Dear Marketers – It’s Not Empathy We Need, It’s Realism

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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