Why has 'Empathy' become the word of the moment?

However disingenuous some of us may feel about blatant brand opportunism, b(r)andwagoneering, and somnambulist wokeness currently on exhibit, as an industry we have now suddenly become empathy crazed. Why is that, and why has it emerged as the marketing buzz word of 2020?

As evidence, searches of the term have risen +10,000% over the past six months. It's not like it's a newly formed word or an obscure word only found in crossword puzzles. At any given point in history, there have always been copious examples of both empathy and the lack of it.    

In our Digital Society Index at dentsu, it's interesting to note that this is the first time the majority of people globally have agreed that more active empathy should be used to challenge discrimination. The balance has now shifted to active support and engagement from the previous passive agreement.

So where was everyone last year, or for that matter their whole lives? There is, in my opinion, an underlying societal insight that helps answer why it's in such focus now.

I believe it's based on the continued proliferation of technology which has driven greater democratisation of information and influence. This has meant that traditional hierarchical relationships or powerbases are now more distributed, more democratic, more open, more scalable and more transparent in some instances.  

Instead of top-down, uneven inequalities and control of sources of information and authority of narrative, there is now a visible imperative to see other points of view, have a greater understanding of others, and to act with greater empathy and openness.   Practising empathy requires greater intuition of one's surroundings and the impact an individual or group makes on others. Intuition and empathy go hand in hand. It's something that is primarily learnt; it's not a scientific application. We are all learning to become more empathetic as we shift to more distributed forms of influence, to understand multiple viewpoints.

This is why I think traditionally females (mothers), the disadvantaged and marginalised have always been more empathetic, more nurturing and more intuitively sensitive to their surroundings than those in power (primarily males).  As French philosopher Michel Foucault famously stated, power is an antithetic that tends to numb people from feeling empathy.

Within established social constructs she/her/disadvantaged have historically had to live and operate within male-dominated hierarchies or fear the very real trade-off between of force for compliance. Traditional states and institutions are, in some part, based on this same premise. They have emulated and re-imagined these same power structures described above as established ways of doing things — the 'establishment'. And therefore, the establishment is now being critically questioned, scrutinised and dismantled through the lens of actively trying to create a more empathetic world. We now have the ammunition and transparent evidence to do this. I also believe this is a contributing factor to the polarisation of “the culture wars.” The old establishment who want to continue with the status quo and those who want to create real and pragmatic change in the name of inclusivity.

And at the heart of our industry, this is a real double-edged sword. Technology has enabled more transparency and has democratised influence at scale and connected shared mindsets whilst at the same time being guilty of reinforcing and firing the flames of polemics ('#worst' vs '#best'). It has also unleashed rising tide of lies, disinformation, and falsehoods.In this post-truth world where the inauthentic becomes authentic, the copy and simulation of reality, where 'fake' news is the news, and its 'credibility' relative to preference, empathy stands as an incredibly important tool.

Maybe even vital.

Empathy allows us to be more self-reflective of our impact on others; it helps us to be more understanding of differing points of view. Empathy allows us to step outside our own echo chambers.  Because empathy will enable us to continually reframe perspectives to gain multiple viewpoints, it has almost become an essential tool to help practice common decency, mutual respect, and open dialogue against a backdrop of increased volatility and uncertainty.

Indeed, empathy has always been a prerequisite to delivering consumer centricity in our industry. But there now feels like real intent for even for the most established and traditional brands to better define their relationships based on what people want, not just what brands think people want.

I'm truly excited to see how far we can continue to push empathy forward.

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