As marketers, we like to coin cool new terms to make old tactics seem new and refreshing.

Among these terms is content marketing, influence marketing, relationship marketing, and perhaps the best of all, empathy marketing. This last one has seen some traction lately as marketers and consultants talk about understanding your customer’s needs better through empathizing with them.

Of course, any good marketer would already be understanding customer needs, but that’s another topic, another time.

The problem is, as we create these words and persuade people to adopt them (or, at the very least, create buzz around them), we tend to add to the problem versus creating solutions for it.

Let’s take “empathy marketing” as a case in point.

Unless You’re In Someone’s Shoes, You Can’t Empathize

Brands and marketers would like to think that by empathizing with their customers, they’re more likely to be the solution the customer is looking for.

For example, think of the lifestyle magazines that offer advice to women on regaining their shape after a pregnancy. The marketing spiel might go along the lines of,

We understand. You want your bikini body back, but babies can make that difficult. That’s why our Generic Product X is perfect for you – forget the baby body blues and get that bikini body back now!

This is a particularly lame example although sadly not too far from the truth.

Baby body marketing

Worse still, it’s almost a given that the majority of these marketing promotions are created by men, who somehow think that having a baby is a bad thing when it comes to the female form.

So how can a thirty-something male advertising executive empathize with a new mother on the topic of her body? Simple – he can’t.

Instead of this fuzzy feel-good empathy marketing, we need to look at realism instead.

The Power of Realism

When I was initially drafting this post, I saw an update on Facebook from my friend Helen Androlia that made me stop in my tracks.

While I had an idea on how I wanted this post to read, and what message I wanted to try and get across, Helen’s words summed up the problem of empathy marketing perfectly, and illustrates why we need to inject more realism in our marketing messages.

With Helen’s kind permission, I’ve reposted her Facebook status below.

Sometimes I call myself fat. It’s because I am. I’m not obese. I’m just… fat. I’m tall, too, but I’m also overweight. And this, this isn’t subjective. Being overweight is an objective assessment, untainted by body dysmorphia or whatever.

I have my reasons for gaining weight, and I am working on working out regularly because I want to. It’s not healthy (for me, though I know that there are a lot of healthy overweight people), and it’s not sustainable (for me; that’s important to mention). I already eat well, so I go to the gym as well, and I do what I have to do, but it’s a big task. In the meantime, I am fat. You know, I might go to the gym for years and always remain fat.

Here’s the thing though: people, who are very well-intentioned, always follow this statement up with a reaction, exclaiming that I’m NOT fat, or that I’m beautiful, or that I shouldn’t say things like about myself. I don’t feel like this is about me, really, and that’s why I’m writing this. I know that I’m attractive. I have very healthy self-esteem. I am worthy of being loved, and I know that. My weight doesn’t factor into that, so I don’t need to be told that.

Saying that I’m not fat is like saying I don’t need glasses, or that I don’t have dark hair – it’s objectively untrue, and it actually makes me feel badly about my weight.


Because when people say that, what they’re saying is that being fat is the opposite of being beautiful, or feeling good about myself. That I shouldn’t call myself fat because that is paramount to saying that I’m ugly, or unfuckable, or a failure. That describing myself accurately is cruel – not because it’s unrealistic, but because fat is a synonym for something much darker.

So friends, I appreciate the sentiment. I do. But remember that ‘fat’ isn’t a death sentence, or a self-inflicted punch to the face. It’s not a four-letter word, and it’s not the antonym to beauty. It’s just another state for our bodies to inhabit, whether we want them to be there or not.

I’m not going to the gym because I’m ugly. I go to the gym because I need to move more and sweat more. And when I call myself fat, it’s because that’s what I am.

I’m okay with it, I promise.

While Helen’s words were for her friends, they’re also a direct challenge to marketers – stop telling us what you feel we want to hear, and start being honest with us instead.

As a marketer, I’m all for that.

Why Realism Works Better Than Empathy

We’ve created this environment where we think we’re doing consumers a favour by “empathizing” with them. The problem is, we’re not really creating solutions when we think empathetically – because unless we’re in that consumer’s shoes, it’s impossible for us to empathize.

Instead of this faux empathy that brands are trying to build, we need to understand, not empathize. And yes, there is a difference.

  • Understand why a product is receiving such crap reviews and, instead of empathizing with your customers on the issues they’re having, fix the problem and understand why it failed, to make it right moving forward.
  • Understand why a campaign that worked in North America probably won’t work in Asia or Eastern Europe, instead of empathizing with these consumers who feel insulted by North American culture in their advertising.
  • Understand why consumers are concerned about your company’s privacy policy, instead of empathizing with their concerns but doing nothing about the policy itself.

But most of all, understand that the best marketing doesn’t come from your supposed customer empathy. Instead, it comes from the understanding of what they really want, and delivering a message that’s based on realism and not marketing spiel.

We can do that, can’t we?

Footnote: Interested in finding out more about Helen? Here you go.

Helen AndroliaHelen Androlia is a highly experienced social media strategist, digital creative and community manager currently working for Draftfcb Toronto. 

With an eclectic background spanning the technology sector to fine arts and culture (and everything in between), Helen creates engaging social media experiences for a number of large brands.  

A featured speaker at this year’s PodCamp Toronto, Helen was also a keynote speaker at Mesh Marketing 2013. You can find her on Twitter @HelenAndrolia.

image: SamsumgTomorrow

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  1. says

    This is a great post, Danny! Much like everyone else, I’ve seen lots of empathy marketing around but I didn’t know what it was called. I love the approach you’ve discussed, I think realism really is the best bet for marketers, I will be keeping it in mind! Thanks!

  2. says

    Great points, but one question: how DO you respond when a friend says, “I’m fat!” I understand you’re not supposed to lie, and I try never to indulge in false flattery, but what should you say? Because it’s not an infrequent occurrence among people these days and it makes for a pretty awkward moment.

    • Helen Androlia says

      Well, if I may be so bold, I always feel that the best answer is a question. Ask why they would say that, what they expect you to respond with, or what they’re really trying to prompt from you by making that statement. Often it’s because they’re looking for something specific from you, and they just don’t know how else to say it.

      I know that when I say that I’m fat, it’s usually in the context of something larger – it’s never a sentence that comes out of my mouth without a bigger conversation surrounding it. Why I buy so many clothes online, for instance, or why I’m taking part in this punishing fitness bootcamp. I feel like my statements don’t need reassurance, acknowledgement or external validation… which is another reason I get so irritated when that’s the response I get.

      I’m presuming, of course (so feel free to let me know if this is inaccurate), that you feel that these “I’m fat!” statements require more discussion or explanation, and not that they’re person who’s making them has made that request.

      And, naturally, that’s only one fat girl’s opinion. 😉

      • says

        Thank you, Helen — I appreciate it! Human instinct is to reassure, AND to fill the gaps in conversation. Listening, and trying to understand what’s really going on, is a good option.

    • says

      Hey there Rob,

      I was going to reply and say I tend to go with, “Do you want a friend answer or an honest one?” Because they’re pretty much the same thing, if your friend wants you to be a true friend – one who tells it like it is, as opposed to buttering up. But yeah, it’s easier said than done – besides, Helen answered much better than I ever could have. :)

  3. says

    I think balance is key among all these coined terms in today’s marketing world.

    Realism keeps things perspective pairing it up with positive solutions, which couldn’t be more clearer as content “marketing”.

    Thanks for the write-up.

    – Samuel

  4. says

    Thinking from the customers perspective is a healthy habit for marketing.
    And yes, there should be a consideration done based on the target market and geological location.
    Great post dan !!

  5. says

    Ok so how did Livefyre win you back @Danny Brown?
    I love this post and thank you @Helen Androliafor your part and ironically I was thinking about this today but in a different way. There are a few specific cases where empathy and all the other mumbo jumbo actually needs to be tried. It usually is when the product/brand is so interchangeable you really need an emotional connection to win business. For example everyone has tried Coke and Pepsi. Back in my youth there was the Pepsi Challenge. Enough people chose Pepsi in a blind taste test to make the campaign viable. And I was thinking ‘If we prefer Pepsi why do people continually buy the product they like less…more’. Or that old ‘Hey kid have a life saver’ campaign. 

    But those are rare.And misery loving company isn’t the basis for a business. Empathy works for customer service to calm down an angry customer. Empathy doesn’t work to sell a product.

  6. says

    Howie Goldfarb They promised me I didn’t have to fly in that desolate Lear jet, after you’d messed it up…
    That’s a great point re. empathy being a better fit for customer service. Sales and marketing, while you do need to understand the customer’s pain points, doesn’t equate to empathy. But it makes for a nice soundbite… 😉

  7. Steve Faber1 says


    Well said. Judging by the buzz I’ve heard in the marketing community recently, honest marketing may be experiencing some popularity. I’d expect it’s proportionate to the growth in cynical consumers. People can spot a rat, whether in the alley behind their house, or on one of their favorite brands’ websites. Marketers may finally be catching on. 

    Steve Faber

  8. says

    Steve Faber1 Great point, Steve. You only need to look at the Real Beauty campaign from Dove, or UK mass retailer Debenhams stopping airbrushing models, and how these two examples have resulted in huge success for each retailer, to see how consumers are beginning to push back on smoke and mirrors.
    It’s about time, too. 
    Cheers, mate.

  9. Neicolec says

    Great post. And great points on the issue of weight from Helen (an issue that a lot of us can identify with!). I don’t understand why we need a new term for a practice that good marketers have been following for a long time. It’s just basic good marketing to understand your customers, their needs, and as much as you can about how they view the world as it relates to your product or brand. And then use that information to communicate effectively on topics that they care about. Maybe we just need a new term to remind people of the importance of understanding your customer?

  10. HelenAndrolia says

    InspiredSocial_ I’m so pleased it spoke to you – I’m still amazed at how many people my rant resonated with!

  11. DannyBrown says

    InspiredSocial_ Thanks, Lori, and agreed, great piece – not sure about HuffPo, mind you, HelenAndrolia is better than that. 😉

  12. says

    Neicolec I think once marketers, consultants and agencies stop trying to come up with words just to justify extra billing expenses, then perhaps we’ll have a chance to simply get on with the discipline of marketing for our customers. We can but hope.