The 4 Stages of Empathy: A Marketer’s Perspective

2020 may be behind us, but the effects of an unprecedented pandemic, social unrest and political changes will be felt for a long time to come.  Marketing has had to twist and turn with the quick pace of change and avoid the risk of seeming out of touch with their customers and target market.  Digital developments have replaced traditional options and accelerated innovation in the marketing space.  And reputation protection has proven a challenge for brands and businesses, both large and small.

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – has been an important tool for sales and marketing teams to remain relevant to their customers, but it has also evolved over the course of the past 8 months.  Marketers need to keep a firm finger on the pulse of their customers and prospects and ensure that messaging and methods are hitting the right beat.  So far, we have seen four stages evolve:


In the beginning of the shutdowns and restrictions, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.  No one really understood much about the virus nor could they predict the course the pandemic would take, both personally and professionally.  And with the pandemic, came an unprecedented view of social injustices that have long been in place, but were magnified by a global health crisis.  Brands who had pre-purchased advertising were running ads that seemed completely out of touch with the looming threat and the impact of public safety measures.  Wrinkle resistant pants were pretty far down the list of priorities of consumers for B2C marketers, and on the B2B side, things were a little worse, as sales teams continued to follow playbooks that were instantly irrelevant.

Eventually, marketers caught on, and brands and corporations began to better acknowledge the changing reality of their target markets.  But, simple acknowledgment, by removing or pausing advertising campaigns that did not fit the pandemic impacts, and subtle messaging around corporate responsibility to social issues, was not enough, and pretty quickly  empathy moved to the next level.

In This Together

Marketers quickly pivoted their messaging to position themselves on the side of the customer.  Large brands created new socially-distanced versions of their logos, the push to sales ceased in favour of altruistic statements of unity and sympathy.  Larger corporations were pushed to better define their purpose and position in the light of political and social upheaval, and to take actions to protect their workforces.  Working from home became the norm for many and professional attire was only required from the waist up.  With a lack of clarity on how things would unfold, marketers were forced to work in the moment and attempt to maintain awareness and connection with their clients.  

This stage of empathy lasted for quite some time.  Marketing departments were culled by most businesses, while they grappled with how to survive and how, and even what, they were selling.  Value propositions were reworked, operations were streamlined, cost-cutting measures were implemented and business models were shaken up.  But, as the sea of change rolled on longer than was comfortable, even this attempt at empathy grew stale.  Customers were frustrated and yearning for some normalcy, and marketers changed course again.

Back to Life, Sensitively

Everything old becomes new again, as marketing departments reboot campaigns developed in early 2020.  This time, the sales messaging returns, marketers try to position products and solutions as more essential to the needs of their customers, and advertising incorporates the visuals of the new normal.  Emphasis continues on upholding the reputational assets of corporations and providing consistent messaging around the role of the business in keeping all stakeholders safe and treated equally.  Sales departments resume cold calling and email prospecting with a nod to the well-being of prospects as the lead.

This stage is proving short-lived as the expectations of customers continue to shift rapidly.  Some marketers have remained here, waiting on the next big shift, listening to the industry chatter and trying to more accurately pinpoint the current needs of their customers.

Get Personal

Everything that marketing teams have been dealing with over the past year, and everything they have been learning about their target market, must come into play in the fourth stage of empathy in marketing.  Customers are not getting back to normal – they don’t even know what normal is or will be and there is no timeline to rely upon.  They have grown tired of stock placations, tired of the constant stress they are under, tired of adapting and just plain tired.  And each of them is dealing with a different set of circumstances unique to them, their business and their role.  Marketers need to speak to this, and data collected through these stages should give them the information they need to address the personal needs of their prospects.

This stage has always been on the evolutionary scale for marketing, but it has been accelerated exponentially by the strange events of the past year.  One to many marketing must shift to provide the same level of confidence as one to one.  And messaging must demonstrate a robust understanding of where your customer or prospect is in the moment.  Templated emails, scripted calls, and buyer personas are out of sync.  The empathy shown must resonate deeply to be effective.  It’s no longer good enough to understand the industry or the business, it is now important to understand the individual, their role and responsibility, and the new pains they are feeling in real time – and how your solution can ease the world for them.

Will there be a fifth stage?  Only time will tell.  Certainly the expectations of your prospects and customers have changed, perhaps for the long run.  For marketers, trying to get back on track in 2021, here are some specific areas of focus to think about in 2021 and beyond:

SEO: If you haven’t had effective, well-configured SEO as a core piece of your programming and campaigns before, it is even more important now.  Everything can be done online.  You need to know who is visiting, when they are visiting, what content is resonating and how your web assets are being used.

Content:  Original, authentic content that is well optimized and micro-segmented will yield the most promising lead results.  Remember that wide nets will not work now, personalization is the key.  Also, examine alternate options for delivering content based on your audience – audio, video and graphics may be better options than written content.

Email: Employ the KISS method and opt for frequency over volume.  Everyone has an overfull inbox these days, so give them exactly what they need and get rid of long-scrolling efforts to show your subject-matter expertise.  Assume they know you are the expert in the field (that’s why they subscribed), use email to show them you are an expert in their needs.  Micro-segmentation works here as well, so organize your lists accordingly.

Social: Be intentional and consistent.  This space is the top of the funnel, but based on personalized alterations down the pipeline, your social activity needs to be tightly tied to those goals.  Narrow the focus and create opportunities to converse and convert.

Lisa Denis, Mi6 Agency

Lisa Denis, Partner

Lisa Denis is a partner at Mi6 Agency. Mi6 is a B2B (Business to Business) marketing and business development agency dedicated to helping companies build their brands and develop commercial relationships. She is a winner of the 50 over 50 Entrepreneurs in Canada Award.