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Getting to Know You: Employing Empathy to Holistically Understand Your Consumer

To understand consumers holistically, we must look at a variety of contexts with their corresponding behaviors, cognitions, and emotions, as well as overall values and goals

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas Series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Katja Cahoon will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 12-14 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX NA. Click here to learn more.

By Katja Cahoon

Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide[1]. What does this shocking statistic bring to mind? Probably well-established images and associations with PTSD, reintegration struggles, and lack of support for our veterans. What kind of veteran do you picture? A young, Iraq/Afghanistan vet? Actually, 65% of suicides are committed by vets that are 50 years and older. That means we are mostly talking about long neglected Vietnam War veterans, who also struggle more with homelessness.

What about a completely different insight? Veterans are 45% more likely to start a business than people with no active duty military experience[2]. Is this something you knew? Something that neatly fit into your view (stereotype) of veterans? Despite their struggles, veterans are incredibly resourceful, resilient, and persistent.

My point here is that isolated facts and insights can make us miss the whole story and prevent us from developing a true, deep understanding of all aspects of consumers. They can also feed into existing, and sometimes damaging, biases and stereotypes (e.g., about the danger of people with PTSD or other types of mental illness). True cognitive empathy requires the whole story – a person’s struggles and challenges, their strengths, their goals, dreams, and the contexts in which they operate.

Cognitive empathy is the mostly conscious drive to recognize and understand another’s emotional state. This is sometimes called “perspective taking.” It is different from compassion (concern or pity for the suffering or troubles of other people). And empathy is not just necessary in difficult situations or circumstances, it is always necessary. A lack of true empathy is behind quite a few communication and product failures – they simply missed the mark because they did not truly understand consumer reality.  Misunderstandings and judgements can arise and lead to a lack of empathy when looking at consumers as one-dimensional beings, instead of seeing them holistically and with an understanding that consumers, and indeed all of us, consist of many selves.

For example, what comes to mind when I tell you (as you probably know) that Millennials don’t save enough money? Well-established stereotypes about the “lazy, careless” Millennial? Apart from the fact that many Millennials face very real challenges when it comes to income, debt reduction, and saving another aspects comes to bear: Kahneman’s Experiencing and Remembering Self. The Experiencing Self might feel “as if they would be giving up their money to an elderly stranger.[3]”  Daniel Goldstein’s TED talk[4] about that topic is insightful for anyone needing to understanding long-term decision making, especially as it relates to money. Who wants to give their hard-earned money to an elderly stranger as opposed to getting the immediate gratification of spending it on us, in the here and now? Knowing this leads to more empathy and hopefully better, behaviorally grounded, strategies.

In my recent articles on bias and empathy  I reference the concept of multiple selves and the importance of being aware of the multiplicity of our existence, as opposed to focusing on one small aspect of consumers’ lives. In psychology and psychotherapy, the idea of multiple selves is well established. Our personality, our reality, our very lives have many different facets, which are influenced by different contexts and experiences. As such they lead to different needs, behaviors, emotions, cognition, and of course decisions, including purchase decisions.

The goal of multiplicity awareness is to avoid bias and develop greater empathy. We have already touched on the Experiencing and the Remembering Self. Another important aspect is the idea of the inner and outer self. Rather than judging consumers for having different inner (“true”) and outer (often idealized) selves we have to understand that how we appear to others is a crucial aspect of human behavior. To be part of and belong is a strong driver. To be cast out is a significant fear, indeed, it is one of the most evolutionarily ingrained fears of humans. We know that consumers overstate, for example, how often they wash their hands. Rather than accusing them of “lying” or judging, perhaps we have to assume that they believe this to be true and/or subconsciously want to convey that they belong (being seen as dirty is a big part of being/feeling like an outcast). Again, this calls for behavioral approaches and methodologies that go beyond what people say. Advertising very much taps into the idealized self, often in stereotypical ways. Dove’s Real Beauty and Image_Hack initiatives challenge the fantasy and validate that the ideal self is not attainable. That is empathy in action! As Cindy Crawford famously said: “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”

Perhaps even more important for the development of deep and empathy generating insights is a broader view of multiplicity, a true exploration of the multiple selves. “The self in independent cultures is far from being unitary, consistent, and separate from social context….social roles are undoubtedly an important component of the self…. For other people, self-aspects might also consist of goals (e.g., who I want to be), affective states (e.g., being moody), and behavioral situations (e.g., meeting new people).[5]

In order to understand consumers holistically, aka their many selves, we have to pay attention to five factors, context being key. Context has a major influence on which self gets activated and acts. Context can be physical, online, time of day, situational (e.g., vacation vs. daily routine), and role related (e.g., dad vs. co-worker), among others. Four other factors play a role:

  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Values & Lifestyle
  • Goals (conscious or subconscious)

Depending on which part of a consumer’s life is activated, different self-brand interactions or connections are formed. For example, Smartwater might be proudly displayed on one’s desk at work, in the gym or yoga class. The same consumer might prefer simple, filtered water at home because she does not care about the badge value and this fulfills her need for frugality – all these aspects are part of her. Buying life insurance is driven by a responsible, rational, long-term focused self, and often activated by very specific life circumstances that add or change an aspect of oneself (e.g., marriage, birth of a child, loss of a parent). This long-term self is in competition with the many short-term focused selves a person experiences throughout the day, which all take energy and focus (e.g., employee, wife, mom). Empathy for that can help insurance companies develop easier approaches to getting life insurance and develop milestones along the way that make it more tangible and provide some instant gratification.

Let’s illustrate this with one final example. In a CPG study consumers had two dominant selves, as well as a few less dominant ones. In this case, they expressed themselves as archetypes with different priorities, behaviors, and emotions. In Caregiver mode consumers were focused on efficiency, routine, and a sense of pride about how much they are able to accomplish. They used the product in a routine and habitual way and appreciated any innovation that helped them be faster while also enabling healthy behaviors. It was all about their kids and their significant others. But consumers, especially busy moms, are not just Caregivers, nor do they want to be stereotyped as such.

The second dominant archetypes was the Innocent – a childlike, worry free self. In that mode, they were playful and took time to experiment and do more unusual, less routine things with the product. They were having fun and took pride in being open-minded and creative. This was much more about and for themselves. You can easily see that the same product has two related yet distinct strategy options. And you can see how it relates to stereotyped or overused communication. So often moms are depicted as the traditional Caregiver. Activating another archetype that taps into a different territory can be powerful and validate that they are more than a person who cares for others.

How did we get there? By not focusing too narrowly onto just one aspect of the consumer but by looking at a variety of contexts with their corresponding behaviors, cognitions, and emotions, as well as overall values and goals. In short, we asked more and different questions. And that exactly will be part of my very interactive presentation about bias and empathy at IIEX. I will – literally – make you get up from your seats. Please join me!








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