Empathy Will Save Your Brand... and Our World

I strongly believe that the era of empathy is now upon us. In other words, empathy - an ability to see, feel and understand the world from the perspective of others - will be the most important psychological skill that any of us in this room could possibly possess if we hope to survive and thrive in the decades ahead.

- John Marshall Roberts, TED talk: The Global Urgency of Everyday Empathy

I have seen many books lately with a title "BLANK (insert your verb here) or Die." To my knowledge, there is none titled "Empathize or Die". That unwritten book's title could be the one that is actually true - not just for businesses, but for our human civilization in the next 100+/- years.

Let's first deconstruct the meaning and the neurobiology of "empathy". According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is an action, an experience and awareness.


According to a recent study in neuroscience, there are two kinds of empathy detectable by fMRI scans inside the human brain: rational and emotional empathy. I think that's great news because we don't have to get stuck in the "either/or" argument so common today. It is both!

Emotional (a.k.a. affective) empathy is when we feel someone else's emotions (with great help from mirror neurons that kick in very early in life). Rational (a.k.a. cognitive) empathy is when we try to understand someone else intellectually. Our brains tend to be either more emotional or more rational, yet we are all hard-wired by evolution, and human survival needs to be able to experience empathy. People who show more emotional empathy have more "gray matter" in the area responsible for emotions (insula), while "rational" people have more density in the "midcingulate cortex". 

People who are high on affective [or emotional] empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client.

- Robert Eres, Monash University

Another important detail is that we tend to feel more affective empathy towards others who are close to us, people we know and like. The level of empathy activated in the brain is almost as strong towards the loved ones, as it is to self, according to a 2013 study from the University of Virginia. Yet when it comes to strangers, brain scans do not show much "insula" activation. However, that does not necessarily apply to "cognitive" empathy. We can learn to care for and understand strangers on the rational level. That's more good news for humankind!

Here's one more interesting fact important for understanding each other (especially for those of us who are "cognitive empaths"). How sensitive we are too emotional information is influenced by our genes. A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that people who carry a particular gene (gene ADRA2b that influences the neurotransmitter norepinephrine) are more sensitive to emotionally charged information than non-carriers.

People really do see the world differently. For people with this gene variation, the emotionally relevant things in the world stand out much more.

- Rebecca Todd, UBC's Department of Psychology

Scientists have checked for this "emotional" gene in different countries and among different ethnic groups and found that roughly 50% of Caucasian Canadians carry the gene. 


Emotions are not only about how we feel about the world, but how our brains influence our perception of it. As our genes influence how we literally see the positive and negative aspects of our world more clearly, we may come to believe the world has more rewards or threats.

Adam Anderson, Cornell University


Here is one of many examples of how big business can be a part of making this world a better place for all of us.

Our collective empathy for each other and for this planet is growing slowly, but surely. Empathic people want to do business with empathic companies and brands. There are hundreds of causes and topics a brand can "occupy" and authentically communicate that it cares. And people will care back.

I don’t know what it is, it could be the good old internet, and connectivity ... [or,] increasingly people are seeing climate-related big weather disasters which are making people think that maybe we are doing something to our planet. We are seeing it now across countries around the world.

Keith Weed, chief marketing and sustainability officer at Unilever


Once business and brand leaders decide to grow empathy, they should first start with understanding people, segment by segment: What are they crazy about? What makes them sad? What stops them from realizing their full potential? What do they value? What keeps them up at night?

This could be done face-to-face or on-line, individually or in small groups, using any of the great methodologies available to market researchers.

Only once we understand deep human truths, should we ask about the brand... ask and listen to what people say, open-ended, not forced, and not ranking or rating dozens of self-serving statements. 

Finally, we will get together, open our hearts and minds, and choose common themes that resonate with the brand and its target people. Creative agency partners will develop great concepts, and researchers will test them using fancy techniques that we are so proud of. The best idea will translate into an awesome creative execution like this:

In 10 to 15 years, people will be making all of their choices [based] on ‘is this good.’ Is this good for my skin? Is this good for my hair? Is this good for my kids? Is this good for the planet? It will motivate the entire economy. We are moving to a place where all [purchase] decisions will be made based on empathy. Do I care? ... How does it impact me? And do these [brands] care about my well-being?

Eddy Moretti, Chief Creative Officer, Vice

It seems to me that it just makes good business sense to be good. Where does empathy live in your organization?