Some months ago, I wrote an article here where I claimed that market research data is overrated, especially when it comes to innovative products and services. An innovation is new and original, so by definition, it departs from users’ experiences and behavior. Consequently, it is hard to establish quantitatively how to market it. Unfortunately, I didn’t offer up any viable alternative methods to surveys and focus groups. So how do you manage product development and brand and marketing decisions without relying on numbers?
I believe one of the most powerful methods for synching up your brand with the zeitgeist, or people’s unrealized wants and needs, is by tapping into good old-fashioned empathy. You may wonder how to institute empathy as a capability in the marketing department. Empathy cannot be mapped and measured empirically. Nor is it an activity that you can clock in at work and start "doing" like market research, design, or project management.
Well, according to the dictionary in my Mac, it is "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." I think that "share" is the most important part of this definition, the ability to remotely experience the same feelings as someone else. So what happens when we empathize with the average consumer out there, or at least with the psychographically defined target demographic? Consumer choices and purchase decisions are emotionally driven. Even what appears to be the most strategic, rational, and dry business-to-business purchase is usually grounded in nonrational impulse, a feeling. Rationale is usually only added later to justify the choice.
So if we can feel what they feel, then logically we can react to new information and stimuli, i.e., branded products and services, in their emotional shoes as well. So ideally, this would consequently mean that market research can be done, well, telepathically.
Here’s the point where we can get all philosophical about objectivity vs. subjectivity; because if an objective reality doesn’t exist, then that must mean that empathy is magic, since every man is an island. Right? Or put it this way: How could Steve Jobs assume that just because the design of a UX icon was "lickable" to him, that it would be just as "lickable" to the ordinary masses of the world? The answer is that he obviously believed in certain absolute values humans share with one another that enable us to analyze and assess the world. That insight, I believe, is ultimately what gave him the confidence to know which icon design choice was "right."
How do you do it? As stated earlier, empathy is not something that management decrees as a new practice. It is a human ability. So instead of asking "how," I think it probably makes more sense to start by asking "who." Now most people have the capacity to feel empathy, however, some people are better at it than others. Also, it helps to be able to empathize on demand. I would suggest that imagination and creativity are the fundamental ingredients to empathy. How else do you project yourself and conjure up an emotional scenario? It’s like method acting, where actors have to "be" the characters they are playing. Writers, directors, designers, and musicians, people in professions that require imaginative and creative capabilities, are usually a good bet. Of course, they also need to understand marketing, products, and services in order to develop the next big thing, or at least something that people will respond well to. The good news is that you’re probably one of those people with the imagination and know-how to tap into your target consumer if you believe you can.
Branding through empathy requires a lot of courage, because after all, your strategy will be based on a hunch or an intuition. Like all decisions it should be founded on solid and extensive research. However, be wary of consumer surveys and focus groups to guide your decisions. As Steve Jobs said, when asked what market research went into creating the iPad: "None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want." What it does take, on the other hand, is courage and a clear, consistent expression of your vision. Be brave enough to trust something as soft, new age, and hippy-dippy that as humans we can share feelings with one another.
Once you are ready to face the market, the trick is for the brand to project almost blind confidence. This may appear to fly in the face of the whole empathy thing and seem more akin to brand as sociopath. It also doesn’t jibe with the current wisdom of today’s social media environment, with brands overreacting to the strong opinions of a few loudmouthed "influencers." However, people are attracted to leaders. We like unambiguous, declarative, clear, and strong statements. So even if empathy enabled you to create a strong brand, when it is time to face the consumer, you might want to turn up the charisma levels to 11. Eventually, people will come around.
Or I should say, they’ll come around if you empathized enough.