Reaching Consumers by Showing Empathy

February 14, 2017

By Anne Field

Roy Scott/Getty Images


For many marketers, TOMS is the ne plus ultra when it comes to attracting a fervent fan base, especially among younger consumers. Founded in 2006, the Los Angeles–based company pioneered the "one-for-one model," in which, for every product customers buy, the business donates a similar item to a charitable organization. TOMS started with shoes, then came other items, from eyeglasses to coffee beans. Pretty quickly Millennial enthusiasm grew. With backing from the retailer, college campus groups supporting what the company termed "a movement" sprang up — and TOMS became almost synonymous with the concept of an authentically empathetic brand.

For brands trying to connect with Millennials — and who isn't? — the lesson is clear. Empathy sells. By displaying genuine concern for deserving groups and causes and acting on it, companies can connect in meaningful and lasting ways with consumers. And that's especially true for Millennials, who, as a group, tend to place a lot of value on social responsibility. "Millennials, more than any other generation, are drawn to brands that have a social mission," says Tyler Butler, founder and principal at 11Eleven Consulting, a Phoenix–based strategy and corporate responsibility consulting firm.

At the same time, broadcasting empathy effectively helps brands stand out from the clutter. "Millennials are bombarded with messages every day," says David Mitroff, founder and chief consultant at Piedmont Avenue Consulting Inc., which focuses on using technology to build brand awareness and growth. "In today's crowded marketplace, it's more important than ever to connect with them on an emotional level."

Pulling off an empathy play is tricky, however. Brands risk alienating the consumers they're trying to win if they come off as being Machiavellian or phony. Still, with a measured and well-thought out approach, many brands can successfully tap the Millennial emphasis on empathy in their marketing.

Certainly, there's plenty of evidence for Millennials' preference for brands with a societal purpose, both as consumers and employees, as well as their penchant for sharing those thoughts on social media. In fact, a recent study by Cone Communications found that 91 percent of Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause versus a U.S. average of 85 percent. Sixty-six percent of Millennials use social media to engage around social responsibility compared to 53 percent overall, according to the study, and 62 percent of Millennials would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company versus 56 percent overall.

Of course, brands with a stated social mission that's all about empathy have the easiest time of it. TOMS is not the only one in this category, as a growing number of social-minded enterprises have sprung up. Case in point: Dave's Killer Bread. The 12-year-old, Milwaukie, Ore.–based company, which was acquired by Flowers Foods in 2015, has multiple missions. Started by a former inmate who spent 15 years in prison for drug-related offenses, Dave's Killer Bread makes organic bread that is void of artificial ingredients. The company makes a point of hiring people with criminal backgrounds, something that is spelled out on the packaging, and the Dave's Killer Bread Foundation works to encourage other businesses to do the same. One fortunate byproduct: a very enthusiastic consumer base, especially among Millennials. That especially shows up in social media engagement. For example, a recent promoted post on Instagram featuring the company founder ran for two four-week periods and, over the total time, had 3,177 likes, 222 comments, and at least half of those who saw the posts were Millennials, according to Dan Letchinger, the company's VP of marketing. An organic Facebook post published last fall discussing the company's "Second Chance Project" received 725,000 views, more than 6,000 shares, 20,000 likes, and 272 comments in an hour. It has attracted more than 1,000 comments since. "Our fan base loves the bread, but their engagement is at a deeper level and it stems from what the bread is all about," Letchinger says.

Did you know? 1 out of 3 employees at our Oregon bakery have a criminal background. Thumbs up if you’ve ever been given a second chance.

Posted by Dave's Killer Bread on Monday, August 1, 2016


For more conventional brands, the task of making a difference requires a lot more planning. Plenty of companies have employee volunteer days or sponsor charity events. But to have a real impact, marketing experts advise going through a rigorous process to pinpoint a cause or organization that will not only resonate with consumers but also fit with the brand in an organic way, forming a connection that makes sense. "A lot of the companies doing this the best identify a cause that relates to what they do as a business," says Butler of 11Eleven Consulting. "It has to be as well thought out as any other business decision you might make."

Butler points to web hosting company GoDaddy as a case in point; she was hired there five years ago to retool a corporate social responsibility program and create a better connection to consumers and employees.

When it came time to expand the program, Butler and her team spent almost a year discussing and pinpointing the most logical moves and to find a partner who fit the company's focus on global growth. But it also had to be an organization that fit with GoDaddy's business model. In 2015, they identified Kiva, a microloan site that supports entrepreneurs. The organization seemed to be a good fit for GoDaddy, since the company's main market is small businesses. Plus, the partnership also jibed with the company's expansion into overseas markets, since Kiva's site highlights entrepreneurs around the world. "It was one of the few charities that made sense," Butler says.

The plan they came up with created a program through which GoDaddy employees could help support a Kiva entrepreneur of their choosing from one of 80 countries by contributing $25 via GoDaddy Cares, the company's charity arm. Then, the GoDaddy Cares team would promote the initiative companywide, sending out a video about the effort and encouraging employees to show their support in different ways, including wearing Kiva shirts. Eighty-one percent of the company's 4,500 employees ended up participating.

Combined with other initiatives, such as a new program aimed at getting more women interested in engineering, the effort with Kiva has helped GoDaddy attract more Millennials who want to work for the company, according to Butler. "That translates to a better connection with consumers," she says. "Brands can connect employees to meaningful charities and, in so doing, they connect with customers."

Still, as GoDaddy learned, this is not a quick fix. "Consumers reward brands that do positive things in the community, but it builds up over time," Butler says.

For that reason, consistency is key. Experts agree it requires a series of activities and policies engaged in over time, one building on the momentum created by the previous action. Take Panera Bread, the St. Louis–based chain of bakery-café fast casual restaurants, which has used successive initiatives to solidify its reputation as a caring brand promoting health. Most recently, the brand announced it had met a 2014 commitment to use only "clean ingredients," removing all artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives by the end of 2016. According to Christopher Hollander, SVP of marketing at Panera Bread, it was a major effort that involved, as an example, 60 tries by testers before they got the now-popular broccoli cheddar soup up to snuff. The campaign has "resonated deeply with Millennials," he says.

But the clean ingredient initiative was preceded by many others, such as a move seven years ago to include calorie counts on menus (Panera says it's the first national restaurant chain to do so); a 2004 pledge to use antibiotic-free chicken in salads and sandwiches, later adding to the list roasted turkey, bacon, sausage, and ham; and the donation of all its unsold baked goods at the end of each day to organizations providing free meals, something the brand has done since its founding. Also, in 2010, the Panera Bread Foundation introduced its first Panera Cares community café in Clayton, Mo. Using a pay-what-you-can model, the restaurant lists suggested donation amounts for all menu items. Those customers who can't afford to pay the full amount are asked to buy just one entrée and drink per week. Customers can also earn a meal by volunteering in the café.

Taking another tack on empathy, Southwest Airlines in 2015 began to reinforce its long-time reputation for friendly customer service with its "Transfarency campaign," which emphasizes such features as low airfares, lack of baggage fees, and its transparency around costs. Among Millennials, awareness of Transfarency rose from 39 percent in 2015 to 63 percent in 2016, according to Anne Murray, senior director of marketing communications.


In general, empathetic displays also lend themselves to effective social media campaigns. That's especially true for the many human-interest stories they're likely to generate. "The best way to connect with Millennials is sharing authentic stories of brands having a real impact on a real charity," Butler says. For example, the extensive employee participation in GoDaddy's Kiva program, in and of itself, was what Butler calls "highly media worthy" and it received a lot of attention. In addition, there were many individual stories to tell — including that of a team which pooled its money to create more impact for a particular entrepreneur.

Even the most authentic displays of empathy can have their downsides. When Panera introduced calorie counts to its menu — something not usually done at the time — Hollander acknowledges the move could have ruffled consumers' feathers if, say, they learned that their favorite items were high in calories. "There's a risk associated with some actions," he says. Starbucks learned that when its outgoing CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in the wake of President Donald Trump's executive order in January barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. That triggered a Twitter storm of critics urging a boycott. But Starbucks also enjoyed a countervailing Twitter reaction from supporters of Schultz's announcement.

When it comes to empathy for causes, in many cases, it's a calculated risk and one that's worth the effort. "I think taking a stand about something is quite well-respected by Millennials," says Mark Potts, head of insights at Mindshare North America, a global media agency and part of WPP. "They respond to that. And it pays off."



The Dos and Don'ts of Empathy

  • Be smart about your partners. Make sure your brand is in alignment with any charity with which you choose to work. In 2015, for example, ride-sharing service Lyft teamed up with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to promote safe driving on New Year's Eve.
  • Do your due diligence. You don't want to wind up allying with a dubious charity. "Be careful to select an organization known to have good practices," says Tyler Butler, founder and principal of 11Eleven Consulting, a Phoenix–based strategy and corporate responsibility consulting firm.
  • Capture stories of success — and use social media to extend them. "You don't want to spend a ton of money and not get much traction because you didn't have good stories to tell," Butler says.
  • Don't fake it. "We don't try to be something we aren't," says Christopher Hollander, SVP of marketing at Panera Bread. In any case, media-savvy Millennials will see through you immediately if you're not genuine.
  • Plan for agility. Prepare for when relevant moments are likely to happen. "We advise clients to identify moments in the culture when they can jump in and be very relevant to consumers," says Mark Potts, head of insights at media agency Mindshare North America. Know which moment is right, and be ready to act with kindness.






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