Keeping up with 2020 – the challenges brands face when trying to be more empathetic in their messaging

What did you think of Facebook’s ‘Care’ reaction when it was introduced in April? Did you feel, as Facebook intended, that it ‘helped you to express responses to Covid-19’, and to ‘feel more connected’ in a time of social isolation? Or did it make you pull that Justin Timberlake face?

Facebook’s introduction of the ‘Care’ react, and the mixed response it received is an interesting example of a wider phenomenon in marketing during the crises of 2020: the Empathy Pivot.

With events like the Australian wildfires, Covid-19, and BLM coming in waves, brands have had to become much more sensitive in their messaging. And, as new research conducted by datasine and Sapio discovered, this pivoting has not always been easy.

Datasine’s research

In association with Sapio, Datasine recently conducted a survey among 250 marketing decision makers in the UK. Our results revealed an interesting picture of an industry in flux as it tries to respond to a time of crisis and social change.

84% of all respondents acknowledged that the need to respond with empathy to rapidly changing cultural and social norms has increased massively over the past six months. And 74% of marketers believe that consumers are far more sensitive to creative ad content (and the socio-cultural messages it may contain) now than they were at the end of 2019.

In recognition of this:

  • Over 90% of brands surveyed said that they were trying to be more empathetic in their marketing
  • 4 in 5 marketers had pivoted campaigns during Covid-19
  • 57% of marketers are trying to be more empathetic in their campaigns with regard to Covid-19
  • 47% are trying to be more empathetic in their campaigns with regard to Black Lives Matter
  • 46% are trying to be more empathetic in their campaigns with regard to mental health

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However, hitting the right notes when it comes to something as complicated as empathy is not easy. And pivoting messaging to respond rapidly to sensitive and emotive topics is even harder.

  • 60% of respondents found it very challenging to successfully inject the right amount of empathy into their messaging
  • 75% of respondents found it difficult to make these changes speedily enough

Brand empathy

When you have hurt your arm and it’s feeling ‘sensitive’, it must be handled delicately. Even when trying to do ‘healing’ things like apply bandages you have to be gentle or you might hurt yourself. Sometimes, there is no easy way at all to handle an injury.

However, to completely ignore the injury to your arm would be a terrible idea. If you continue to use your arm as normal, you’re liable to make things even worse by aggravating the injury.

So, you must use and treat your arm with a lot of care and attention until the injury is healed and things are back to normal.

It’s the same with empathy in marketing at times of crisis and social change.

With audiences in a state of heightened emotion and stress, it is very important to be kind, compassionate, and sensitive in messaging. But even the most well-meaning gestures can cause injury if they’re not accompanied by practical remedies aimed at helping or resolving the situation.

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Empathy and action

There’s a fine line to walk between failing to actively support important causes, and being perceived as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Brands which have remained silent on BLM have been criticised by the movement’s supporters – but so have brands which have made statements seen as ‘empty’, ‘hypocritical’ or to be ‘cashing in’ on an important historical moment.

Brands which have committed to real and lasting change have been praised, however – particularly when they’ve followed it up with genuine real-world actions, such as donating money or dismantling inequalities in their operations.

The lesson here seems to be that empathetic messaging is all very well, but real-world problems need real-world solutions. Empathy isn’t enough if it’s not backed up by solid action.

But how can you tell which actions are needed? And how can you sensitively and empathetically put that position across in your marketing?

Covid, ‘Care’, and a data conundrum

Remember the wave of emailing and messaging which brands scrambled to push out as the world went into quarantine?

For many – shops, restaurants, schools, public parks etc – Covid messaging was necessary and informative. It was a part of the brand’s Covid-19 action strategy as a whole. Worried people found it helpful to be told what their favourite brands were doing to mitigate the risk and keep the world going in these trying times.

Other brand efforts to be sensitive and demonstrate empathy, however, were a bit hit and miss.

Implementing any brand message or action designed to soothe, mitigate, or address, or even reference crises or social change is always risky – especially when things are moving and changing as fast as they have been in 2020.

For a start, people have different levels of expectation and tolerance for empathy (more on that in a moment). But the brand’s job becomes doubly hard when you factor in that things like pandemics and social justice movements are breaking brand new ground – making it harder to predict what’s going to come next.

38% of our survey respondents said that the top two barriers to marketers responding rapidly and effectively to social change were:

  1. Lack of sentiment analysis
  2. Not knowing which metrics best predict future success

Think back to the release of that ‘Care’ reaction. Some people found it patronising of Facebook to try and manipulate the expression of human emotion in this way.

“I’m not super comfortable with Facebook trying to replace more and more of our actual human interactions with their interface”, one of my friends said during a discussion on the new react, “And I don’t like Facebook telling us we can be closer because they’ve made an emoji when what’s going on is just so immeasurably bigger than an emoji.”

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“But we can’t have actual human interactions right now”, another friend reminded her, before pointing out that we were having this very conversation over Facebook. From her point of view, the new react demonstrated admirable empathy on the part of Facebook.

This is part of the problem. Just like art, empathy is subjective. Different people experience empathetic words and gestures in different ways.

Luckily, we are starting to understand that ‘subjective’ things often aren’t subjective at all. Not to the right AI, anyway.

Measuring empathy

How can you measure empathy, and ensure that your Empathy Pivot is going to hit the right notes and carry the right message to the right people, at the right time, no matter what?

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At Datasine, we are experts at turning the subjective into objective data. Our remit is to transform supposedly ‘subjective’ creative assets into data and to draw actionable insights from that data, allowing creatives to accurately craft the kind of creative content which audiences will love every single time.

We do this with the help of our intelligent AI platform. And we believe that AI could also be the key to helping brands pivot quickly no matter what the future throws at us.

Discover how with the Datasine platform.

See the full infographic with the research findings here.