empathetic, it means you can cultivate customer loyalty for the long haul and continually absorb new market segments. When you know your customer this well, you can anticipate changes in your market and maintain the ready stance you need to adjust your strategy in the moment.
2. Increased customer retention and loyalty: Internal leadership and culture both have a huge impact on external customer brand experience. When the brand is empathetic, so are the employees, and that environment impacts the customer base. If you feel confident that any member of your staff could have a conversation—as opposed to simply rattling off some talking points—about the company’s mission and core values, then you are walking your talk.
3. Forgiveness when you fail (and you will): When your organization is in lockstep with its customers, and they feel like your brand is one that truly gets them, you become part of the fabric of their lives. Put another way, if customers feel like you have their backs, they will have yours. When things go wrong and the brand slips up, banked brand goodwill can withstand the misstep and allow customers to give you another chance.
4. Good press and word-of-mouth referrals: Acting with empathy can give your brand a visibility boost since customers will be inclined to talk about you more often. And the media loves covering stories of companies who break the mold and do something extraordinary. P.S.: If you think an empathy mask won’t crumble under this kind of media scrutiny, you’d better think again.
Perhaps you’re still skeptical. Maybe you’re thinking, “My marketing team is really good. Couldn’t we get some of these benefits with a super convincing empathy mask?” Sure, a really slick marketing campaign can land you some good press, and the added visibility might bring you some new customers. But if you want to build a brand with real staying power, connecting with those customers is key. And keep in mind that savvy customers recognize (and reject) “empathy-washing” just as easily as they recognize “greenwashing.”
Also, you’re forgetting the last reason to strive for a more empathetic brand: If everyone is on board, the message will be easier to communicate. Marketing will become effortless. No matter how great your marketing team, an authentically empathetic brand, consistently communicated at every level, beats the hell out of a top-down marketing message. Every. Single. Time.
There’s no getting around it. Empathy-washing is no substitute for the hard but rewarding work of building an empathetic brand that truly connects with customers.
Maria Ross, the founder of brand consultancy Red Slice, believes cash flow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Maria has authored multiple books, including the forthcoming The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success. She has spoken to audiences ranging from The New York Times to BlogHer and has written for numerous media outlets, including Entrepreneur.com.