Politics And The Power Of Empathy

Brands can learn a lot from politics. Back in the day, Karl Rove was touted as America’s greatest account planner, and President Obama showed us the power of micro-targeting. Most recently, President Trump demonstrated his command of the attention economy.

The 2018 midterms are shaping up as another great opportunity for marketers to learn from politics. When is playing to the base — or loyalists — most successful, versus expanding appeal? How effectively can young people be mobilized behind causes? What is the impact of provocation for gaining, versus losing, voters (aka customers)? How will micro-targeting be affected by concerns and changes regarding privacy?

Winning candidates will be successful at demonstrating empathy for their constituents. Both Obama and Trump have demonstrated the power of empathy versus opponents who tried to sell more detailed policy prescriptions: the rational argument.

While some may find it counterintuitive to associate our current president with empathy, the truth is, paying attention to a group that felt neglected amid the currency of popular culture helped cement his power. Have these people been overlooked by brand marketers, too?



The power of empathy is the great driver of success for brands. After all, the basis of empathy is understanding others. And when we start with the people we want to build a relationship with, genuinely understand their wants and needs, and provide what they find valuable, how can a brand not succeed?

Here are three keys to empathetic marketing:

Connect with deep-seated needs. Some years ago, I had the chance to work with Dr. Cloutier Rapaille, a French academic who applies structural anthropology and evolutionary psychology to marketing. Rapaille teaches that the fundamental motivations for human behavior are not rational, or even emotional. At base, they are biological.

In this, we see what Trump understands about his supporters. For them, he is satisfying an unmet, basic need: to feel strong and proud in a world where they feel left out or even undermined.

Donald Trump reminds us that people are people. And we can gain their vote or their business by appealing to base instincts — for better or for worse.

Earn interest. Today, power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side of media consumption. No longer can marketers rely solely on the power of a network or magazine to interest an audience. Not only do the products and services offered need to provide value, but so does the marketing itself. Both marketers and politicians benefit from providing some entertainment value. That is the price for earning interest today.  

Shift from a persuasion model to an empathy model. Today’s audience is no longer captive. They are selective. This requires a different orientation to marketing interactions — a shift from a persuasion model to an empathy model. This is a simple but powerful change in approach. Don’t start by asking how to get a target audience to think, feel or do what you wish. Instead, start by asking what you can offer them. Give in order to get. Isn’t that the basis of politics, too?

One of the most famous formulations in philosophy is from Kant. It’s called the categorical imperative: Treat each person not as a means, but as an end in themselves.

This is something brands can learn from. It’s why when you think about marketing, you don’t start by asking how you can persuade. Rather, you ask how you can empathize.
Whether politicians treat people as means or ends, I’ll leave for you to decide.

David Berne is EVP / Chief Strategy Officer at ad agency RPA.

1 comment about "Politics And The Power Of Empathy".
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  1. Craig Lesly from Lesly Consulting, October 31, 2018 at 3:06 p.m.

    The best player of the empathy-card was Slick Willie with his "I feel your pain" mantra.

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