Nature or nurture:
do we need more
empathy in marketing?

It impacts our connections with others and our ability to lead in the workplace; empathy is key to daily life. Nate Thompson of Amplify advocates for more of it in adland.

Published by: The Drum
Written by: Nate Thompson
Date: 19/05/2023

It impacts our connections with others, our important relationships and our ability to lead in the workplace. Empathy is key to daily life.

It’s no coincidence that empathy is a key component of creativity, as it’s linked to the imagination. It’s the process of imagination over perception that outlines the difference between empathy and sympathy. We can perceive a person’s situation and feel sympathy towards them, but when we imagine what it must feel like, we feel empathy. Creatives are imaginative people so in theory empathy should come easy to us.

Empathy isn’t a new concept in marketing, it’s something that underpins Greg Hoffman’s excellent book ‘Emotion by Design’ where he recounts his 30-year career at Nike and it’s been a buzzword in the creative world for a good few years. But what is it, and more importantly, how do we get it?

Educating Empathy

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy isn’t on the curriculum, as Ken Robinson outlined in his compelling and hilarious Ted Talk 'Do Schools Kill Creativity’. Sixteen years on we are still seeing young people leave an education system that was primarily designed to meet the needs of industrialism. In a world that needs creativity more than ever and a society that needs empathy even more, why is our education system so firmly rooted in binary concepts?

This is something I feel strongly about. I attended the Rudolf Steiner School in Holywood, Northern Ireland, which at the time was one of the first religiously integrated schools in the country. It was formed after some of the deadliest years in The Troubles. Communities were being ripped apart, terrorism and divisive politics hogged the headlines and the education system was strictly divided by religion. This turbulent environment led a group of parents to build something better for their children.

The school was formed in 1975 with nothing more than goodwill, a handful of pupils and an education system drawn from some of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner.
Viewed as a 20th Century philosopher, Steiner had ideas on how to educate children in a way that enables them to become their true selves, be good citizens, contribute to society, and be a strong force for good in the world. He recommended that to enable this it was essential to take into account the age and stage of development of each child in deciding what and how to teach them. For example, in the early years, children learn best through imitation and play, from around age 6 to the beginning of secondary school, engaging the imagination and artistic activity inspires strong learning and from secondary school age onwards, cognitive learning engages in earnest.

What I remember most is the storytelling (more on that shortly). Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin were some that stay with me to this day. Each morning we would be told stories and then draw our interpretation of them. My first ever briefs. More than that, these stories were about human emotions… about love, loss, honesty, responsibility and more. It opened our tiny minds to other people’s behavioural and emotional needs. It was brilliant.

We covered maths and english of course, but there was a creative approach to learning through the framework of storytelling established from an early age, even early maths lessons were delivered in an artistic way. I also remember making a pair of moccasins by hand. This hasn’t proven useful so far.

Although I left the school just before my GCSEs (another story), which probably makes me unemployable on paper, I came away with something much more worthwhile, the ability to use my imagination, an understanding of storytelling and a habit of considering what other people might be feeling.

I have to point out that at the turn of the 20th century a young Steiner had some pretty appalling theories about race it would be remiss of me not to mention, but the school I attended was built with a spirit of inclusivity and the education delivered with the same ideal.

Experiencing Empathy in Adland

Fast forward many years later and storytelling is still a key part of my and many creative's working days. Good stories ensure people care about them, they create empathy, and whether we are telling our story to the client, or their audience, we want people to care, show interest or feel understood. Thinking back to Nike's work over the last 30 years it's a key ingredient, you are drawn into the story they tell, the imagery they use, and as a result the products they are selling.

Clients work aside, read any leadership articles over the last lot of years and empathy is top of the bill. It seems so obvious in hindsight, but having the soft skills to listen, understand and make people feel heard is the bedrock of any working relationship. It brings about a more open creative environment, where people feel free to take risks and push their creativity. So why is it something we write about, and not second nature? Is it on us as individuals, or us as a society to be more empathetic? Can it be learned, or are we born with it?

It seems to me that the ability to feel empathy is something some people are born with, it comes naturally to them. But being empathetic is a choice and one that benefits all of us when we choose it. It can help us come up with more relatable creative ideas and foster an environment where people feel empowered to take creative risks and collaborate openly. It’s vital for the work that we do and the people we work with and if we all embrace it fully, it might just make the tiny part of the world we each inhabit a little bit better.

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