How and why great brands practice consumer empathy

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image via Fast Company

The crux of the argument that made Simon Sinek famous was that the best brands don’t primarily communicate the what of their business, they communicate the why. Well, today Fast Company broke down the “eight rock-star brands” who absolutely killed it in 2013 and left readers with little suspicion that these brands wouldn’t do the same or better this year.

And why did they excel in 2013? According to the article,

It used to be that a successful brand conveyed authority and reliability (think General Motors or IBM); now it’s all about empathy. Technology used to attract us through specs and features; today it has to enable an experience. Even our perception of what makes a product valuable has shifted, to the point where a brand-new sound system or a dress like the one on the magazine cover is actually less desirable than something with a strong story attached.

To enable a successful brand, those in charge must ensure its customers perceive the brand as one that has the customer’s direct needs in mind. For the consumer, the brand must now answer, Why should I care? We’ll talk about six of the brands profiled in the article, and I suggest you click on over to Fast Co. and read the full article for yourself.

Nest & Uber. The first two brands from Fast Comany’s list didn’t necessarily fix problems. They fixed experiences, and ones that have been consistently broken for some time. Answer this question: What’s enjoyable about setting your thermostat or hailing a cab? Just thinking about doing either probably conjures feelings of doubt (Am I wasting money?) or dread (What will this ride be like?). Neither technology is particularly earth-shattering, and alternative abound in both spaces. But each was designed, not for the purpose of creating a technology that fits a practice, but with the goal of making the users’ experience better.

Birchbox & Quarterly.co seek to take back shopping for the shoppers. Why? Shoppers are tired of manufactured loyalty. Loyalty isn’t something that can be activated by getting a card and is not demonstrated by making a purchase. Loyalty is granted by the customer, and in a marketplace that is soulessly transactional, customers need to know there’s more happening between the retailer and themselves.

Moto X. I wrote about this over at businessngifs, and the phone baby of the Motorola and Google marriage couldn’t be more representative of Sinek’s argument. While Apple and Samsung, to name just two, race to increase the perceived features benefit of their competing smartphones, Moto X actually went the opposite way, keeping their screen resolution to a simple 1280 x 720. While many have faulted this decision, “reviewers have been quick to point out that actually using the smartphone is a genuine pleasure, not because it revs faster, but because its interactions are so thoughtfully designed.” No one talks about screen resolution or processor speed at parties, but they will ask you to take a photo for them and expect you know how to use their phone. “For consumers, these developments suggest that GHz, DPI, and other metrics are increasingly taking a back seat to user experience.”

If you read Fast Company, you know how much they like J. Crew (read their profile of Jenna Lyons, for one). So, it should come as no surprise that the specialty apparel retailer should make this list. When you look at the story of J. Crew, you read in it an intense, even pervasive eye and ear for the consumer: forward-looking fashion that’s (mostly) accessible; customer service that prioritizes style over sale; a creative head (in Lyons) who appears to practice empathy across the board, from employee interaction and into the company’s design.

As cutting-edge as these companies appear to be today, it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be around in 10, 20, 50 years. This depends on several variables, none the least of which is the consumer’s sometimes wildly shifting sentiments. And, this means companies like these could be set up for long-term success, as long as they keep practicing what got them here in the first place: Empathy.

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