I remember sitting in a lecture theatre in the heart of Glasgow and being presented with several hypothetical situations, what would you do if ____, lots of unethical scenarios appeared before me. It felt somewhat random, strange, irrelevant – how is this going to help me be a great marketer? I thought.

During my time at Strathclyde significant emphasis was placed on the role of a marketer to work ethically. It was a core part of the curriculum. As a group, we discussed how we would deal with a number of compromising situations. Would you commission a significant piece of work from a successful and internationally recognised fast fashion brand knowing their business model has a negative impact on communities in developing countries and the planet? (No, I wouldn’t). They were probably some of our most impactful lessons. And with good reason they were woven into the course work.

To get deep and heavy on the topic, research suggests that societal ethics declined steeply between 1900 and 1980. Gradually, greed was glorified. Deception was accepted. Jordan Belfort convicted felon was an icon. You only have to watch an episode of Mad Men to understand how unethical industries like ours were. Yes, it’s only TV, but according to Andrew Cracknell author of The Real Mad Men, the reality is much closer than you think.

2020 was many things, if there are some positives to cling on to for dear life one of them is the shift in society’s ethical outlook. A consequence of this realignment is the empathy we feel for one another. Doctors, nurses, postmen, binmen are rightfully seen as the everyday heroes that keep civilisation functioning when crisis prevails. It was a mood felt in campaigns too, from smart brands who recognise the need to tap into the emotional state of consumers.

Two of the most memorable campaigns came from Nationwide Building Society and IKEA. Nationwide launched a series of moving TV adverts featuring real-life people. They told their stories of coping with lockdown and considered how life would be different in six months’ time. Our CRO, Collette, shared the ad shortly after it was released. Safe to say it struck a chord with us all.

IKEA captured a similar feeling with ‘Making Home Count.’ A film in celebration and appreciation of everyone staying at home. It captured little moments not to be taken for granted, encouraging everyone to make the most of this time with loved ones.

Then there was the well-thought-out gestures by the likes of eBay with ‘Up and Running’, gifting brick and mortar stores a free eBay shop account and Burger King, who encouraged customers to shop with independent competitors, in an attempt to support those feeling the impact of closures more severely.

And so, just as our capacity for empathy has been resurrected throughout one of the toughest years humanity has faced in modern history – it has never been more relevant when considering how you interact with consumers. We often refer to customer-centric business models, but what use is building a business around the needs of the customer if we cannot empathise with that individual?

Adobe’s annual 2021 Digital Trends report in partnership with eConsultancy, which surveyed more than 13,000 marketers and IT professionals around the world, identified empathy as a key component in the future of experience. I couldn’t agree more, how could it be anything less?

So, we know brands must be empathetic. But how can it become engrained into a team? Undoubtedly for brands to truly understand empathy, it must be an inherent part of their culture. Not only should it shape the way customers are viewed, but also colleague relationships. At Yard, we’ve created an environment where Yardies can be themselves. Not everyone has the same expertise, opinions or feelings. But that’s cool. It’s why we make a great team.

From a business perspective, an exercise that can help to understand consumers in this way is empathy mapping. Typically associated with UX, it’s a process that marketers often overlook. But can prove powerful in getting into the mindset of your audience. Having considered the tasks, influences, feelings, pain points and goals of your customer – you’re better placed to consider the user journey and in turn how you meet their needs. If you’re wondering where to start, a useful source is Paul Boag and his approach to this task.

As marketers, our responsibility is rooted in providing a solution to a problem. To understand that problem, we must be able to empathise with our audience – and that comes only from being able to hypothetically walk in their shoes.

Rona Leslie