The Difference Between Empathetic Marketing and Fake Empathy

On May 2, Burger King announced a new line of boxed meals called Real Meals, a competitive riff on McDonald’s Happy Meals. Burger King’s Real Meals include the Blue Meal, Salty Meal, Yaaas Meal, and DGAF (Don’t Give a F***) Meal. It’s a product promotion that probably wouldn’t have ruffled many feathers, had Burger King not also dropped a strange, accompanying music video to go with the campaign.

In the video, called “#FeelYourWay,” characters sing a chorus about how expecting everyone to be happy all the time is unrealistic. Although Burger King partnered with Mental Health America to develop the ad, the campaign still equates all kinds of unhappiness—student debt, bullying, and getting ghosted on Tinder.

Worse still, Burger King just made a video about all these things existing—the brand didn’t bother to say anything meaningful about any of them, other than “letting its customers know that it is okay to not be okay,” as president and chief executive Paul Gionfriddo told CNBC.

That disconnect turns what could have been an empathetic statement into a confusing one. Addressing societal issues was a big swing for the burger chain—unfortunately, when emotions or heavy subject matter is involved, a misfire tends to look a lot worse.

It’s understandable to a degree: every brand marketer wants to convey empathy for their audience, but that goal gets complicated when the stakes are “burger commercial about depression” high.

There is a way out of the empathy trap without abandoning content marketing entirely. It’s a combination of setting realistic expectations, studying your target audience, and staying in your lane.

Some marketers have an empathy problem

Companies build dedicated audiences by trying to relate to their unique circumstances and creating useful content. When brand creatives embark on content marketing hoping to cut corners, they end up pretending to put on an empathy performance.

This empathy performance is easy to spot—it’s a brand nodding toward a large issue in their marketing messaging without actually providing helpful resources. Sometimes a tweet or campaign rings hollow because it’s at odds with the company’s actual values. Sometimes it strikes that uncomfortable uncanny valley, like a tweet that makes a “relatable” joke that inadvertently suggests a company is spying on us. Sometimes it’s a project intended to be “empowering,” though none of the creators are members of the content’s target audience, like State Street Global Advisors’ Fearless Girl statue. Soon after the financial company unveiled its pandering statue, it was publicly reprimanded and fined for widespread discrimination against the women and people of color it employs.

All of this might make you want to use a meme like this one, which has become very popular on Twitter:

silence brand meme

Don’t just blindly create content about something for “awareness.” There are so many ways to express that your company’s team is committed to a cause—as long as that cause is intrinsic to your company’s focus. It’s okay if it’s not a core value in your marketing, as long as you’re practicing it internally.

What it looks like when a company is truly empathetic

A brand’s empathetic marketing will pay off if their audience can draw a clear line between a company’s actions and the message they’re putting out.

Take Patagonia as an example. The company’s professed values—preserving public American lands, fighting climate change, and protecting the environment—feel like an organic extension of the audience its marketing is trying to reach. The company is not trying to take a stand on every possible social issue. Employees focused on an area that’s integral to their products, and they’ve been banging that specific drum since the 1970s.

The logic to Patagonia’s branding is sound because it’s clearly based on an empathetic view of the target audience. People who buy Patagonia gear tend to spend a lot of time outdoors. If they’re backpacking, camping, and hiking, it’s a safe assumption that 1) they’ll need equipment and clothing and 2) they’ll prefer to buy from a company that values what they care about. That’s part one of actual empathy in marketing: Patagonia found a match between its values and the values of its consumers. The company didn’t force anything.

Part two is amplifying your chosen message across the company and into the marketplace. If Patagonia implemented any of its marketing tactics—from using woodsy/evocative design aesthetics in their materials to speaking out against President Trump’s attacks on public land—while producing unsustainable, wasteful “fast fashion” clothing, the public would catch on quickly. But as it happens, Patagonia makes its sustainability guidelines public, and it even released marketing materials in 2011 nudging consumers to buy their products used.

All anyone has to do in order to measure the commitment of Patagonia’s empathy in marketing is to follow the money. The company has turned down affiliate opportunities with other brands that are wasteful or unethical. The leadership famously donated everything they made from Trump’s tax cuts, calling them “irresponsible” and pointing out that they only benefit wealthy people and corporations. In 2016, the executive team also donated the company’s entire Black Friday profit ($10 million) to environmental charities.

That’s a level of commitment most brands aren’t ready to make. But if you want to be seen as empathetic, that’s the kind of follow-through it takes.

Empathy doesn’t have to be a huge statement

As cool as Patagonia’s decades-long push for eco-friendly practices is, any brand can practice empathy in its marketing. Not every empathetic piece of content needs to address an issue as high stakes as protecting the environment or coping with mental illness.

If you’re a B2B company selling software, your empathetic content can address the same pain points that your product hopes to fix—frazzled workplaces, siloed teams, confusion over data. If you want to branch out a little further, consider demonstrating your empathy through content on topics like gender equality, diversity in the workplace, and work/life balance. You’re still showing up for your customers and offering to help with the problems that ail them.

Don’t try to listen to the entire market in order to choose a statement for your empathetic marketing. Survey your actual consumer base, study your target audience, and determine how your brand, with its specific products and services, can address a single pain point. At the end of the day, doing a fantastic job solving a relatively low-stakes problem is better fuel for brand loyalty and engagement than trying to solve every social conundrum at once. Don’t put undue pressure on your brand to deliver on promises no one asked you to make. Simply put, your cheeseburger doesn’t have to relieve anyone’s student loan debt.

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