Empathy must become the next normal for brands

In a world where nothing is certain, customers want brands to show their human side and deliver personalised, empathetic experiences across every touchpoint


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Beyond the coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult to pinpoint a global event that has ever created such a unified experience.

As individuals, communities, employers and businesses muddle through the uncertainty together, one thing that is becoming ever clearer is customers want to use their purchasing power to reward brands that demonstrate empathy.

A recent Ipsos Mori poll, commissioned by PepsiCo North America, shows that nine in ten US consumers want brands to show empathy through their behaviour. A further 86 per cent say showing empathy is critical to fostering loyalty.

A separate retail study from customer engagement platform Braze offers insight into how consumers are choosing where to spend their money amid COVID-19.

The data, drawn from 8,000 global consumers, reveals brand values and corporate empathy are playing an increasing role in people’s decisions to open their wallets, with just 10 per cent of consumers now viewing “familiarity” as a top consideration when deciding where to shop.

Brands need to stop seeing personalisation as a nice to have, but rather table stakes

In sharp contrast, 91 per cent see retailers’ responses to the pandemic, especially towards employees and customers, as an important criterion.

Brands, from Facebook to Ford, have been quick to tailor their above-the-line communications to highlight just how they can be a source of support to customers during this challenging time.

James Manderson, general manager and vice president, customer success, for Europe, Middle East and Africa, believes this messaging needs to trickle down to every brand touchpoint customers encounter in their journey, whether it’s an in-store transaction, a push notification or an email landing in their inbox.

He says COVID-19 has created a “wallpaper effect” where some retailers have felt the need to insert themselves into consumers’ lives without considering the context and using the data at their fingertips to guide their strategy.

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“Brands that consumers hadn’t heard from for a long time felt the need to email them and let them know they were there for them. Right now, companies need to be reading and listening to customers,” Manderson says. “Even beyond COVID-19 there’s increased scrutiny about how brands  behave.”

And he’s right. Pre-pandemic, the Braze Brand Humanity Index study conducted by Forrester, found people were 54 per cent more likely to engage with a brand when it effectively demonstrated human communication. Some 57 per cent were more likely to purchase from a brand that did so and a further 57 per cent were more likely to remain loyal to that brand.

Using context to add a human touch

How then can companies show their human side in an uncertain market as they clamour for attention with other brands and try to cut through the platitudes?

For Manderson, COVID-19 has first accelerated the need for digital transformation and a starting point for businesses looking to make that emotional connection with customers is to build the foundations for strong online relationships.

He points to Braze data which shows that 83 per cent of consumers will shop online as much or more than during the height of the pandemic, even as lockdown restrictions ease. This has been supported by a 62 per cent rise in mobile acquisition. What’s more, these new customers aren’t just browsing on their smartphones, they’re buying there too, with people acquired via mobile being ten times more likely to make a purchase and twelve times more likely to make a second purchase.

Brands need to stop seeing personalisation as a nice to have, but rather table stakes

Though they must be agile with the communication they’re pushing to customers, brands must also use analytics to inform the context, says Manderson.

“Data is critically important here. Technology allows you to better understand the interactions you have with customers: what are they browsing, what’s in their basket, what are they viewing, how are they interacting with an app? Having an intimate understanding of all that allows you to act in context,” he says.

Prioritising personalisation and purpose

In a world where customers have increasingly high expectations of their interactions with brands, personalisation is also key to delivering empathetic experiences.

Before the pandemic, Epsilon surveyed 1,000 people and found 80 per cent were more likely to make a purchase when brands offered personalised experiences. A separate report from BRP Consulting found 64 per cent of consumers were fine with retailers saving their purchase history and preferences if it enabled them to offer more personalised experiences.

With increasing urgency, personalisation must become the next normal for brands, argues Manderson.

“Brand experiences must become as close to human conversation as possible. When you talk to someone in person, you listen to what they’re saying and react accordingly. That principle is fundamental to getting this right,” he says.

Amid the pandemic, brands that have used Braze’s personalisation tools to tailor messaging to fit the preferences of each audience segment have seen a 28 per cent uptick in conversation rates.

Manderson points to the Thoughtful Marketing Movement as something brands can learn from amid the pandemic.

Created by flower delivery brand Bloom & Wild and supported by others such as Wagamama, the initiative allows customers to opt out of receiving communications on big calendar dates, like Mother’s Day, which some customers find difficult.

“That’s an example of a brand listening to signals from customers, understanding the mechanics of the data and acting on it. Bloom & Wild has a set of values that are important to them as a brand and the Thoughtful Marketing Movement reflects that,” says Manderson.

Post-pandemic, brands need to stop seeing personalisation as a nice to have, but rather table stakes, he believes. His team has been providing agile technology to clients that is allowing them to understand and react in a time when nothing seems quite certain.

“When we talk about humanity and personalisation in our industry, the phrase ‘the new normal’ keeps cropping up. But it’s not the new normal anymore, it’s just normal,” Manderson concludes.

“The impact of the crisis is being felt everywhere and what’s going to be left after it is a really high expectation of what brands can deliver. Personalisation is how you gain that human touch.”

For more information please visit www.braze.com/resources/library/guide/2020-the-future-of-retail