How Empathy Can Fuel Innovation and Business Growth

Aug 5, 2021

We hear a lot about empathy in business today. From Microsoft in technology to PepsiCo in consumer packaged goods, many executives have been pointing out the importance of empathy and ways in which empathy and business growth are complementary. 

On Empathy & Innovation

“Empathy makes you a better innovator. I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes with the ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Empathy supercharges creativity and innovation.  Being able to accurately imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling allows you to more fully understand the need(s) and anticipate and understand the need(s) in ways that person may not be able to express. And allowing yourself to feel distressed by their pain ensures that their need(s) will remain in memory as you create and develop solutions. 

The connection between innovation and empathy is backed by data.  Herd and Mehta (2018) show that if you ask one group of people to imagine how a product user will interact with and think about a product, but you ask another group to imagine how a product user will feel while using the product, both groups will come up with more useful ideas than a group that does not consider the user. But the group that imagines feelings will come up with ideas that are more original.   

As these authors demonstrate, imagining how the user will feel creates empathetic concern that in turn creates cognitive flexibility.  The higher the empathetic concern the higher the cognitive flexibility and greater the ability to imagine solutions and outcomes that differ from the norm.  

On Empathy & Brand

“I’m a firm believer that empathy has become the new brand mandate, especially in light of this pandemic.”

Greg Lyons, CMO for PepsiCo Beverages North America

Empathy also supercharges relationships, solidifying and deepening them, ensuring they feel collaborative rather than transactional and personalized rather than generic.  In today’s world, brands must engage with the people they serve in authentic and reciprocal ways – in true relationship.  Brands are increasingly expected to play a role in making the world a better place.  These expectations make empathy key to brand-building and growth. 

As Greg Lyons, PepsiCo Beverages NA CEO, pointed out last year, empathy also helps marketers avoid over-indexing on performance metrics and data to the detriment of making people’s lives better. 

Today, insights professionals use different types of research to investigate how the people who buy and consume their products and services think and feel.  Some of these approaches, such as ethnography, focus groups, 1:1 interviews or certain biometrics, can provide substantial depth in understanding people’s pain points, needs and motivations, but can be costly and time consuming or are heavily dependent on the skills of the observer or moderator.  Other approaches such as AI or ML algorithms applied to big data can provide more breadth and scale but can lose the human plot line when results are aggregated for reporting purposes.  And surveys, an industry workhorse, may not always reveal a full picture of subconscious motivations. 

What we need to fuel our empathy for the people whom we build products and services are additional new or mixed methodologies that turn the tradeoff between holistic depth or broad generalizability into an “and” from an “either/or” decision. At GutCheck we’ve been rolling out solutions that turn “either/or” into “both/and” for a couple of years now. One of our first research solutions in this empathetic vein was Audience Illuminator, a profiling and audience-understanding solution, that yields marketing insights, recommendations, and guidance that slots directly into a creative brief.  By combining survey data, connected big data, and AI algorithms applied to open-ended responses to automatically detect personality traits and identity needs, we provide a deeper, more holistic view of people as people – at lower cost and in substantially less time than the most commonly used alternatives.   

Our recently released Innovation Illuminator product also falls into this “and” category.  It’s a “qual at scale” approach that uses Hybrid NLP applied to a range of data sources such as product reviews, social media posts, forum or community discussions, focus group or IDI transcripts, marketing materials, and more to go beneath the surface of basic sentiment (beliefs or judgments) to detect a range of specific emotions about people’s experiences using a product, service, or brand or about their journeys along the way.  By digging into emotions like love, delight, frustration, anger, desire at the product attribute level, we help clients identify innovation opportunities so they can build breakthrough products that help people make progress and improve their lives.   

At GutCheck, we think of ourselves as Empathic Explorers – progressive, open-minded individuals who actively engage with people and put forward bold ideas to drive innovation and growth.  Whether it’s a better experience for our clients, new approaches that bring depth and breadth of insights and actionability, or new technology or applications of technology to increase the speed to action, we believe empathy for others is good for brands, good for innovation, and good for business. 

Interested in learning more about how empathy can drive better innovation? Drop us a note here. 

Written By

Renee Smith

Renee Smith

Chief Research Officer

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