On Empathy, Business and Brands

Empathy might not be the first word that springs to mind when you think of leading businesses.  Even a study on business students saw them rate it as very low on a list of essential leadership traits[i]. But in a world where rapid change is the norm, the ability to understand the needs, motivations and thoughts of your customers is a game changer.

Of course, the idea of knowing your customer isn’t a new one – but bringing in elements of empathy demands a more considered, and a mindful, approach. Empathy is a core requirement for good emotional intelligence. It’s essential to the ability to understand others, appreciate their journey, worldview, needs and desires. With empathy, an organisation can transform the way it designs products and services around the consumer and their experience; looking broadly how their interactions fit into people’s lives rather than narrowly at a point of sale.

The first ‘Empathy Index’ for businesses was launched in 2016[ii], using measures like company ethics, leadership, internal culture, brand perception, volume of scandals and public messaging via social media. The top 3 performers (of those companies participating) were tech giants Facebook, Alphabet and LinkedIn. These companies pay minute attention to the way that their customers interact with their products, Facebook scored very highly for its attention to potentially marginalised people – such as those with hearing or visual impairments. Facebook created an ‘Empathy Lab’ for employees to have these user experiences first-hand.

Empathic businesses understand their customer’s world, creating a platform for innovation by anticipating what new needs might lie around the corner.

Having empathy also requires an understanding someone’s values, and that knowledge allows businesses to reflect on how their values align with their customers’. The paradigm that all publicity is good publicity is long gone, and businesses who understand the impacts of their operations and products are mindful of consumers growing expectations that business will act responsibly – not sacrificing environmental, social or cultural values to profit. Highly empathic businesses will also have strong ethics, meaning these two traits can go hand in hand – deepening an organisations commitment and capability to satisfy customer needs; and doing so in a way that supports sustainable development of the wider community.

Simple things can increase how empathetic an organisation is. Remembering all customers are people, and continuingly encouraging and acting on customer feedback, particularly feedback relating to their personal experiences and feelings. Organisations wanting to deepen the empathy between their people and customers may want to undertake experiential training, role play and teambuilding activities where empathy is taught and explored. Just as we gravitate towards friendships with those who empathise with and support us, people will build long term and supportive relationships with companies that empathise with them and things that are important to them.


[i] Holt, Svetlana; Marques, Joan; Hu, Jianli; and Wood, Adam (2017) “Cultivating Empathy: New Perspectives on Educating Business Leaders,” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership: Vol. 10 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.22543/0733.101.1173

[ii] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/empathy-index-business/