Empathy Marketing 101

"Altruism marketing is a powerful way to say, 'We Care.' "

-Michael Silverstein, Boston Consulting Group

Not infrequently, the most convincing testimony to the veracity and potential power of new scientific discoveries is when they're embraced--for profit-driven motives--by corporate America. Today the incandescent mantra in business and advertising circles is "empathy marketing," or more broadly, neuromarketing (NM). Market researchers and advertising experts are attempting to stand shoulder to shoulder with "the better angels of our nature" in hopes this will increase sales. In short, putting oneself in another's shoes is a technique for selling them another pair.

We can think of marketing in two ways: first, the traditional and more disingenuous textbook notion, something on the order of "responding to and satisfying the needs desires of the customer." And the second, closer to an honest description: "how to manipulate consumer behavior on behalf of increased sales and revenue." Advertising executive and neuromarketer Adam Koval asserts that his field will get "... customers to behave in ways [clients] want them to behave." [1]

A early and classic description of the latter form appeared in Vance Oakley Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) where he identified a "large-scale effort...to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychology and the Social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness...are often, in a sense 'hidden.' The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize." [2]

In our day, NM is seeking to capitalize on neuroscientific studies showing that humans are hard wired for empathy via our brain's mirror neuron system. This neural circuity, a natural inheritance from our closest nonhuman primate relatives, is the basis for empathic behavior as it involuntarily and instantaneously responds to another person's feelings. [3]

Consumer behavior is determined by direct correlation with certain marketing stimuli, all of it measured as neural brain activity. The goal is to establish emotional connection with the "brand." (Some commentators trace Neuromarketing research to Harvard marketing professor Gerald Zaltman in 1995. He patented his technique as the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique or ZMET).

Buy-ology, a recent corporate-financed ($7 million) book by self-described "global branding expert" Martin Lindstrom, covers what fMRI studies and mirror neurons can contribute to marketer's success. Lindstrom advises CEOs at GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, McDonald¹s Nestle, and Microsoft among others. And Dev Patnaik, business strategist and author of WIRED TO CARE: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (2009), highlights the discovery of mirror neurons when writing "People are wired to care. Organizations need to be wired to care, as well." Patnaik readily acknowledges that empathy is the basis for moral behavior and that this hard-wiring pre-dates religion and philosophy. It seems that NM must calculate how to take advantage of this irrefutable fact of a human predisposition toward empathy without taking it too seriously, that is, to its natural and universal application.

Patnaik favors this version of the Golden Rule: "Do unto each other as we would have done unto us." However, his application extends no further than profit making companies seeking a sales advantage in the market place. According to the author, "leveraging" that empathy permits one "to see new opportunities faster than their competition...." and he has conveyed that neuromarketing bottom-line advice to clients from IBM and General Mills to Proctor & Gamble and Nike.

Empathylabs of Philadelphia advertises, "Looking For That First Mover Advantage? Try Empathy." As consultants to Fortune 500 companies, they promise clients that "Empathy enables our work to forge emotional connections between your audience and your brand..."

Marketing consultant Patricia Fripp counsels: "If you want your marketing to make money for you, focus on your customers' feelings and beliefs. Unless you can convince them that you understand them and their problems -- that you're empathetic -- they're probably not going to buy from you."

Yet another empathy guru advises that professional coaching is helpful because empathy is a skill that requires training. She defines empathy marketing as the application of influence "in a manner that does not feel like an attempt to persuade others."

This literature sometimes reads like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but here we see commodified empathy being practiced by specialists honing their skills in order to pass as normal human beings. To avoid detection as marketing zombies, here are just a few (I'm not making these up) prescriptions and examples:

1.) Convince potential customers that "we feel for you" that our brand truly cares about you--and do it in a believable and meaningful manner. For example, Bank of America ads say, "We're working to help people stay in their homes, not just buy them." Allstate insurance has a compassionate father figure (Dennis Haysbert) oozing empathic lines about the importance of family and friends while pushing multiple insurance policies.

2.) Drug makers Biogen and Elan empathy marketing strategy features a simulator that allows doctors to step into the shoes of a multiple sclerosis patient. According to Stephen Heuser of the Boston Globe, pharma companies are betting that a more empathetic doctor will prescribe more of their drugs.

3.) Frito-Lay's neuromarket specialists recently unveiled an ad campaign to entice women to munch more Chitos and Doritos. Termed "Only in a Women's World," the campaign is based on empathy research on women.

4.) Some discredited financial and banking institutions have turned to NeuroFocus, the Berkeley, CA., based global leader in neuromarketing to burnish their image. Based on their research on affective responses, NeuroFocus advised that "The strongest message consumers want to hear is how much their bank empathizes with their pain." [4]

5.) In teaching his "Needfinding" class at Stanford Business School, Patnaik assigns the "Moccasins project," a reference to walking a mile in another's moccasins. He believes this is the key to success in the marketplace.

6.) And a few practical tips for cultivating faux empathy on behalf of improved business results:

- Remember people's names, including spouses and children so you can refer to them by name.

- Smile at people.

- "Show people that you care by taking a personal interest in them. Show genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations."

- Read up on emotional intelligence, attend workshops and/or hire a professional coach [5]

Of course, corporations that truly practiced empathy beyond narrow self-serving and tortured definitions would be vanquished by competitors less enamored of the Golden Rule. But the point is moot because carrying off a convincing impersonation of empathetic behavior is all that matters in this situation.

We know that the question of meeting people's actual needs never appears in the for-profit marketer's power point presentation on empathy because the concrete, logical and long term interest of the working class is the abolition of capitalism itself.

This draws into a sharp relief a lesson for the left: In framing public policy issues we shouldn't shy away from creative and explicit appeals to our intrinsic empathic nature, to solidarity, cooperation, and mutual benefit. Such an appeal is both entirely consistent with recent neuroscience discoveries and a potentially powerful tool for an anti-market "marketing" strategy. [6]


[1] "The Science of Shopping," 12/2/02, http://www.cbc.ca/consumers/market/files/ money/science_shopping. [2] As cited by Allen Gottheil in "Redefining Marketing: Self-Interest, Altruism and Solidarity," M.A. thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, 1996. [3] The best treatment of mirror neurons is Marco Iacaoboni, Mirroring People, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008 (paper). [4] "Neuromarketing Helps Bank Win Back Customer Trust," March 31, 2009 Blog.nielson.com/nielsonwire/consumer. [5] Bruna Martinuzzi, "What's Empathy Got To Do With It?" http://increaseyoureq.com/pdf/Empathy.pdf [6] To my knowledge, Canadian union organizer and consultant Allen Gottheil was the first to expound this radically unorthodox approach to marketing. See citation [1] above.

Originally appeared on zmag.org

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