Empathy is the current buzzword.  It’s everywhere.  In marketing & business.  In dating & friendships.  In entertainment and all of the media.

It’s defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others… and it’s important and relevant.  This post is not bashing empathy and those who strive to put themselves in other people’s shoes. To view things from different angles and be accommodating of other people is incredibly admirable.

As it relates to marketing and business, I have some thoughts that I can’t stop ruminating over.  In my mind, there are three ways to primarily win in marketplaces.

1 – Be first

2 – Be smarter

3 – Be less expensive

Where does empathy fit into those?…and is it useful in all cases?  Let’s dig deeper.

BE FIRST: Being first is all about innovation.  Introducing a new concept, a new product, a new service.  Putting yourself in other people’s shoes to determine what they need is still a must, but on what level?  The best innovators are a little out there.  They know something others do not.  They have different ideas.  They are different and they know it.  Henry Ford once said if he asked others what they wanted they would have told him a faster horse.  Most people thought he was nuts at the time and now owning an automobile is standard fare.  Did he understand others?  Did he feel the urgency of people wanting to travel miles at a time and not spend all day doing it?  Did he provide something they wanted or needed?  Or was he stuck in his own head on an idea that he knew could change the world for the better… ?

BE SMARTER: I think this is where empathy really comes into play for marketers. When products & services are understood by the masses, now it’s time to tailor them.  It’s about polish and perfection.. and this is where details come into play.  What better way to pick up on the nuances and desires of people then to wonder what it is they want and how they feel?  Continuing with the Henry Ford example, now that the automobile is being mass produced, Marketing executives at Ford can now think about younger demographics and introduce a Ford Mustang… or someone with back problems and introduce the lumbar mode on the drivers seat…the list is endless.  The more they understand their demographics, the more they can tailor their models..and the more they will sell and stay ahead of competition.

BE LESS EXPENSIVE: This one is fuzzy, too.  At first glance, you might think being cheaper is all about making a quick buck and there is zero empathy.  It could also be viewed as providing people with different means the same opportunities.  You might not be able to buy a GT500 with a supercharged V8…but you can get a Mustang V6 with basic trim.  In other types of examples, it forces the marketplace to continue to be smarter.  If everything was the same price and the same model, regardless, you wouldn’t have people/companies trying to outsmart each other or drive innovation.  How boring.

Separate from these three points, there’s something else.  Humans are complex and always changing.  As a species, they’ve proven time and time again they are resistant to change and can be reluctant to make firm decisions.  Can you blame them when there is an endless array of options in all of these cases?

You know what else?  They can also be strong, resilient and take care of themselves.  How often do you come across someone and say “I figured you out.  I know what you want and need.  I understand how you feel.”  Does that get a good reaction from them?  Do they appreciate that you dug into that level of detail?  Did you provide something worthwhile or just make them uncomfortable?

I’m not suggesting I am right or wrong with any of this, just pondering the questions.  Different situations call for different scenarios… but sometimes I wonder if this whole empathy thing should be people being more empathetic with themselves.  The information, services, products etc. are out there and indexed appropriately for people to engage when ready.

Empathy plays a very important role… but if you’re treating people with respect, I’m not sure its the end all, be all, in life or business.

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