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Empathy in Advertising (and the Need for Differentiation)

I’m sure I am not the only one who’s noticed a recent trend in NYC subway ads. This trend is exemplified, for instance, by a Seamless ad that reads “Calling restaurants is like slow-walking behind tourists. ‘Serenity now!'” or the Oscar Health Insurance ad declaring “Bike messengers can blindside you. Medical bills shouldn’t.” What is the one thing that all those Seamless, Oscar, FlatRate, and even tailored McDonald’s subway ads have in common? It’s empathy.

Is this the secret sauce for their success?

Upon close inspection, this feeling of “I can relate to you” really equals “I feel your pain,” or, in marketing terms, “directly addressing target consumer pain points.” Pain points refer to those emotional drivers of behavior particular to your situation—often dictated by place and local culture—that cause you the most emotional and psychological pain. This pain can come in the form of frustration, stress, fear, anxiety or other strong emotions.

The tacitly understood or felt implication is that the brand that understands your pain also offers a way out.

Empathy in advertising

Empathy in advertising and place brands

Let’s look at our situation here in New York. New Yorkers like to think (and as far as I’m concerned, we’re right) that we live in a pretty unique city. The majority of Americans live quite differently and, as a result, I can imagine that empathy over our respective pain points is unlikely. There is a whole host of challenges particular to New York City—ridiculous rents, delivery everything, complicated and amusing communication problems, and how tightly packed together we are nearly all the time—that those unfamiliar with living here may not be able to relate to.

So, who can empathize with this stuff? Who truly shares our common experience?

The tacitly understood or felt implication is that the brand that understands your pain also offers a way out.

The ability to really know me, to get inside my head, think like I do and find my pain—to understand that I pay handsomely for the privilege of living in a shoe box next to a subway track where I pack myself like a sardine next to someone sneezing on the handrails—is key for establishing an emotional resonance with me. I can begin to feel that someone (e.g., Oscar Health Care) not only understands that life is hard for me, but all the ways in which it is: the specific obstacles, annoyances and real problems I’m dealing with on a daily basis.

Empathy in advertising and place brandsThe question then becomes, can a brand provide any real solution to my problems? I think that I give more credit to those brands that appear to understand my “unique” situation. They speak to me, even, perhaps, when the person squished up next to me on the subway does not. Perhaps we’re all thinking the same thing but are afraid to say it. Instead, the ad on the subway says what we are all thinking, and for that I award it points and a little bit of my trust. It gets credit for being brave, clever or cheeky.

Trouble ahead

There is a problem, however, if too many brands adopt the same strategy. It then becomes tired, trite, a truism that I, the consumer, begin to resent. Are these ads mocking me? Has it just been a ploy, supported by millions of marketing dollars to exploit my pain and capture it in an ad campaign connecting my emotions with your need to sell more stuff? (Such sentiments are echoed in this little blurb from NY Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer.)

At some point, the bloom is off the rose. In aping each other, these brands start to beat the horse as well as their cheeky one-liners to death.

But what happens when the strategy is shared widely across an array of brands? My guess is diminishing returns.

It seems clear that this empathy-based strategy is enjoying a lot of positive feedback in New York City and surely elsewhere. This localism is by no means a uniquely New York City marketing strategy—talk to San Franciscans about the “artisanal toast” craze, or Floridians about all the unbelievable stories of criminal mischief that could only come out of Florida. Each of these if used in marketing are local strategies. When advertising and messaging directly connect to a place’s brand it can be highly effective. (More heady stuff about city brands here.)

But what happens when the strategy is shared widely across an array of brands? My guess is diminishing returns.

The power of empathy should not be underestimated. It can take many forms. At the end of the day though, establishing your brand as unique is a higher order imperative.

Why should I choose you?

Here’s an example: I’m an elite college. I have a whole roster of perfect A+ applicants in front of me. Who stands out? They’re all exactly what I’m looking for with tons of extracurriculars, good grades and perfect test scores.

Who stands out to me? Who catches my attention? Who has done something truly unique and interesting, something none of the others have done? Something … brave?

If you say what all the others say, I really have no reason to choose you.

So many A+’s become boring, contributing to the homogeneity of the applicant pool. I’ll take the student with a few lesser grades who took a gap year to build sand mandalas in Tibet, or the one who solo captained a boat around the Mediterranean researching aquatic flora.

So it is with brands and their advertising. Do your research and understand my pain, but don’t, please don’t, be like all the rest. Beyond understanding me I want to know what’s unique about your offer. If you say what all the others say, I really have no reason to choose you.

Empathy is essential, but its expression should not be reduced to a formula. Think of it as a baseline requirement. Differentiation is even more important. What’s truly unique about your brand? What can you offer me that no one else can? This is the sine qua non of your messaging.


So how do you differentiate yourself?

Define your target audience. Narrowing your target helps you talk to them more effectively. You cannot talk to everyone so you must find the group most naturally predisposed to listen to you. You don’t want to be in the business of trying to change behavior. Instead you want to be communicating your value and how exactly you can meet their particular needs.

Show your target that you can meet their needs better than anyone else. Understand their needs, not just what they say, but what actually drives their behavior. Knowing your primary target deeply will allow you to see what aspects of your offer are of the most value to them. You can then show how you (or your product) can meet those needs better than anyone else.

It is best if you can unearth a target that is actually not shared by your competitors or whose needs are being largely unmet in the marketplace. It is easy to mistakenly cast too wide a net. Strategic marketing requires that you push through to as specific a target as possible. Go narrow and deep rather than shallow and wide. This depth allows you to make the connection to your target’s deepest needs.

But what if you and your competitors are truly going after the very same target?

What about your offer is unique? If your ultimate target—even when very narrowly defined—is still shared with your competitors, then you not only have to demonstrate that you have a better grasp of their needs, but that your offer or your product better serves those needs. This is not a list of attributes a mile long. It must focus only on those features and attributes most important to that target. Your competitive advantage is not a laundry list, but a bullet to the heart. “Me too” goes nowhere and “We do it all” is as good as saying nothing.

Again, what makes you truly unique? What single key factor most separates you from all the rest? It is your job to distill that and make it clear and audible. This final story should make both emotional and rational sense to an audience whose mind is designed to keep your message out, not pull it in. Too blunt a device and the message will not get through.

Empathy is essential, but without differentiation, your message is bound to get lost in a sea of competitive noise.

Photos by James Heaton

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