How Empathy Can Create Stronger Leaders and Healthier Brands

Michael Ventura on better understanding audiences

Empathy is thought of primarily as a personality trait. But what if it's also a key business tool—the ability to understand your consumers, your colleagues and yourself in a deep enough way that it can evolve your business internally and externally? 

Michael Ventura, founder and CEO of the strategy and design practice Sub Rosa, has been digging into the concept of empathy for some time—and recently published a well-received business book on the topic: Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership.

Empathy, or the ability to truly see the world through someone else's eyes, can be just as useful in business, he argues, as in your personal life. 

Below, Ventura talks more about empathy as a concept and how it works in practice. 

Tell us about "Applied Empathy" as a concept. Presumably it goes beyond mere empathy in practice, but what greater end does it serve? 
Empathy is a hot topic in the business world lately. I think most people frequently confuse it with sympathy, compassion or "being nice." In reality, empathy is not any of those things, though they can all be side effects of behaving empathically. With our work, we've sought to reframe empathy for what it truly is—a powerful perspective-taking tool that can expand thinking and improve solutions. Human-centered design is highly empathic, but it puts all of the focus on the end-recipient—often the consumer. What we've tried to do with our Applied Empathy practice is leverage truly comprehensive methods of problem solving, in order to develop a more thoughtful result for the end-consumer. This broader approach enables us to see problems from a more ecosystemic view and leads to more holistic solutions.

You've said empathy can heal companies, brands and everything in between. What do you mean by that?
I don't know that I've said it so overtly, but there's definite truth in that statement. When we are narrowly focused, we don't build companies that are inclusive and collaborative. When we don't take the time to understand an audience—employees, shareholders, consumers, etc.—it works against the teams and organizations building those products. Though our work, I've seen how the application of our empathic process can open the aperture and shine a light on some frequently overlooked parts of a company's culture, brand, products or business model. If a company doesn't understand the root cause of its issues, it cannot begin to mend itself. Uncovering those issues leads to better understanding and creates an opportunity to develop a plan for correction. 

You outline seven empathic archetypes in your book. Can you explain what they are and how brands and marketers can go about recognizing them?
We developed the set of archetypes as a framework through which you can identify your own empathic, information-gathering skills. We all have natural ways we show up in the world and seek out information. The archetypes ground such behaviors in a concrete and referenceable way that allow us to embody them more readily. 

Additionally, the archetypes are a helpful way of revealing our blind spots. I believe each of us embodies all seven of these archetypes, but not in equal measure. By becoming aware of your strengths and weaknesses—and those of your colleagues, clients, teams, etc.—you'll be able to connect more fully and more deeply gather understanding.

The archetypes and their behaviors are:

• Sage: Be present—inhabit the here and now.
• Inquisitor: Question—interrogate assumed truths.
• Convener: Host—creatively anticipate the needs of others.
• Confidant: Listen—summon the patience to observe and absorb information.
• Cultivator: Commit—purposefully nurture and actively develop.
• Explorer: Dare—be confident and unafraid to take risks or pivot.
• Alchemist: Experiment—constantly test and try.

Working with the archetypes is a process of discovery. The more deft one becomes at accessing each, the more well-rounded one's thinking and leadership abilities will become. 

How can brands use these archetypes to better understand, interpret and reach their audiences? 
The archetypes are a helpful tool when designing experiences and messaging for audiences. Brands can ask whether elements of each archetype appear in the work, which acts as a test for diversity of appeal. If all of the archetypes are being acknowledged in some way, you've increased the odds of the end product resonating across multiple audiences. 

The archetypes are also extremely effective when conducting ethnographic research. Employing varied information-gathering approaches will yield diverse and differentiated feedback. 

You suggest brands should infuse empathy into every marketing campaign they launch, as a means of connecting with targeted consumers in a more authentic way. What does this look like? 
It starts well before the campaign is concepted, with understanding what we refer to as the three C's—company, consumers, context. For company, it's critical to apply empathy to your own business and understand it fully. What does it stand for? Who does it employ? What is its reason for being? These sorts of questions help ground whatever you're doing in the truths of the actual business. 

For consumers, we want to think about all of the consumers of the information/products created by the company. That certainly includes end-consumers, but might also take into consideration employees, prospective new hires, shareholders, media, etc. What do each of these groups want from the company? Do we know? There's likely a fair amount of overlap in their desires, but there will also be an element of expectation around things being tailored to their unique needs. 

For context, we want to understand the larger ecosystem within which both the company and consumers are situated. Who are your direct competitors? What do they do well or not so well? Who are the indirect competitors that are vying for the attention of the audiences you're trying to reach? What are some of the bigger, trend-based topics that we should be considering—the connected home, the future of work, etc.?

With these three areas fully considered, brands can begin to see where ideas and themes overlap. This cross-section is where the best work—be that a new product, an ad campaign, or a shift in company culture—begins. 

What brands come to mind when you consider who's "doing" empathy the right way?
Patagonia is one of the first that comes to mind. They know themselves and their values. They have empathy—a real, deep understanding—for their consumers and what makes them tick. They also participate in culture in a way that's true to themselves, and unwavering in their beliefs. 

Any tips for brands which could stand to "up" their empathy game a bit?
Start by developing a desire to listen. Too often we jump straight into action. We rush to speak, to assume, to solve. Empathy is hard work and often requires slowing down before speeding up. Brands need to take the time to have hard conversations and to implement changes necessary to right the course. They should know that this sort of work can be frustrating and it's often hard to rally a consensus for it. It first requires a willingness to admit there is a problem that needs solving, which can be uncomfortable. However, once you overcome that moment, you're able to bring deeper, more expansive understanding to the fabric of an organization, and from there powerful change can occur.

Icons8 team

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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