Balancing creativity and data to tackle brand empathy

By Chris Loy, CTO and co-founder of AI marketing company, Datasine,

shares his views on why brand empathy is 2020’s most crucial characteristic of a brand and why data needs to be the driving force behind it

When it comes to important characteristics of a brand, nothing has played a more fundamental part during 2020 than brand empathy. February saw life as we knew it put on hold by the Covid-19 global pandemic, shifting perceptions and priorities of the general public as we ditched office life, isolated away from friends and family and showed our unwavering support for our dedicated NHS staff and frontline workers. This was followed shortly after by the tragic killing of George Floyd, sending shockwaves across the globe and sparking the biggest civil rights movement of a generation. Both of these key events have impacted our purchasing decisions and have shone a light on brands that may not be doing enough to show authentic empathy with their target market.

At Datasine, we were curious to find out more about how brands have managed to show empathy with their customers during these uncertain times and the challenges they have come up against. Our research, conducted by Sapio, covers 250 senior marketing professionals and shows that, while most brands want to be more empathic to social change and global issues affecting customers, many have struggled to respond empathically to these recent events. According to the research, 81% of respondents claim to have adapted their marketing due to Covid-19 but 60% found it difficult to display appropriate empathy when doing so.

The importance of empathy as a brand characteristic is a knock-on effect from consumers being constantly bombarded by marketing communications. This oversaturation of messaging means individuals no longer want to feel they are being ‘sold to’ and instead search for a deeper connection, built on trust and relatability of a brand. This means that brands are constantly searching for creative ways to connect with their target market. Creativity has traditionally been the leading force of empathetic branding. Whether it’s from a communication seen earlier today or even from our childhood, the creative element is ultimately what is imprinted in our memory.

However, brands cannot simply rely on creative alone. Our research shows that the two most common barriers stopping brands from responding faster and more effectively to change are the inability to measure and analyse sentiment, and a lack of knowledge around how to use data to predict the success of future campaigns, both at 38%. This indicates the importance of applying data to steer creativity.

There is a distinct danger of making sweeping changes in turbulent times. As tempting as this may be, it can be detrimental to a brand’s reputation and future prospects. 2020 has meant that companies from a range of sectors have been faced with making critical judgement calls in never before seen conditions, a challenge that has no clear comparison in the history of branding. This means it can be easy for brands to get it wrong.

The fact is that overwhelmed consumers going through unprecedented emotional distress have a long memory for how brands react in the moment. While brands don’t want to be seen as ignoring significant social issues, they should take a considered approach, based on reliable data. Digital marketing demands instantaneous responses to issues playing out across the world. This requires marketing professionals to use data to adapt their creatives, message, visual and textual content on a continual basis, in line with changing audience attitudes. And while marketing is primarily a creative industry that looks for innovative ways for brands to reach out and connect with consumers, data has always played a key role in this equation.

It is all about finding the right balance – for example, an over reliance on data can end up with a very narrow brief with little room to play as a creative. However, when used properly, data and insight can offer a useful framework for focusing a brief, leading to much better creative results.

Understanding customers’ new-world views is an ever-changing process. I recently spoke at a roundtable event with Nisa Bayindhir, Exec VP Behavioural Science at Pulsar, who made an interesting point on this subject:

Chris Loy
Chris Loy

“When it comes to AI or any other mechanical method of data interpretation, it is important to remember that nothing is as powerful as the human brain (yet). We will never be as smart as the collective consumer consciousness, which is alive, creative, and cultural. Marketers must remain on top of it and keep listening to it. Consumer behaviour is fluid – it doesn’t just sit there and wait for us to analyse it, nor does it remain stagnant when the door is closed on it. While AI gives us the means to analyse consumer behaviour, interpretation needs to be something that is constant and human, in order to truly monitor how consumers are evolving and responding to the world around them.”

So, the solution is twofold: without the use of data, marketing can become detached from its purpose, but we also need the human touch of creativity to ultimately reach out and make that connection. Data analytics offer the capability to connect business and consumer, in a way that delivers value to both sides. And while data is the voice of the customer, the real magic of authentic brand empathy can only happen when brands respond to what the customer is saying through creative marketing.

There is a critical need for marketers to work closely with data scientists and experts to fully understand how to get the most out of their data. When it comes to using data, it is clear from our findings that marketing professionals are unsure which metrics to identify to best predict success, as well as feeling they lack the ability for sentiment analysis. Looking ahead, only 1 in 5 marketers (20%) have complete confidence in their organisation’s ability to use AI for decision making.

This is why it is crucial for brands to access the correct tools, as this is how they will find the answer and insight needed to respond quickly and accurately. AI is one type of technology that is great at pulling these kinds of insights out of data that brands are already sitting on. Marketers see the value of AI in terms of real time analysis and the ability to facilitate critical decisions – with two in five marketers heralding AI for bringing about faster decision making (43%) and improved analytical capabilities (42%). According to our research, 97% of marketing professionals believe AI plays a crucial role in helping to improve their marketing performance.

In order to respond rapidly and empathetically to social issues, a brand must have confidence in its ability to try new ideas. Having access to good quality data makes this an easier process for brands in a business context. By using AI and data analytics, brands are able to test and analyse new ideas prior to sending out the communication, offering marketers more scope for experimentation. Traditional methods of testing, such as focus groups and A/B tests are extremely time consuming in comparison and can cause delays on a brand finding its voice during a time sensitive conversation. Whereas by harnessing today’s AI technology, brands are able to respond in close to real time, with confidence in their communications. Brands that engage in effective use of AI will be the ultimate winners.

While brands may have struggled to respond quickly and empathetically to recent social issues, they have been given time since to reflect on the challenges they faced and make changes in their strategies, investing in the right technology to help mitigate any future issues. Making the investment into data analytics technology and AI has become more of a prerequisite going forward and marketers are recognising the time and costs saving this brings with it. Just as important though, is to invest in creativity and although finding the balance between the two may be a shaky process, the ultimate pay off is too valuable to ignore.