Empathy: The Secret Ingredient to Business Success

January 6, 2017


What does empathy have to do with the success of your business? Only everything, according to Creative Director and Digital Strategist Vanessa Rementilla. In fact, ignoring it can lead to disaster. “There’s a lot of research that suggests many start-ups fail because they don’t take into account what their customers want, need and value. They’re too focused on their products and services and not focused enough on what customers care about.”

To truly understand the desires of others, you have to understand their realities first.

In other words, building a graphic design, cleaning, web development or other small business based only on the kind of services you want to provide—as opposed to what your potential customers actually want and need—is a recipe for disaster. Larger companies often hire creative agencies before launching a new product or service to help them get inside the heads of their target customers. In fact, many companies don’t even begin to design visual identity elements of a new product or brand until they’ve taken the pulse of who they want to reach.

Is conducting a robust customer analysis beyond the reach of your small business? No need to worry. Here’s how (and why) to incorporate empathy into your branding and business planning.

What is Empathy?

We normally associate empathy with putting ourselves in another person’s position and seeing the world through their eyes. But it’s more complex than that. To truly understand the desires of others, you have to understand their realities first. Many creative directors and branding experts use an empathy map to get inside the heads of their target customers. Here’s an example, courtesy of cleverism.com:

Consider your ideal customers and ask yourself these questions in relation to the service you offer. The answers will reveal clues to the best ways to relate to them through customer service, marketing and brand identity. You’ll also want to overlay these insights with the service you bring to the marketplace.

“Your empathy map and your business’s value proposition should absolutely be aligned,” said Rementilla. “They need to work together to help you co-develop your product or service.

“If I had to put [the concept] in a capsule, I’d say empathy is the driver of your brand strategy. Your company’s voice, visuals, customer experience should all come from here.”

Does Accounting Give You the Hebbie-Jeebies?

If you have an opportunity to conduct a poll, survey or focus group with prospective clients, find out things like:

  • What kinds of brands they like and why
  • What design elements most resonate with their sensibilities
  • How they prefer to be marketed to (i.e. email, print campaign, word of mouth etc.)
  • What inspires them to interact with a brand (beyond the simple need for the service)
  • How and why they choose the companies they engage with

What Does the Empathic Branding Process Look Like?

In honor of their 25th anniversary, a school wanted to refresh their visual identity to be reflect their modern organization. They engaged Rementilla to help and, together, they set off on a “discovery journey” that ultimately led them to a well-integrated look and feel that resonated with both the school and their students and families. The process is something that can be replicated in-house by smaller businesses.

“We started by gathering all of the stakeholders, including the principal, staff, families and students to map out what the school means to them,” said Rementilla. “This identified their personality and values.”

They came up with a number of keywords that defined their brand and ensured they were aligned with the school’s value proposition. From there, they visualized what this brand identity would look like. “We brought in magazine clippings and objects that they felt represented the brand and created a mood board that acted as a jumping off point for their visual identity.”

With a strong understanding of what the school and their constituents needed and wanted, they were able to come up with strong visual identifiers that landed with their target audience in an impactful, emotional way.

Rementilla says the benefits of conducting an empathic branding process is that the result is a touchstone for future advertising campaigns, website design and even customer service. “A lot of established brands have a brand identity document where everything is laid out in stone. Everything from the tone of voice to the colors they use are there so they can go back to that bible when they want to communicate with their customers for a new purpose.”



How Do You Integrate Empathy into Visual Identity?

Whether you’re settling on your business’s logo, website or an advertising campaign, it’s critical to include empathy in your design. In Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, author Don Norman says people typically engage with visual information on three levels:

  • Viscerally: An instinctive reaction that brings up an emotion without considering how or why
  • Behaviorally: A user experience that inspires you to interact with the information or seek out how to work with it
  • Reflectively: The lasting impression a visual leaves with you, inspiring you to recall it later and describe it to others

You want your brand to connect to your customers on at least one of these levels. “The key thing is to elicit a response. Ideally, you want customers to take action, so you need to create motivation for them to respond,” said Rementilla.

Selecting the right marketing tactics, calls to action, logos, graphics and even colors and fonts will depend on what motivates your ideal customer.



How to Include Empathic Design in Visuals

There are myriad ways colors, typography, images and storytelling connect with people. The trick is to employ the ones that will best resonate with your target audience. Basic things to consider include:

  • Color can inspire a range of emotions. It’s important to select the color that best fits the mood you’re trying to create. For example, fast food brands like McDonald’s and Wendy’s understand that red is often associated with hunger—and they make the most of that insight in their logo and advertising campaigns.
  • Powerful photographs speak to the primal part of most people, particularly ones that include faces. Animals and even cartoon caricatures often have a similar effect when you’re trying to connect with a person’s emotions, i.e. images of animals facing a camera for animal rescue campaigns are particularly effective.
  • Language is a critical element in empathetic design. Words can trigger a huge range of emotions. Think about the connotations that come up when you read the word glum or thrilled. They’re almost visual representations of the emotion behind them. Familiar words breed the most empathy. It pays to know the reading level and preferences of your audience.
  • Typography is a subtle force that makes a big impact. While some companies go with intricate fonts that exude personality, it’s usually more effective to stick with simple lettering that’s easy to scan and read (e.g. the ever-popular Helvetica and Georgia).

Just like with any relationship, the more thought you put into your customer’s point of view, life experiences and desires, the more you’ll get out of the partnership. Companies with loyal followings get this and wrap their brands around their customers, not the other way around.

“Empathy will not come through if you’re single-minded,” said Rementilla. “At the heart of the matter, businesses need to ask themselves how well they know their customers.

“If you ask your customer if they understand the value or solution your business provides, you’ve reached some level of empathy with what you’re doing.”


about the author

Freelance Contributor Heather Hudson is an accomplished freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publishing, corporate and agency clients who depend on her to deliver high-quality, on-brand content and journalism with a fresh perspective. Learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.