The ABCs of Innovation: E is for Empathy

by Lou Killeffer

Empathy’s the “ability to understand and share the feelings” of someone else from their perspective as opposed to your own.

Hence the age-old instruction to refrain from passing judgement until you’ve “walked a mile” in the other guy’s shoes. The proverb warns us all away from the downside, suggesting that the opposite of empathy is prejudice – yet the upside of empathy is equally extraordinary. When you look, you’ll see its power every day in your own life. And in the context of innovation it’s absolutely critical – if all too often absent.

That’s because authentic consumer empathy, as an active presence in many corporations, is somewhat scarce today. This isn’t that hard to understand given that, in the main, a great many of the very smart, very well-intentioned executives in charge of marketing and innovation in large corporations can be – or can all too easily become- somewhat distanced, if not disconnected, from what’s really going on in the real world. From what their consumers experience day in and day out, and how significantly this drives their decision making and relationships with any product or brand.

That’s not to deny that companies spend extensively to study their consumers, tracking both their perceptions and behaviors. Virtually every brand and enterprise does to one degree or another. The issue remains, however, how consistently and deeply they dig, their corresponding depth of understanding, and what they then do as a result. How much they actually know about why their consumer is their consumer. Who else they might just as easily depart for, on which occasions, for what reasons, in response to what circumstances.

Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But isn’t the absence of consumer empathy the reason so many new products fail? Doesn’t it explain so much false innovation, those products predicated on what the company can bring to market rather than what the consumer seeks and cannot find?

Think so. Think it also shows both how self-evident and how remarkably challenging it is to achieve. It also shows the genius of a Steve Jobs who intuitively understood people, their experience, and the unmet desires they couldn’t even voice in their relationship with modern technology.

It’s how preferred brands become preferred. How they introduce products that warrant and command premium prices. And, how companies create and maintain loyalty as competitive advantage.

Embracing genuine consumer empathy is also the key characteristic of a consumer centric company.  (You’ll find the others here Defining-Characteristics-of-Consumer-Centric-Companies.) It’s the engine that drives vital and dynamic organizations that remain agile in the face of change. Learning organizations that proceed from the premise that the consumer comes first, last, and always in a rewarding, reciprocal relationship.

 How truly empathetic are you and your team? 

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Lou Killeffer is Editor-at-Large for Innovation Excellence, and Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

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