On empathetic vs emphatic brand leadership
8th July 13
Posted in Brands
AUTHOR: MICHELLE GILSON, STRATEGIST, BBH LONDON
I have always been a fan of observational comedy. Before I knew what Planning was. Before I even knew what I wanted to be. But reassuringly I once was told that good planners are like good comedians, in that they pick up on insightful human truths and deliver them in a captivating way. If I become the Peter Kay of Planning one day, I’ll die happy.
I recently saw the comedienne Sarah Milligan’s tour broadcast on TV. She had a brilliant phrase which stuck with me. “In life people are either bumper cars or dodgems”. Of course they are the same thing. But the point she was making was some people prefer to navigate life, whilst others prefer to push from the front. Personally, I lean more to the former. But beyond that, it got me thinking about how I view brands.
My whole life I’ve always been attracted to brands that set out to include me, as opposed to those that showed me the way. Growing up I was never taken with Nike ads, nor with Apple, nor Virgin. Instead I always warmed to brands like Dulux, Tesco, Ikea, Coca Cola and British Airways. The deliberately inclusive brands that made me feel welcome and at home.
Our CEO Ben Fennell posted here recently asking ‘what kind of leader are you?’ His point was that the business world goes round thanks to quite different types of leadership. Are you a nurturer or a visionary, an operator or a warrior and so on? And the same is true, it strikes me, for brands that are leaders in their categories.
Judging on how they behave and make me feel, I believe there are two classic categories of brand leader: Empathetic vs Emphatic. The former want a dialogue and seek to communicate in a way that relates closely to their audiences’ lives. Emphatic leaders, by contrast, tend to enshrine their own vision and qualities. ‘Buy me and you’re saying something about who you are’, says the Emphatic brand. ‘Buy me because we understand who you are’, replies the Empathetic brand.
Of course I’m not saying one is better than the other. Both friends have benefits. While Empathetic leaders offer a caring, accepting and optimistic tone of voice, the empathic brands will ooze confidence, inspiration and authority. They can be useful, even a source of inspiration, in different ways:
And while empathetic leaders behave in a fun, inclusive way, emphatic leaders always feel dynamic, adventurous and unpredictable:
My Dad used to say “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” when it comes to picking a partner. But truthfully that analogy feels too extreme when applied to our relationships with brands (probably due to significantly reduced commitment when it comes to purchase and consumption).
And yet I’d wager most of us do want both spicy and safe in our lives. And often we won’t look to one person to provide everything, we’ll pick and choose friends, family and a partner that offer different qualities. And, accordingly, even thought I’m an Empathetic brand lover at heart, I confess I shall probably get some glee next time I’m forced to wear my Nike’s to the gym, or light up my iPhone. And further more, may even attempt to bump some cars next time at the fair, rather than dodge them.