By Martha Cotton
Society and companies have attempted to balance polarities for decades, but in recent years there has been a renewed energy around ethics. In the past year alone brands have struggled with ethics relating to social movements combating racial injustice and climate change; long-standing inequalities between rich and poor, old and young, men and women; and disparities that have been revealed by the pandemic hitting unevenly around the world.
People are increasingly interested in what companies stand for, and that affects how they decide who to work for, buy from, or engage with. Brands willing to stand behind a cause that jives with people's own beliefs will earn their loyalty and support, but it's impossible to align with everyone all the time. When a person or company aligns with a certain cause, they risk alienating people on the other side.
Organizations have to figure out how to handle polarizing narratives and which side of an issue, if any, they choose to support. It's about managing empathy. In the design industry, "design thinking" has long equated empathy with listening but that has told only a small part of the story, leading many to surmise that user testing is enough — that empathy is a task that can be ticked off a list.
Walking the Line
Empathy, however, is a way of behaving. Empathy should be actively and mindfully woven through each decision a company makes: how the brand contributes on important issues, how it treats employees behind closed doors, how it considers customers' whole context when shaping products and services, and how it communicates with people.
With social media being such a dominant force, people increasingly expect brands to use their platforms to address inequalities, to raise awareness of important causes, to use their voice on behalf of those whose own voice isn't being heard. But for every person who applauds such action, there's usually another who jumps in to criticize, so managing a brand's narratives demands care and courage.
Patagonia has always been a brand that navigates this challenge well. It clearly states its purpose, expresses its empathy as aligned to that purpose, and then, importantly, takes bold action to demonstrate that empathy. For example, the brand took a risk by sewing tags into its line of 2020 Road to Regenerative organic stand-up shorts urging customers to vote out politicians who ignore science and disregard the climate crisis. It's safe to assume that climate change deniers weren't among the brand's target audience in the first place, but the move showed Patagonia wasn't afraid of public debate, which surely strengthened ties with loyal customers.
Design and Communications: the Dream Team
That Patagonia example neatly shows an innovative and cohesive approach to behaving with empathy. In that case, the marketing team would likely have been working closely with the design team to shape a way to weave — figuratively and literally — the company's political stance into its product.
Companies whose marketing function isn't yet in the same room as the design team would be well advised to rethink the way they do things. By pulling different capabilities together, they can close the gap between what they say they believe in and how they do business in reality. One route is to make operational changes that embed customer experience in the fabric of every function, so that teams will move forward in sync to ensure that the values the company claims to hold are borne out through every element of their work.
What's the Story?
Stories have kept imaginations thriving forever, and now they are a key component of brands' relationships with customers. Stories are how a brand gives more of itself to people — how it shares its human, relatable side, and how it explains what it believes in and why.
Shaping stories in the 2020s demands a heightened awareness of not only the issues but also the ways in which people now absorb and share information. One of the dominant forces here, of course, is social media. Many people consider their social media platforms to be their own personal domain, and when they read a view that's very much at odds with their own, they may mute or remove that voice from their digital world to reduce their exposure to something they consider toxic. While understandable, the action creates an echo chamber, where a person's opinions and values are only reinforced by that self-curated network of social circles.
Brands must be careful not to let this happen in their official feeds. Dissenting voices, used respectfully, will push brands to continue assessing and validating the stances they take and the way they choose to express their values. Debate is good and healthy when done with respect, and it can reveal instances where a brand hasn't necessarily kept up with the way the world is moving on. Those that show the humility to acknowledge this and commit to positive change will likely earn more supporters than they would lose by staying stagnant.
Stories That Write Themselves
Accepting that there's enormous value in being vocal and active when taking a stance, there's another avenue that's equally important: letting empathy gently but unmistakably emanate from everyday behaviors. Habitually treating employees, customers, and suppliers with empathy means an organization's stories at least partially write themselves. In addition to this simply being the right way to do business, the benefits include the fact that those people will talk about being treated well — and they'll talk more loudly about being treated badly.
This is not something that can be achieved in a one-off project, a campaign, or an annual team-building event. Empathy should feature in every business decision, transaction, design conversation, story, and customer or employee experience.
About Author: Martha Cotton is the global co-lead of Fjord, Accenture Interactive's design practice. Accenture is a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.