Why (& how) to build an empathetic brand

Katie O'Connor

Nowadays, consumers are pushing for socially and ethically-conscious products from brands more than ever before.

As a result, according to the Consumer Goods Forum, brands are no longer just in the business of selling products or services. They must also lead on environmental sustainability and social justice and communicate their commitment to driving change.

In other words, consumers may seriously consider choosing your product or service over another brand that is more conscious in their choices and efforts.

With this in mind, businesses need to think about how they position themselves in the market and embrace empathy as a core part of their marketing strategy. But while doing so, be sensitive (and sensible) enough to make sure it is genuine — not tokenistic or tone deaf.

In this article, we’ll break down the reasons behind the increased need for empathy and some examples of brands who did it well, as well as how to build an empathetic brand and organization as a whole.

Why is empathy important for brands?

A lot has happened over the last few years that has left all of us with an increased expectation for empathy.

Prominently, COVID-19 (which is still very much a part of our lives) has increased stressors across finances, child care, mental health, physical illness and more.

At the same time, we’ve also seen a heightened awareness of social issues.

More currently, what’s happening in Ukraine has all eyes on the struggle and fear their people are facing — and ignoring a social issue of this magnitude can cause brands to appear tone-deaf or callous.

Similarly, George Floyd’s murder in 2020 also brought an increased focus to the (still) prominent issue of racism and inequality. The gender pay gap women (still) face is just another example in the U.S. today.

Consumers take these social issues and the impact, risk or threats they have on others quite seriously — and their attention to these issues doesn’t stop at their purchase decisions.

In fact, consumers are making more value-driven purchase decisions — choosing empathetic brands while rejecting others based on how they fit with their personal values and approach.

Brands who addressed social issues well

Some brands have listened to consumers and have either taken a stand or made the necessary changes to their products, including:


Sales for the famous household name “Barbie'' doll had been declining, with parents rejecting the dolls for their unrealistic body image. But when Mattel listened to what their customers were telling them and gave their original doll a “makeover,” their sales rebounded.

Ben's Original

Former Uncle Ben’s rice went through a total rebrand after criticism over racial stereotyping, removing the imagery of a black man in a bow tie from its packaging and marketing and changing the product’s name to Ben’s Original.

Covid ad, Ikea ad, stay home


IKEA’s ‘Stay Home’ ad encouraged people to see their homes from a new perspective, challenging them to view it as a place where new experiences can be enjoyed together to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Spotfy remove Joe Rogan.  fake news covid.  Brand response to COVID and pandemic.


Spotify also took a stand on COVID-19 and removed more than 100 episodes of Joe Rogan’s podcast to restrict the spread of COVID misinformation.

Non-empathetic brands that missed the mark

On the other hand, there are many examples of brands who were not empathic in their marketing decisions that resulted in producing tone-deaf ads (and suffered for it), including:

Brand gets it wrong, outrage over racist product.


A few years ago, H&M came under serious fire for using a black child to model a sweatshirt sporting the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The image resulted in outrage from consumers on social media, as well as several celebrities who openly cut ties with the brand.

Cadbury ad shows hugging during COVID pandemic.  Backfires.


Cadbury’s “Easter Egg Hunt” ad depicted a grandfather hiding easter eggs and hugging his grandchildren, released during the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. This sparked an uproar on Twitter, resulting in Cadbury pulling the ad (quite damaging for the brand).

Building an empathetic brand and organization

Many businesses have already identified the importance of making empathy central to their brand and corporate culture and see it as a force that moves business forward.

This affects all areas of the business, including marketing and insights. For marketing, empathy for consumers is critical to the success of brands. But, when it comes to developing consumer empathy, brands can fall short or can easily misstep (as seen in the tone deaf examples above).

To combat this, we need to remember what empathy really means, which The American Marketing Association defines asthe ability to understand and feel what someone else is going through — putting yourself in their shoes.

This can’t be short-cut or faked. Empathy doesn’t come from a brand logo alone, it comes from the people behind it.

Think about empathy as a skill, which can be honed and developed just as you would approach honing your critical, creativity or analytical thinking skills. Tools and techniques exist to assess empathy levels and help people to develop this skill. But how do you get started?

How insights teams can help marketers get started

Insights teams are great partners to help marketing colleagues build up their consumer empathy muscles and create more empathetic marketing.

They’re able to gather data directly from the consumers and in this way can help to keep consumer insight at the forefront of the day-to-day decision making processes.

As an insights professional, you can start to build a closer partnership with marketing colleagues (and a more empathetic brand) by:

  • Helping them understand the type of data you can use to influence and drive decision making at different stages of product and advertising life cycles

  • Creating immersive experiences to inspire them by explaining the “why” behind the data and telling stories to bring the consumer to life

  • Tailoring approaches to answer specific marketing objectives or fill knowledge gaps

  • Building up their confidence and lowering risk by providing validated solutions

  • Anticipating their needs and answering questions before they’re asked by analyzing existing databases for deeper insight

Final thoughts

Consumers are integrating their purchasing decisions with their values and stances on social issues more and more.That said, brands need to be able to listen to their consumers and adapt accordingly — working towards becoming more empathetic to the social issues that surround us, in a genuine manner.