Can You Relate?

Empathy-based marketing requires brands get to know the people behind the data

By Matthew Schwartz

Stephan Schmitz/

Soon after the pandemic started in early 2020, PepsiCo introduced "Open Mic," an internal program that encourages the roughly 500 people on PepsiCo's marketing staff to gather for online powwows and share what's important to them other than their jobs. They're asked questions like what it is to be Black in America and what is it like to be LGBTQ+. Open Mic was inspired by "Human EYES," a series of one-to-one sessions via video chat in which reps from PepsiCo Beverages ask people about their worries, hopes, dreams, and what their typical day-to-day lives entail. Both programs illustrate how PepsiCo has started to thread empathy throughout its marketing activities.

"Empathy marketing goes a little bit deeper than understanding data and some behavioral changes," says Greg Lyons, CMO at ANA member PepsiCo Beverages North America. "It's what's happening with [people] outside of why they buy your product and how your product fits within their lives."

The traits associated with empathy — understanding others and looking at the world through their eyes — have been part of the marketing mix for years. Empathy marketing possesses many of the same characteristics as so-called customer centricity, or delivering products and services in ways that build trust and brand loyalty, as well as the customer experience. The common denominator among these terms is rapidly changing consumer expectations.

Even before the pandemic, marketers were scrambling for ways to connect with people on a more human level and be less in thrall to the analytics that dominate marketing strategy. But COVID-19 has dramatically altered the frame when it comes to how companies engage their audiences.

Indeed, 79 percent of Americans believe empathy is even more important because of the pandemic, according to a survey of 5,000-plus Americans conducted by PepsiCo and Ipsos.

"The Empathy Imperative: Consumer Perceptions On Brand Empathy Through a Pandemic," released in May 2020, also found that 86 percent of the respondents agree that if brands want to create greater loyalty, it's critical they show more empathy.

"Empathy is a muscle that we need to work every day," says Gina Fong, adjunct lecturer of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and principal at Fong Insight. "You can be empathetic today and then tomorrow, but if [marketers] don't keep practicing it, that muscle can atrophy."

Curiosity Is Key

At the heart of empathy-based marketing is the ability to listen to people. "Listening is not only a foundational skill … there is an art to it," Fong says. "The art is when you can listen with curiosity and not have an agenda, which is the hardest thing to do. When you come from a place of curiosity, it cracks open a world of understanding of what motivates consumers and how to anticipate their needs."

Listening closely to customers is a longstanding priority at retailer In the past 18 months the company has made a series of moves that demonstrate empathy marketing, says Ryan Olivieri, director of marketing at Zappos. This includes making the company's free UPS pickup for next-day returns available to all customers and launching its 30-day Runlimited Guarantee, which permits customers to return running shoes they may not like and get their money back so long as it happens within a month of purchase.

Empathy marketing transcends customer centricity by "finding things that others don't offer," Olivieri says. "We potentially take risks on our side just to make sure we're being empathetic toward customers because we get that, 'You bought running shoes, and they don't fit well, or you don't like them.' We want to be empathetic in that sense."

One of the primary ways the company gets to know its customers better is through Zappos' annual "Holiday Helper" fest. Under the program, which runs from October through early January, every employee, regardless of title, spends at least two hours in the company's call center to observe customer service reps and listen to the queries.

"Being on the front line enables you to get those micro pieces of feedback," Olivieri says. "If there are common pain points, we take them back — it doesn't matter if it is just anecdotal, we take it very seriously — and try to change what we're doing according to that."

Empathy Gap

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, just 43 percent of Americans described society as empathetic, according to the PepsiCo-Ipsos survey. That percentage jumped 50 percent amid the pandemic, which still leaves a significant empathy gap.

The most effective ways for brands to show empathy is to treat consumers with respect (56 percent) and to treat them like a human being (50 percent), the survey says.

"As we went down this data and performance marketing journey we really needed to prioritize empathy and understand the human beings behind the data," PepsiCo's Lyons says.


Top 5 Ways Brands Can Show Empathy to Consumers

source: 2020 "The Empathy Imperative: Consumer Perceptions On Brand Empathy Through a Pandemic" from PepsiCo Beverages North America via Slideshare

In addition to bolstering communications both internally and externally, empathy is also helping to inform PepsiCo's advertising campaigns.

Take "The Mess We Miss," which debuted last May. Set to the tune of "Tomorrow" from the Broadway classic Annie, the spot portrays an optimistic future where people can return to some of life's most enjoyable and often messy moments, such as passing along a hot dog while sitting in a packed ballpark or letting loose in a crowded karaoke bar.

An empathetic approach to marketing is also spurring product innovation at PepsiCo. Driftwell, an enhanced water drink designed to help people relax before bed, was introduced in 2020 and made available in grocery stores earlier this year. The drink, which contains 200 milligrams of L-theanine, an amino acid that's found in green and black teas and some mushrooms, is positioned as a way for people to deal with all the disruption caused by COVID-19.

"The data said that there was a need for energy, but the nuance of what was behind that need for energy — and why people were tired — was that people weren't getting enough sleep because they were stressed out" due to the pandemic, Lyons says. "That was a nugget we really got from talking to consumers one-on-one."

Empathy is driving brand actions for PepsiCo, too. One example is Dig In Day, a celebration of Black-owned restaurants and chefs that took place November 6.

Part of a broad-reaching initiative to drive $100 million in sales for Black restaurateurs over the next five years, Dig In Day was promoted through various channels, including, a website to make it easy for people to find Black-owned restaurants and earn rewards, and, which offers restaurant owners templated brand materials to boost their marketing and social media efforts.

"You can be customer centric and not be practicing empathy," Lyons says. "If you don't really understand what's going on in [people's] lives I don't think you have true empathy, and your marketing is not going to be as effective."

Aligning to Consumers' Agenda

Dirk Herbert, chief strategy officer at dentsu Americas, an ANA member, says that many of the best practices associated with empathy marketing have been around for some time, but have now moved from being a "brand differentiator" to the cost of entry.

"Empathy marketing is understanding that, rather than making consumers conform to a brand's agenda, it is more productive, powerful, and profitable to help brands align around the consumer's agenda," says Herbert, whose clients include GM, Intel, and Subway. "It's embracing the fact that the role of marketing has fundamentally transformed from a focus on changing consumer behavior to suit the brand to a mandate to change brand behavior in service of the consumer."

Herbert points to dentsu's collaboration with the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters to produce original content for the "More Than That with Gia Peppers" audio series, which ran early this year.

Created for Black audiences and distributed exclusively by underrepresented businesses, the nine-part series tackled inequities in the advertising supply chain and provided a way for brands such as GM, Kroger, and P&G to weave their own content into the program.

"That's a perfect example of brands integrating themselves — and their DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) agenda — into a content offering that resonated very strongly with Black-American audiences," Herbert says, adding that participating brands saw an average 19-point lift in brand consideration and a 12-point spike in brand innovation. "We also found that the series had significant cross-over appeal with general population audiences who appreciated brands supporting the raising of diversity voices."

As empathy marketing becomes more pronounced, Fong stresses that CMOs must be careful not to confuse empathy for sympathy.

"A lot of times [marketers] mistakenly sit in the area of sympathy, and think that's empathy," she says. "The distinction is that sympathy is still at arm's length — 'I recognize you're going through something and, wow, that's really bad' — [but] to get to true empathy, you're actually feeling it and can relate to the other person."



You must be logged in to submit a comment.