IHOP, Dove, Brooks: Brands That Get Empathy Right

Out with the cold, in with community

At a time of sociopolitical upheaval—and heading into a U.S. election season, no less—apathy and outrage online are at an all-time high. Amid the conflict, social media, while still a relatively new technology, has changed for the worse. It's become increasingly difficult to connect with other humans online without risking ridicule or provoking outrage.

Finding ways to bring people together and transcend the divisions that social media seem to sow is key for brands seeking to strengthen engagement and build community. Repeatedly posting the same sales-driven content is no way to empathize. 

Instead, by producing a diverse array of content, brands can achieve a multifaceted presence that provides opportunities for genuine understanding and interaction. To effectively move customers through the sales funnel, social content must be relevant and engaging. Paying attention to community and engagement is paramount.

As marketing professionals, we need to understand our audience from a demographic perspective—meeting them where they are to fulfill their needs as consumers. By using our platforms to reach out to one another and foster authentic relationships, we can increase brand awareness and keep conversations fresh and active while also spreading a little happiness along the way.

How to lead with empathy online 

Leaning into empathy can be a dangerous proposition for brands. Disingenuous attempts to gain consumer trust are easily spotted—and called out in an instant. You need a real human—preferably someone with deep reserves of kindness and a sense of humor—as your community manager. In a world riddled with artificial intelligence and deepfakes, authenticity is hard to come by. The good news? When people see it, they take notice and respond in positive ways.

Most of the time, when customers complain online in a public forum, what they want is to feel heard and understood. Brands speak to their audiences in an empathetic way by listening.

Create content that speaks to the concerns and curiosities of consumers. Look for patterns of repeated questions or comments on your posts, and seek out intel on forums like Reddit for an in-depth understanding of customer needs. By viewing your brand through the lens of social listening, you will discover fresh insights to drive your content creation. For example, if you see a lot of questions about the differences between two products, consider creating an animated infographic breaking them down. 

For an enhanced human touch, short-form videos and live broadcasts on social media provide an opportunity to address concerns and feedback. Supporting campaigns with live broadcast events where people can interact with brand ambassadors in real-time is great for expanding reach. It helps customers feel seen and heard. Taking notice of direct messages and recruiting real people to respond to them is invaluable. With the advent of chatbots and AI communications, it says so much when a person reads a DM from a brand and can tell they've received an actual, personal response.

KPIs are often measured by brand awareness, units sold, reach, etc. But positive feedback, comments and engagement also play an important role in our bottom line. While more complicated to quantify, it is still vital to understand and apply to social strategy.

Who's doing it right?

There are several brands at the empathy forefront:

The Dove Self-Esteem Project

Dove's Super Bowl commercial resonated with the current social media landscape, utilizing blooper-style videos of athletes. But much more importantly, its very real commentary about body confidence stuck a nerve, backed up by data showing that 45 percent of girls quit sports by age 14. The up-tempo comedic music is briefly silenced for emphasis of these facts as Dove explains both the problem and their efforts towards a solution in the creation of the Body Confident Sport Program.

Brooks "Marathon Season" 

This Curiosity-led long-form YouTube series centered on three runners of varying levels of skill and experience as they prepared for a first 5k, a half marathon and a full marathon. Viewers were given an intimate look into the human side of running. Beyond the fact that each runner was, of course, wearing Brooks gear, this series delved into the heart of the experience and the mental, physical and emotional energy invested in the process. 

IHOP "Stacking Up Joy"

IHOP shows consistent dedication to cultural relevance and social media literacy across its content. The new "Stacking Up Joy" program, however, stretches beyond fun memes and directly towards tangible charitable efforts with a local focus relevant to where IHOP franchisees work and live. Moreover, the community platform opens up more opportunities both for philanthropy and to connect with users of their loyalty rewards program.

Taking care of your empath

Since community managers are instrumental in forging direct and authentic connections, it is necessary to ensure that people in those roles are well taken care of—and not just compensatory speaking. Practicing empathy is taxing to one's mental, emotional and even physical energy, especially when they do it as a full-time job. Community managers spend their time fielding customer complaints, praise, questions and everything in between. So, they need support from their team to know that their efforts are not only measurable from an ROI standpoint, but respected for their legitimacy and importance. These roles frequently lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. Brands should work to safeguard against undue stress.

It's time to get back in touch with the human side of marketing. Accomplishing this requires realigning with customers by speaking to them in a way that will inspire conversions, brand loyalty and repeat business. From a sales perspective, it can drive results. And it's simply the right thing to do.

Profile picture for user Deb Kavis
Deb Kavis
Deb "Deeb" Kavis is community manager at Curiosity.

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