How do you activate empathy in your brand customer experience?

September 18th 2017

Jeanne Ogilvie, Strategist at Frost*collective explains why empathy is the key ingredient to brand success.

Q1: What is empathy in the context of a business or a brand?

A: I think a pre-requisite to designing a strong and meaningful experience is to have an in-depth understanding of the people you are speaking to. Empathy is about being able to put yourself in your customers’ shoes, and opening yourself to seeing things from their perspective. It is common sense really – how can you offer relevant and effective solutions or drive positive experiences if you don’t have a thorough understanding of your audience? We need to understand what matters to them,  what motivates them, what frustrates them, what their needs are and what goals they are trying to achieve. Without these insights, you won’t ever engage or connect with them on an emotional level. And that’s what brands ultimately want, to win their customers’ hearts.

Q2: Why do brands get it wrong so often?

A: I think too often brands tend to spend 80% of their time designing solutions – what’s the new product or service we want to bring to people? What will it look like? What will it sound like? Where will we sell it? How will we sell it? – rather than understanding the audience, defining their frustrations and actively gaining clarity about their needs. Brands need to spend more time upfront to understand and frame the context. Gathering the right information is the best way to unlock efficient and innovative solutions.

Another trap is to design for yourself – not for the customer. Brands that are too self focused often end up designing solutions in complete isolation of the market.  It is tempting to follow your intuition, what you think will work, we all do it…but removing pre-existing assumptions from this exercise is key. Then of course the brand has to come in and answer those needs and aspirations in the way that only that particular brand can. The brand is the lens by which powerful, unique and strategic outcomes are designed. It is the crucial ingredient to a real differentiating experience, but unless it is tightly linked to deep customer research that has identified gaps and opportunities in the market, it is likely to be off course.

Q3: How do we get there?

A: Many companies today have a vague sense of how important a customer centric approach is, but not many successfully transform these intuitions into actions. Market research is a well established way of collecting data and customer insights, but you can also do it yourself. There are many platforms out there that help you gather customer feedback and insights. These new players analyse it for you and feed it back to you in a much more digestible and actionable way than those boring Excel sheets. Qualtrics (for example) offers great products that allow you to do just that.

As a human-centred design agency, we like to partner and collaborate with people who “get” people – think psychologists, ethnologists, sociologists and behavioural economists – that provide us with real customer insights to direct our clients’ brand and success. We often run focus groups with these partners, and by asking the right questions, listening actively and observing (what people say isn’t always what they think), we’re able to have a very deep understanding of our clients’ customers.

Be it on the client’s side or agency side, this customer-centric approach needs to be driven from the top, and then permeate down to the whole organisation.

Lastly, it is important to always keep track and monitor this feedback. If you do it on a regular basis you will be able to identify and address the pain points and gaps sooner and then adjust and drive change more efficiently.    

Q4: Do you have an example of who you think is doing it right?

A: I have a few, but if I had to pick one I would say Ikea – because I feel that understanding what people want sits at the core of their business model. One of the areas Ikea spends the most money on is sending teams of experts throughout the world to go and live and observe people in their most intimate space – their homes. By doing this they get to deeply understand the dynamics of each room of the house: how people behave in the kitchen, in the bathroom, the bedroom, not only the emotional connection people have to these rooms but also how people physically navigate those spaces. They even published this great report called “Life at Home” – it is fascinating. This is only one of the many initiatives Ikea has put in place, but it’s enough to understand why this brand is so popular – they just “get it”. They “get people”. And this is what drives the whole brand.

A recent project we had the pleasure of working on, is Nubo. Nubo is an innovative educational play space that offers a very different experience to that of your regular playcentres. We collaborated with the Nubo team, children’s specialists as well as a behavioural economist, Kris White to gather a deeper understanding of the key motivations and frustrations when taking your child to a play centre. Our ‘ta da’ insight out of the focus groups with parents was that most playcentres are places where parents and children disconnect. One of the reasons being that most of these spaces are designed  for children, not for their parents. In response to this Nubo built its strategy around the idea of providing spaces for both parents and children to bond and share quality experiences. Exercise your imagination, together.

If you understand and are genuinely interested in people and engaging with them on an emotional level, then you are halfway there. Halfway to where? Half way to their heart; half way to success.


By Jeanne Ogilvie, Strategist, Frost*collective