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Authentic Empathy

By Bob Priest-Heck

If you follow my blog posts, you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how leadership, in the best of times, demands integrity and authenticity. And in darker times, we also need to be mindful about meeting people where they are — especially if we know they are feeling threatened, frightened, or abandoned.

This has been a challenge for brand marketers who rely largely on mass media channels. One after another, brands with highly-targeted, award-winning campaigns have pivoted their messaging to something more pandemic-appropriate. It explains why we are seeing so many look-alike ads on TV these days — with meditative piano music, stirring images, and a trusty voice over assuring people that “Brand X is here for you.” The intentions are sound, but it starts to feel generic.

There’s got to be a better way — one that’s brand-authentic while still being empathetic. This timely Progressive Insurance ad gets my vote for best-of-season, because it is 100 percent on-brand and stays true to who they are.

Instead of playing the same sad tune as everyone else, they have a little fun by showing their quirky sales team experiencing the kind of epic Zoom fails that are emblematic of the new normal. With so many of us working from home, helping kids with distance learning, and wishing grandma happy birthday on Skype, it’s totally relatable. It’s funny. It creates empathy. The message is authentic.

We can all learn from this as we plan how to move forward, especially those of us in the live events industry. Regardless of whether we all meet in a conference hall, connect via streaming digital, or interact using a new hybrid platform, we need to approach people with empathy and authenticity. We have to acknowledge that they have experienced many, many changes in the last few months. And we have to be honest about setting expectations for even more change as we learn to interact in ways that are socially responsible and that mitigate contagion. Ultimately, it’s change for the better. But we are growing weary of constant change.

That’s why we need to lean into the one thing that shouldn’t change — who we are and what we stand for. If people trusted you before the pandemic and you have stayed true to your core brand values, they will trust you going forward. So ask yourself how can I, my brand, my company, my business, my association, solve some of the problems my customers are grappling with? How can I make them glad they chose to work with us? What gesture of appreciation can I offer them, beyond mere platitudes? Start with authenticity: say what you mean and act on it. That’s all any of us really want.

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