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Is it More Important for Brands to be Empathetic or Authentic?

Vijaya Varilly

FleishmanHillard’s Authentic Insights: The Culture Gap 2022 unpacks a new generation, Generation Divided, to help brands and businesses understand how to bridge today’s cultural divide. What we uncovered was that people aren’t just divided within communities; they are divided within themselves.They are struggling to be honest with themselves, feeling a disconnect between what they’re told to care about versus what they truly care about. And, they’re not even sure how they want brands to show up to actively support them. Our research revealed that the proportion of people who believe brands should be ‘bold and brave’ versus ‘sensible and conservative’ was almost split equally; it’s no wonder that brands and organisations aren’t always sure how to make positive steps forward. 

From Woke to Wake-Up

In order to understand how these divides surfaced, we need to understand the cultural context. For starters, it’s clear that we are very much in the centre of a woke war – some say we are living in a “political correctness gone mad” world, others believe being hyper culturally sensitive is for the greater good. Whatever side of the coin you lean towards, what’s been interesting in this journey of exploration is how language and concepts change, evolve and even dilute as time goes on. People start to interpret or even reimagine culture completely; and this continues to cause divisions in our society.

While more than three in four (79%) agree that brands should be conscious of the language they use to engage with different communities if we are to progress, the majority agreed that convoluted concepts, or hyper-language, can actually be more divisive. We can all agree that it’s positive for society to wake-up to cultural issues. Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to sound smart, and spoke in simple terms, where authenticity can no longer be compromised.

Is Authenticity Compromised in a Cancel Culture Climate?

Where it gets interesting is when you think about the conversations and debates around authenticity. Marketers preach about being authentic in comms all over the globe and we celebrate opinions from all backgrounds, yet there is still a “treading on eggshells” mentality that we uncovered. That creeping feeling that saying or doing the wrong thing could result in being cancelled.

"76% agree that brands should be conscious of their language when communicating to different communities, but on the other hand we’re seeing that 60% believe they are compromising their true selves by being too politically correct."

This mentality has been heightened by the fact that we’re seeing outdated traditions and shifting ideologies emerge: 62% think home ownership is no longer a strong signal of prosperity and adulthood as it was in the past; only half of people surveyed think that monogamy will still be the norm in 20 years. Ideologies and social structures that seemed irrefutable have started being challenged from every direction. With these new perspectives comes a new set of expectations, where people expect brands to step up and brand “story-act” versus just brand “story-tell”.

Is it more Important for Brands to be Empathetic or Authentic?

The challenges of brands trying to “story-act” versus just “story-tell” are compounded by our global economic struggles. What we’re seeing is that people and communities (at the bare minimum) expect empathy from brands. It’s not just about how we target, talk and sell to consumers anymore. Consumers are real people, who are sitting on a vulnerability scale, lost and in need of support. They require active solutions that contribute to their everyday lives, not endless and costly product upgrades and empty campaigns that have no impact. We’re seeing that, in fact, brands can win more in this space by helping people view adversity through a new, positive lens.

"While 67% of respondents wanted brands to be empathetic, 78% felt being authentic was even more important."

However, empathy can only take brands so far. Empathy undoubtedly creates a stronger and deeper connection; it humanises relationships and can cultivate loyalty and community.  But applying empathy alone to real-life struggles, tragedies and conflict will not cut it. Do we as a society think it’s enough to just put ourselves in the shoes of someone who needs our help to make a difference? In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen artist Ye (Kanye West) come under fire for his continuous antisemitic hate. Does just remaining empathetic towards the Jewish community feel like the right course of action? Surely not. Yes, empathy can and does convert to positive action, in the latter example, we saw that eventually brands cut ties with Ye; but sitting on empathy alone signals care, but not correction. And correction is what we need in a generation that is divided by just about everything.

This is where authenticity takes centre stage. It may have become a buzz word we use time and time again in our comms, but there is no greater example of trust and active change when you live and breathe what you preach authentically. And, our research aligned, although 67% of respondents wanted brands to be empathetic, 78% felt being authentic was even more important.

Why? Because being authentic is a commitment to making long-term change, no matter how expensive or lengthy. Being authentic is unwavering, uncompromising and unstoppable; and those who are authentic never sit on the fence when something or someone (no matter how big or small) tries to interfere.

Authentic brands not only reject neutrality; they are brave and are active in their conviction behind their stance. They listen, probe and address societal issues so that communities become brand advocates, no matter what the potential commercial losses may be.

Ultimately, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and in this climate, we’re not always going to get it right. But, practicing empathetic action while prioritising authenticity gives brands a fair start, and one they can continue with towards the goal of one day uniting us all. Who knows, next year we might uncover Generation United.

Vijaya Varilly, Head of Youth Culture & Partnerships at FleishmanHillard UK