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At IAA conference, participants advocate empathy-based marketing

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Due to challenges brought about by COVID-19 pandemic, which have adversely affected businesses, participants at virtual International Advertising Association (IAA) high pitch conversation, recently, stressed the need for empathy-based marketing in order to reach today’s dynamic consumers.

With the theme: ‘COVID-19 & The Power of Empathy marketing’, they argued that brands must be customer-centric in order to achieve the desired result.

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In his introduction, President IAA Nigeria, Dr Tunji Olugbodi, who anchored the programme, said: “COVID-19 has led to the economic crisis, inflation is high, people are out of jobs, prices have crashed. The marketing and communications industry has been hit hard. We need empathy-based marketing because there is a great disconnect between those that offer goods and services and consumers — messages are not resonating well and how decisions are taken seems to have gone radically different from what it used to be. This goes beyond the normal typical marketing logic that we are familiar with. We are talking about what drives human decisions, what drives purchase decisions. So emotional connection is very important. The market dynamics have changed and will continue to change given the experience COVID-19 pandemic has brought. A lot of purchases are done online. That has radicalised the way people view and buy their products.”

CEO DKK, Temitope Jemerigbe, said: “Empathy-based marketing is an opportunity for brands to provide a lending ear to customers.”

According to her, “if empathy is going to drive anything now, you can’t do business as usual. Empathy should be holistic. Brands must resonate with customers. Empathy is an expectation from everybody, so every opportunity as a brand, individual or government; it must be expressed because it has its implications in the long run. For instance, some banks provided reliefs to creditors or suspension of paybacks.”

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President IAA UK & Head of Agency International, Frederick Borestrom, who joined the conversation from London, said: “We ran a survey on LinkedIn based on their sentiments and how they consume advertising contents at the beginning of the pandemic—one thing that was clear was that consumers, in general, do not want to be sold to. They were expecting brands to resonate with them and be part of a solution, like how are they helping people in communities, how are they helping to get out of the pandemic. Even millennia’s are having a different relationship with their brands. Consumers are making conscious choices.”

Interrogating the issue, founder, Open Squares and author, The Villager, Feyi Olubodun, said, “the word we live in now is harsher than it was 10 years ago and brands must be sensitive to that. The corporate organisations that want to play a role in alleviating social issues how to balance their initiative with having to go to an institutional mechanism for logistics and delivery of palliatives, because we know the institutional mechanism has the challenge of corruption.

“Palliatives that are meant to be distributed but kept away raises the question as to how corporate organisations want to play a role in alleviating some of these social issues. The organisations that donated the palliatives are well-meaning ones. These are times when organisations have to consider how they communicate their support along with how they provide support. The issue of transparency and accountability is key. Businesses can’t separate themselves from the world consumers live. Those social and political issues that come up in that world.

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“On Twitter, recently, a lot of influencers during the #EndSARS protest asked all youths to boycott GTBank Fashion Week and their reason was that GTBank was not feasible during the protest and they even blocked some of their accounts. So, a bank that is neutral is suddenly being impacted negatively by some of these situations. It is a delicate balance to navigate through some of the institutional factors in the environment business are playing in today.”

He believes that the African culture is not an individualistic but collectivist culture and it has a huge implication for brands. His words, “I travelled to Uganda and I observed that most of the houses do not have fences and this is something you see in rural areas in Nigeria. So, I asked the reason for this. The response was in Uganda, we believe that our neighbours are members of our family and are meant to protect one another. Therefore, I can leave my wife and kids at home, knowing they will be safe.”

He said people who have more resources than others are expected to care for others. “It’s part of who we are. When we fail to do that as a people and organisation, then it becomes a problem. That also translates to how brands should engage their communities in terms of severe needs like the crises we saw this year and in times when things are normal. “

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In an individualistic culture, the belief is placed primarily on individual needs like if you are poor, you are poor, you are on your own but in a collectivist culture, the belief is that there is Divine assignment of roles to the person that is wealthier than others and part of that is showing care and concern for people that are not as wealthy. It’s an unspoken expectation. So, if you drive a good car across the street of Lagos, people will greet you and say Happy weekend sir and that means you have to give them something, not that they are wishing you well but that will be very odd in a western environment. If you are driving in New York and someone says happy weekend, you will respond oh, I wish you same. But there is reciprocity if you live in a community and you make that a habit, what you then find is that the community protects you. So, it is a beautiful system and I think brands can use it. If brands are seen to be empathetic and benevolent towards their target consumers and communities, the consumers would reciprocate that behaviour.”

Citing Black Lives Matter protests, Frederick Borestrom said a lot of brands were quick to jump on that and express their support. “I think what the audience is expecting now is support and action like what are you doing to change systemic racism. So it is not enough to show your support on your social media channels, how would you change the make up of your executive team to accommodate more blacks? If you don’t, the consumers will call you out immediately. You need to be empathetic and show your support. Brands must walk the talk.

“Brands must also continuously tap into their audience or consumers and understand what their needs are. I think many brands don’t do enough of consumer interviews and research and make decisions that are data-driven and based on real data from the field, especially when planning and executing the global campaign.”

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The discussants also argued that brands must take trust in cognisance when deploying empathy marketing.

According to Jeremigbe, “the issue of trust is going to be built by what expectations are after you have taken that action of empathy. So, you sent out palliatives and sent billions to support COVID-19 and you are firing people, then consumers would think such a brand is not legitimate because whatever you are giving can be used at that time to pay those you said they should go.

“The actions must also be timely and strategy of ideas you are going to put out there must not look like you are trying to be an opportunist. It is a time to give genuinely without expectations. And you will reap in future when people begin to do an association with your brand.” she said.

Borestrom, on his part, said that trust is built in drops and lost in buckets. “Brands must be consistent for a long period of time. A single mistake can affect trust. People are more cynical than they used to be.”

Olubodun advised organisations to “structure themselves to habitually doing good. They must put a budget around it. I think it goes beyond CSR programmes because CSR programmes are part of marketing. We are talking of stuff that can be done at community levels.”

Jeremigbe also noted that brands should strategically do with smaller things that can reach consumers like a staff bus conveying stranded people on roads. “The big ones are good, but if it doesn’t reach the ordinary man, you are not doing enough,” she said.

IAA was founded in 1938 aimed at bridging gaps in marketing and communications space.

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