The power of ‘active empathy’ in brand strategy and innovation

The power of ‘active empathy’ in brand strategy and innovation

Over the many years of working on brand strategy and innovation, we’ve learnt that the closer we get to the true consumer experience of a brand or a product, the better our understanding and the better the final result of our work.

I recently took part in an IDEO U course on Insights Behind Innovation. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with some great minds from around the world and crack some of the biggest issues of the day. The biggest take-out for me was just how important ‘Active Empathy’ is in the generation of true and usable insight behind innovation and brand strategy. 

‘Active Empathy’ is about more than reading reports, meeting consumers or conducting forms of product use and purchase ethnography. It is about getting as close as possible to the real life of the consumer and doing what they do:  buying the product, opening the product, using the product, disposing of the waste and talking about the product. It quickly sets the brand or product into the wider context of a real consumer’s life, and throws up insights about improvements and adaptations.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working on projects ranging from bringing sustainable thinking to financial services, increasing veg sales in Europe and bringing nutritious food to the US Deep South. In all cases, some of the biggest ‘a-ha’ moments came from literally being a consumer of the product. This gives a uniquely sharp focus on whether a product or a brand is likely to succeed.  

And it all reminded me of the single day in which I learnt the most about branding. The day I worked for Pret A Manger behind the counter and in the kitchens. That should be the subject of another blog, but it was the very action of making the sandwiches, pouring the drinks and being in their team meeting, that open my eyes to why the brand and experience has been such a success over the past 20 years.

Such eyes-of-the-user experiences still seem to cut through the opinions and the conjecture of the grandest of board meetings. The experience of the consumer still has the ability to have us all stop and take note – even at the highest levels of any business.

So how has this re-revelation changed what we will do going forwards?

We will formalize the need for ‘Active Empathy’ in the Immersion stage of every project. We will be the consumer of our clients’ products for a day and buy them, eat them, use them, pay with them, drive them, fly them and read them. Whatever it takes to get the real consumer experience. The analysis of these experiences will power our thinking and enhance our strategies.

I would love to hear specific examples of how your version of ‘Active Empathy’ has powered insight that has led to significant brand or product changes.

The Herd

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