The word empathy is thrown around an awful lot these days. As a logophile, or lover of words, I find the mass embrace of empathy both irksome and long overdue. Why irksome? Well, when you scratch below the surface, you find that it’s often a vague promise meant to imply that an organization or individual is committed to understanding another person’s perspective or plight. And the question I want to ask is, how exactly are you doing that? How are you immersing yourself in the other person’s world, and seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking the way they do? How have you figured out their unmet needs and untapped desires for the purposes of media planning and activation?
To really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes, with their values, all the while exercising no judgement, takes a lot of effort. I mean, a lot. But you have to make the effort if you’re to deliver better omnichannel experiences that deliver better business outcomes. You need clear guidelines and a systematic way of working, so that teams can identify the most relevant insights and then translate them into meaningful actions. Actions that your audience will genuinely value. Empathy shouldn’t be the responsibility of one or two enlightened senior folks. It should be the practice and purpose of your entire team if you’re going to claim that your organization is committed to the practice of empathy.
The thing is, empathy is really hard work. I say this even after having created and rolled out OMD’s end-to-end planning process with my colleagues back in 2018. A process that places empathy at the heart of everything we do. A process that our employees around the world, in strategic planning, activation, and investment all use to ensure we interpret the data signals with Omni (our marketing technology platform) to deliver more valuable experiences for our clients. And even though we have clear processes and techniques for operationalizing how we deliver Empathy at scale, we’re very conscious that we have to be vigilant in our commitment to empathy, and never underestimate it. For the practical application of empathy is challenging work.
If you can’t understand why some people make decisions different than those you would make regarding voting, mask wearing, social distancing, and if others hold beliefs regarding climate change, fiscal policy, or immigration and you cannot possibly fathom, that you reject outright, then you have more work to do to improve your empathy quotient. And that’s ok! Admitting you need to get better at empathy is so important to us all. This brings me to my other response to the groundswell of interest in empathy. I believe we are long overdue the need to close the empathy gap, be it cognitive, emotional, or compassionate. Families, communities, and societies would collectively be in a much better place if we each made the effort to better understand what others might feel and think, and we then applied that insight to purposeful and positive action at scale.
With this is mind, I reflected upon a recent article I wrote and decided to drill down into the statement:
Consumers have set the bar for excellence. It’s set at Safety, Sustainability, Inclusion, and Trust. What did I mean by that? How exactly should we harness empathy to design for experiences that meet consumers where they’re at today?
Safety – the new base layer of our hierarchy of needs
At last month’s NRF 2021, Retail’s Big Show, safety was one of the main points raised in the session 2021 Predictions on the Role Technology will play in stores. Keith Mercier, GM Retail & CPG, Microsoft posited that COVID-19 is the new Chief Innovation Officer, that the pandemic prompted the rapid development and deployment of a raft of new products focused on improving safety conditions for retailers and customers. From sensors and computer vision that monitor queues and manage social distancing, to RFID inventory systems that detect, locate, and manage stock placement and replenishment, these innovations have contributed to the evolution of the role of stores, making them precise fulfilment centers with the proper inventory, with accurate pricing that takes into account the latest promotions, as well as logistics nodes. Philippe Bottine, CEO N.A. SES-imagotag added that AI recommendations, electronic shelf labels, as well as click + collect drive through and walk-in pick up points are becoming increasingly important in making the store a safer and faster experience.
While Ecommerce has prompted some companies shift to the role of stores to being a logistics support system, others have turned the store into an elevated virtual experience. Avon’s Studio 1886, the 19,000 sq. ft. space located in Los Angeles, describes itself as an ‘elevated beauty experience’. It serves as a community center for sales representatives, and a destination for virtual visitors keen to explore the brand via its virtual lounge, skin care zone, and make up counters.
In Hong Kong, the ecommerce platform Shopline, which enables merchants to create their own online shops which can be viewed on their mobile devices, opened its first physical pop-up shop in Central in late 2020. Shopline leant into the online-to-offline retail model, beginning the customer journey in digital and then moving to brick and mortar. Shopline’s pop-up physical store gives DTC vendors a content creation hub to generate more sales online, hosting live-streaming sessions to keep customers. The physical store is the place where customers can gain exclusive early access to brands, thus stoking greater interest, urgency, and demand, which translates into more value for the merchants.
Shoppers prefer to spend more time browsing online, and much less time in stores. They want to be able to move through them faster than ever, so all services, including the role of sales associates, must evolve to meet these changed consumer priorities. Sales associate are now expected to be the customer service guru, the replenishment lead, as well as the safety expert in charge of ensuring customers are both kept safe and behaving safely. Our hierarchy of needs has been reset, and safety sits at the base of the pyramid.
Building for harmony between Purpose, Profit and Planet
Moving up the pyramid we arrive at Sustainability. In Retail’s Hard Reset: How cataclysmic events accelerate trends, transformation and innovation the uncomfortable point made was that COVID-19 is perhaps a fire drill for the next major disaster and aside from innovating so that people do not need to touch anything in stores, perhaps business, product, and service innovation should also be viewed according to the ability to meet the demands of the 3Ps of People, Planet, and Profit:
- People: improving fulfillment, bringing convenience and conversation
- Profit: Maintaining sales whilst right-sizing real estate
- Planet: Reversing damage & developing sustainable systems
Kate Ancketill, CEO, GDR Creative Intelligence references Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to think like a 21st Economist, in which economist Kate Raworth outlines an economic model that seeks to balance planetary boundaries with essential human needs. This model would replace the pursuit of endless growth with the goal of thriving balance, to address the challenges of climate change and the breakdown of biodiversity.
While that may sound idealistic to some, you only need to turn to the 2021 Davos agenda on Sustainability to know that we’ve got to make more effort in this arena. The good news is that we’re already seeing innovations that are planet positive.
The Chilean start up Algramo is pioneering reusable container services, so the families who cannot afford to buy in bulk are not penalized for smaller pack sizes. Instead, they can buy as much or as little of staples as they want, as customers bring their own reusable containers. This refill model has been adapted by New York with touchless vending kiosks, thereby addressing growing consumer concern over single-use packaging from non-recyclable materials. These moves are a fantastic example of the application of empathy, of understanding the financial challenges, and fears of different audiences in different countries, and adapting the experience to meet people with services that will make their lives better.
Looking at Generations Z and Alpha who already seem to be more environmentally conscious and socially aware than older generations, it seems more than likely that these will be audiences that soon question the DNA of a brand, and whether it sits in the sweet spot of bringing Purpose-Profit-Planet together in its proposition to deliver sustainable solutions for the individual, and society.
Inclusion means prioritizing human-centered experiences
Next level up and we get to the Inclusion level of our revised pyramid of needs. Inclusion is another word that runs the risk of being rather amorphous if you’re not careful. For the purposes of this article, which focuses on the application of Empathy to deliver better experiences, I will use this definition:
‘Inclusion’, in the context of experience design, demands that the experience can be accessible to all.
That experience must be designed with diversity in mind, so that it is relevant to different people, with different circumstances. And together, the people who could be reached will represent the full range of diversity. That means all ages, including those with visible and invisible disability (including mobility, vision, hearing, cognitive, learning), as well as gender and race.
In The new ethics of tech: Equity, diversity, and human-centered design the discussion centered around how companies can change design processes to build more inclusive technology, and that human-centered experiences should be as expansive as possible. Experiences that are not only more representative of the whole tapestry of humanity, but which, ultimately, seek to make the world better. To achieve ‘better,’ it is critical to think carefully about the composition of the team designing for those experiences. A team with cultural sensitivity, who will consider the notion of access and inclusion from all angles. From affordability (so economic inclusivity), to ethnicity, health, size, age, gender, and LGBTQ+, so that the experience creates safety and delight for all who might become immersed in it. It’s a big ask, particularly as the teams involved in experience design will not always be able to naturally represent all potential stakeholders, and as Sarah Thomas, Principal Advisor at Nexus Insights & Aging Innovation explains, it is important to engage in concept and usability testing to ensure the product or work resonates with the end-customer.
Trust is key
Now we reach the apex, where Trust resides. Trust in the brand has always sat at the heart of the contract between brand and consumer, but one’s willingness to believe in the brand’s truth, in the quality of its promise, has been eroded in recent years as concerns around privacy and ethics have grown more acute. At last month’s World Economic Forum, the failures of cybersecurity measures were identified as one of the biggest threats facing humanity. As our lives become more online, and the likelihood of cyberattacks increase, this can trigger greater financial loss and social instability. As we consider the hockey stick growth of Ecommerce, and seek to create entertaining, educational, and inspirational experiences, we must also build more resilient, safe, and reliable systems in which our transactions are safe, secure, and consistent with the promises of the brand.
Empathy in designing for experiences demands both the rigor of practice as well as a commitment to keeping on top of consumer’s shifting pyramid of priorities. Rigor that is underpinned by specific ways of working, including rapid prototyping, testing, as well as empathy mapping tools and ethnographic techniques, twinned with keeping a pulse on the concerns that keep consumers up at night.
At OMD, we commit to Empathy in the way we connect media strategy to activation, and we enable teams to better understand their target audiences to create those experiences that lead to better business outcomes around the world.