The millennials and Gen Z hold the brands they favour to a much higher set of expectations. Not just in what they can deliver but what they actually stand for. For their part, brands must show they genuinely fit in with these expectations. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sixty-three per cent of people believe their actions — from participating in boycotts to speaking out on social media — can influence what a brand says and does. Eighty-three per cent of millennials want to buy from companies that reflect their beliefs and values. And 74 per cent expect brands to take a stand on the issues that matter to them.

That’s why movements, such as the Global Climate Strike, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have compelled marketing and communications departments to link brands and corporate reputations with a certain cause. But should brands draw the line when it comes to divisive social issues that have staunch advocates at either side of the argument?

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Taking sides

Should brands be taking sides? Is it wise to appear trying to cash in on social movements sparked by circumstances such as social unrest or political decisions? Is it responsible?

Does it make commercial sense in a long-term? And how authentic or contrived a brand’s involvement in a social issue could be perceived potentially?

Brands should not be deciding who is right and who is wrong. Moral or immoral. Ethical or unethical. Instead, they should stay neutral and unbiased. Unless, that is, they truly live and breathe the values they purportedly support.

When this is the case, the only way brands can express their unwavering, long-standing values, and truly connect with like-minded consumers and other stakeholders is through social media, where much of the conversation around divisive social issues takes place.

Put it all out

This is where users freely express their opinions, without any sugar-coating or inhibitions. Raw and uncensored, true feelings of love or hate surface online to unite or divide, praise or vilify, defend or condemn.

This is where people, and brands, can showcase their ability to understand others, share their feelings and offer help. When companies and organisations not just preach, but also practice empathy, they commit to understanding people and connecting with them emotionally.

Digital empathy is a communications approach that uses digital technology to understand and respond to people’s values and priorities through shared content and experiences.

Keep hearing

The first step towards digital empathy is listening. This process requires an ability to connect the big picture with small details through constant analysis of social media conversations, online news and search patterns to identify issues that matter to stakeholders. It is also important to identify the key influencers of the discourse and what they’re sharing.

Tied to a greater cause

The second step towards digital empathy is integration. Companies and organisations look at their purpose through the lens of stakeholder needs and values. It is important to develop a narrative that explains the value they offer and how they benefit the world.

Communications objectives should be defined and aligned with organisational values and objectives. Full integration calls for companies and organisations to upskill and empower their employees. Use digital learning to help employees master new skills.

Provide empathy training and reward emotional intelligence. Activate leaders and employees as brand ambassadors and thought leaders.

The third step towards digital empathy is sharing. Companies and organisations move from user experience (UX) to human experience (HX) to communicate values, meaning and purpose. They should also build and empower omnichannel communities.

Encourage user-generated content and co-creation to build trust. Use videos, podcasts and augmented reality experiences to create an emotional connection.

A higher value proposition

The fourth step towards digital empathy is evaluation. Companies and organisations should align their communications measurement and evaluation to the Barcelona 3.0 Principles.

They should also do everything they can to create a learning culture. Break down departmental and data silos. Empower teams to run weekly experiments and fail forward.

Questions like ‘Why?’, ‘So what?’ and ‘Now what?’ can help drive insights for visual reports and strategy development. Companies and organisations should go further in combining empathy with data science to anticipate the future.

Predictive analytics can help brands adapt to evolving needs and issues. It can also help brands to connect with people through a crisis.

Digital empathy can help companies and organisations build trust and drive emotional connection. It can also accelerate performance and drive real-world outcomes.

- George Kotsolios is Managing Partner at Leidar MENA and author of ‘Back to the Future of Marketing: Provolve or Perish’. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios.