I believe we all make decisions based on our struggles. This is true for big decisions, like who to vote for, and small decisions, like what to eat for dinner. When it comes time to make a decision, feelings always have more influence than facts.

As marketers and communicators, our best shot at influencing decisions comes when we understand and share the struggles of those we seek to influence. The word for this is empathy, and it’s all about feeling with.

Applied correctly in marketing, empathy builds loyalty, attraction and trust. It also positively impacts your bottom line.

But, while many marketers strive for empathy, few do well applying it. One reason is that it’s easy to confuse sympathy with empathy – and the difference is critical.

Case in point: Think about how you’d react if you, say, confided in a friend that you’d just accidentally cc’ed your ENTIRE office on a snarky email meant for a friend, and her response was “O-M-G.  I feel SO sorry for you. That really sucks.”  [Insert enraged/wounded emoji here.]

Okay, now think how you’d feel if your friend instead said, “Girl, I know how you feel. I did that last year and refused to show my face for three whole days. Come over for a glass of wine and we’ll get you through this.”

Which friend are you going to stick with?


Because we all make decisions based on our struggles, the brands that understand and help us combat our struggles are those that will prevail. General Motors taking heat for advertising patriotism in the wake of 9/11 shows how sympathy can backfire, while the Always’ “Like A Girl” campaign growing brand equity by double digits shows how empathy wins.

If this isn’t making sense to you, or you’re just not buying it, shoot me an email now at [email protected] and we’ll talk it out. If you’re ready to board the empathy train, but not sure of the first step, here are a few suggestions that can be scaled based on your appetite:

Slip on your customers’ shoes

Even if you have volumes of research about your target customers, you may be missing a deeper understanding of their struggles. Gaining deeper understanding requires taking a walk in their shoes. At PadillaCRT, we use traditional and ethnographic research methods to immerse real-time in customers’ lives to gather these insights. In-home observations, shop-alongs, digital focus groups – we’ve done everything from walking through a store on our knees to see things through a child’s eyes to tracking the nutrition rituals of female cyclists via digital diaries.

Dig for pleasure and pain

Remember – decisions are based on struggles, so, in all of your surveys, focus groups or qualboards, dig for your customers’ pain. It will give you a line of sight into their mindset at various points in their day, week, year and life. For your customers, what moments trigger an escape from struggle, even if it’s just momentary? What is the light at the end of the tunnel they look forward to every day?

For our client the Blueberry Council, we’ve developed a narrative to guide all digital content for the year. It was informed and inspired by – you guessed it – the pain points we uncovered via qualitative research and an audience immersion session (see below).

Summon your inner four-year-old

No resources for research? No problem. Identify a group of friends who match up with your target customer and pepper them with questions. Follow them on their shopping trips or hang out in their houses and play like a four-year old asking why, why, WHY? Map out pain points and pleasure points, and the insights you glean from both. While it’s not super-scientific, it will give you some good directional intel; just don’t take what you see and hear as absolute fact!

Immerse and imagine

I have high hopes for virtual reality helping us more deeply experience our customers’ lives, but, for now, we don’t need fancy technology to immerse.  Use all the knowledge you’ve gained from your research (no matter what the form) to shape an immersion session into the life of your target. Tap a group of empathetic, imaginative colleagues to review your map of pleasure and pain points and brainstorm opportunities. Better yet, call us to help facilitate!