Marketing emotion of the year: empathy

Audiences in 2021 need to know you are there for them. Here’s how you can show your organization cares about your community.


In the most dramatic and unexpected ways possible, 2020 was a crazy year, and marketers were no exception. After enjoying nearly a decade of annual economic growth, many marketers implemented very little change in overall strategy during the uptick. When 2020 blew up all the trends, strategies and consumer insights we had come to expect, a dramatic shift in thinking was necessary. Each new idea saw continued need for change over the course of the year in order to respond to lockdowns, protests, social movements, politics, the economy and the 24-hour news cycle.

Each new event meant that consumers were trudging through changing emotional cycles, too. Messaging needed to be more effective than ever. While many remain hopeful for more stability and economic growth in 2021, the strategies we use to communicate with consumers must change yet again, but with one point of stability likely to endure. To be the most effective, the emotion that marketers need to show in 2021 is empathy.

Empathy is found when we recognize and share the feelings and emotions of someone else, a trait that was in short supply in 2020. Psychologists remind us that it’s important to always show empathy, but especially when people aren’t faring well emotionally. When people feel down, for example, being shown empathy will make them feel valued and understood, creating positive emotions towards the person or entity offering empathy. Generating positive emotions towards your product, service and company is ultimately the goal of marketing, as “affinity” is the psychological driver most closely associated with the long-term success of any enterprise.

Action steps

How does one show empathy to consumers with so many crazy things going on in society? We must first genuinely understand what consumers are experiencing in their lives, especially as they interact with your product or service.

It’s not enough to just look at the attributes they like about your company or goods. Marketers must also understand the emotional “why” consumers engage, buy, promote your brand, and speak to that need before introducing the product or service through the prism of that emotion. For instance, a marketer selling desserts might first acknowledge how stressful things are in the world. Thus, Jane Consumer might want to treat herself to something sweet to have a moment of peace, a reprieve from the stress. There are numerous ways to both demonstrate and evoke empathy, but they must be intentional and real.

Empathy is simply about addressing and appreciating the need state of the consumer. Most importantly for marketers, being empathetic is wildly effective at driving results. One longitudinal study, that looked at the effectiveness of ad campaigns for the IPA Effectiveness Awards (Binet and Field, 2011), showed that campaigns that successfully connected emotionally with consumers sold 19% more than those that did not. Another study showed that a successful emotional and empathetic strategy will have an even larger effect on secondary marketing metrics (likeability, recall and affinity)—increasing effectiveness by a whopping 100% over the baseline.

To be empathic or to evoke empathy starts by the marketer understanding their consumers and their psychological state of mind. This goes far beyond understanding who they are demographically, and is instead seeking to understand what drives their behavior and the ways to affect that behavior. Luckily, the savvy marketer has numerous tools to help them really understand their consumers. Surveys, social listening, focus groups, interviews, etc., are all easy ways to understand what drives people and what makes marketing more relevant and effective.


Jake McKenzie is the CEO of Intermark and is considered a national expert on psychology-driven marketing. He has a background in psychology and has helped shape successful brands such as Toyota, Krispy Kreme, Progressive Insurance and more.

Dr. David Bridwell is a people scientist at Intermark by day and folk musician by night who is interested in understanding how people are influenced, and how they make decisions.



One Response to “Marketing emotion of the year: empathy”

    Ivette Harnett says:

    Really enjoyed reading this article, I relate to it. I believe supermarkets that have the opportunity to seduce the public when customers stop by their premises treat them like already infected carrying the virus and customer service goes out the window. The shop displays look more like a retention center and there is no visual empathy, more less real empathy.

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