Claire Brooks on “Marketing with Strategic Empathy”: An interview by Bob Morris

Claire Brooks
is President and Managing Director of ModelPeople Inc.,a global consultancy offering branding insights and strategic solutions to international clients in categories as diverse as food, fashion and cars. Her global consulting firm developed the Strategic Empathy® framework and processes, which she has applied in over 150 successful projects for global corporations for over 10 years. Claire has almost 30 years’ experience in brand management, brand planning and strategic market research with Fortune 500 companies and advertising agencies in both Europe and the US.

Her book, Marketing with Strategic Empathy®: Inspiring Strategy with Deeper Consumer Insight, was published by Kogan Page (August 2016).

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Before discussing Marketing with Strategic Empathy, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

I lived all around the world as a child, in Africa, India and Europe, becoming what’s known as a Third Culture Kid, one brought up between multiple cultures who has to figure out how to navigate between different social norms and cultural perspectives. This gave me an inherent curiosity and desire to figure out what’s going on underneath the surface of human behaviour. I then studied literature, sociology and anthropology at Cambridge University in the UK, and learned the theories and frameworks to interpret the effect of social and cultural influences on how people think, feel and behave. I outlined these frameworks in my book.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Nearly 20 years ago now, I left a senior management position in the UK to follow my husband to Detroit, 19 years ago, and ended up in a senior ad agency role developing positioning and communications for the #1 car brand and a $1 billion ad spend. Despite my early childhood, this was the biggest culture shock of all! I had to relearn a language, and provide senior leadership when even the names of the car parts were different! I spent the next 2 years traveling the US, talking to car buyers and developing what my company calls empathy with their conscious and non conscious thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This experience formed the basis for my consulting business. However empathy is no good without action, so I set out to help clients and colleagues develop this same understanding so they could do their day-to-day jobs better. As a consultant, I basically help executives develop empathetic learning about customers or consumers as a basis for designing superior products, experiences and marketing programs.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

I have a Masters on Social Science and an MBA. I also developed and taught MBA Marketing programs. My formal education has been critical in terms of developing the theoretical frameworks and thinking processes to do my job: and to write my book! However education isn’t a point in time, it happens daily: through talking to consumers or clients; through watching people in the grocery store while I shop; through reading books and articles.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

My colleague and friend Jeff Myers directed a lovely indie movie which won the Audience Choice award at the South by Southwest film festival and has been distributed worldwide. It’s called Becoming Santa and it follows a character named Jack over the course of a year as he dyes his hair and beard white, goes to a Santa school, and becomes a practicing Santa. If you knew someone like Jack, you’d understand how extraordinary it was for a cynic such as he to love becoming Santa. But he did. In the same way, customers don’t just want to buy products, they want to become part of a story. They want the myth, the ritual and the child-like engagement with something they feel is important. This is how brands come to market nowadays.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This is a fabulous quote which shows true wisdom. In my field, building on what people know is what a Japanese academic called Ikujiro Nonaka calls building on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is what he describes as the highly subjective insights, intuitions and hunches, rooted in our experiences of life. In a business context, employees’ tacit knowledge, formed on the job, or based on personal beliefs or mental models, may form the basis for new approaches to serving customers. A corporation needs to tap into this tacit knowledge and build on it to create innovation. My consultancy, ModelPeople, designs learning journeys for cross-functional teams so that they can pool tacit knowledge around shared observation and learning about their customers and consumers. Teams do experience a huge sense of accomplishment and energy when they develop insights and activate them into strategies in this type of approach, as this quote suggests.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

This quote reminds us that everyone in business has to produce something, however great their ideas are! Edison of course was a man who had ground-breaking ideas which he turned into disruptive new products. The problem with some customer insight approaches is that they give executives information about what is happening but does not help them develop understanding as a basis for moving forward. It’s like the difference between a poor university education which encourages rote learning of facts and a great university education which gives you frameworks for understanding and applying knowledge to new situations.

My consulting process emphasizes foundational empathetic learning and activation of insights and ideas into strategy and execution. My own leadership style is focused around helping clients to develop deep understanding of customers, articulate strategy based on this understanding and plan execution.

Now please shift your attention to Marketing with Strategic Empathy. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

Having always been a passionate book reader, I always wanted to write a book! In business however, finding the dedicated time to write has always been a problem. My business partner and even my son encouraged me to put my business experience into words, reasoning that it would help prospective clients understand what ModelPeople does. I received encouragement for my outline from the highly professional editorial team at Kogan Page in London and took the plunge! I managed to produce four chapters in the first 5 months of the contract period, writing every spare moment I had in between assignments – sometimes sitting down early in the morning, before my family was awake. However, with only six weeks left, I still had five chapters to go so I just sat down and made myself produce 700 words a day.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

It was much harder than I thought it would be! To capture a 30 year business career, reflect the published literature on the subject and try to be interesting was perhaps the toughest challenge I have ever set myself. So many books are published every year that it is hardly a unique achievement but it felt like a real achievement to me!

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I had a very clear plan for the book and stuck pretty closely to the outline, but as I did the literature review, some topics had been more widely published than others, and received more detailed treatment. The publishers also encouraged me to put more case studies in to illustrate the theory: the book ended up having over 50 case studies which I anonymized to protect client confidentiality.

What are the defining characteristics of a person who possesses a high level of empathy?

Empathy is first of all about listening carefully without filtering what you’re hearing through your own mindset. Then it requires the imagination to put yourself into the shoes of someone else and understand their experiences. Lastly, it may require you to take action in response.

Which of those qualities are most beneficial in a workplace culture today? Please explain.

We often don’t really listen to others any more, in society or in the workplace. We face a barrage of chatter every minute of every day, especially from social media, and we multi-task between our phone and computer screens and the people around us. How often have you seen groups of friends around the table in a restaurant, or colleagues in a business meeting, engrossed in their smartphones and not taking the opportunity to talk and listen to one another? Shutting out the chatter, and really listening and engaging with what you are hearing, is the key. Deciding how to act is perhaps the easier challenge.

In your opinion, what are the most problematic misconceptions about empathy? What, in fact, is true?

Empathy can be dismissed as merely a soft skill, not important or relevant in a business context, and barely actionable. In fact, as my book sets out to demonstrate, when empathy-based strategic learning about customers and consumers is pursued with commitment, it is a proven driver of profitable marketing success. Developing empathy for customers does not happen automatically, and requires organizational focus and commitment as well as expertise in immersive research approaches and frameworks such as behavioral economics, anthropology and emotions theory.

Morris: In essence, marketing is a process by which to create or increase demand for an offering. In your opinion, why should empathy be an essential component of any marketing strategy?

Economists define marketing this way. However creating demand for a product or service not as easy as it sounds when markets are competitive. This is where customer empathy comes in. Organizations which develop customer empathy instinctively understand their customers’ needs and wants and how to create products and services which meet those needs and wants better than competitors. Sounds simple in principle, but it’s surprising how many organizations are more focused on what they do well than on what customers want. In order to develop customer empathy, an organization must walk in their customers’ shoes and understand the experience their customers have with the company’s offering in the context of their lives.

However empathy without action is useless. That’s why I developed the idea of Strategic Empathy®. Empathy becomes strategic when deep customer insights are activated into marketing strategy and plans. The Strategic Empathy® Process, described in my book, was designed to help companies not only develop customer empathy but to apply insights in designing innovation and marketing strategic direction.

When formulating such a strategy, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind?

Above all, get to know your customers as real people, for whom your product or service is probably not the most important thing in life! I read the other day that “data scientist” is now the most in-demand job title in the US. Amazing developments in big data analytics have given companies more data than ever about their customers but in my experience, data can obscure insight. Customer knowledge is not the same as customer empathy. Successful entrepreneurs typically build their businesses based on their personal observations and instincts about customer needs and wants that are not properly served by competitors. The challenge is how to nurture those observations and instincts across larger organizations. This is why I developed the Strategic Empathy® Process, to nurture the observations and insights which can lead to break-through new strategies.

In your opinion, must those who formulate such a strategy possess highly developed empathy themselves? Please explain.

Yes, it’s essential for executives to develop customer empathy. As I already noted, senior executives prize data-based strategies and it can be hard to focus outside the narrow functional silos within an organization. That’s why I often run customer immersions for cross-functional teams of executives so they can observe first-hand the raw, messy context of their customers’ lives. The 2016 Presidential Election was a great example of why data alone, however sophisticated, are not enough to determine strategy. Strategists must get close to people’s real lives – their hopes, dreams and fears – to understand what’s really going on and decide how to act. Executives have to get out there and developed a finely tuned empathy with their customers to develop winning products, services and programs.

What is a strategic learning framework and which objectives does it help to achieve? How?

Strategic Learning is a process of emergent or ongoing strategy formation based on learning about customers and taking strategic action based on what you learn. This compares with the more formal forward-looking process of strategy formation, known as strategic planning. Strategic Learning could be described as an empathetic, intuitive approach to strategy development rooted in the tacit knowledge and observations of managers and employees. It’s effective because it harnesses the on-the-job experiences of a wide range of employees, not just those with “strategic planning” in their title. However, academic research has shown that organizations must bring in outside perspectives to challenge existing beliefs; and that small-scale market experiments are useful to test out changes in strategic direction.

What exactly is immersive research” and how specifically can it help to achieve the given objective(s)?

Immersive research is customer research which enables companies to develop deep understanding – empathy – with customers by observing and exploring behavior, beliefs, emotions and perceptions in context. Context is important because it relates to how and where customers use products and services. Companies often define context too narrowly. For example, a grocery store may focus on the in-store context, ignoring the context of customers’ busy lives and ignorance of how to cook, and missing out on opportunities for home delivery services or meal kits which offer profitable incremental revenue.

The Strategic Empathy® process consists of several phases. Which seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

There are three phases as you note: Immerse, Activate and Inspire. The hardest step is the first step: immersing the corporate team in the customer’s world. Managers are busy, senior executives even more so. They want the edited version of customer insights, minus the raw, messy details! This is why the Inspire phase is important: creating internal communication media like consumer documentary film, which tells the story in a way that builds empathy across the organization.

Is this a process that enables leaders in almost any organization to achieve success, whatever the size and nature of that organization may be?

Yes, absolutely! Fundamentally, this is not a complicated or costly process. Customer empathy is equally important to start-ups and SMEs; and also to non-profits. Non-profits have intuitive empathy for those whom they serve, but must turn empathy into strategic action to maximize donations. Entrepreneurs are Strategic Empathy® natives, having typically founded their businesses based on deep insight and intuition for their customers. However, as their business grows, entrepreneurs must also invest in growing managers and employees into strategists, for dynamic marketing strategy formation and growth.

This is, I concede, a highly unorthodox question but I’ll ask it nonetheless. Albert Einstein once suggested that if you cannot explain a concept — and I happen to think that the Strategic Empathy Process is based on a very important concept — you really don’t understand it. How would you explain the process to a six-year old?

If you want to make friends with a new student in your class who is from out-of-state, imagine yourself being in their shoes. Talk to them, listen and learn about how they see things through their eyes. When you know how they think and feel (perhaps differently from you) you will know what to do and say in order to make them feel welcome.

Of all the valuable “tools” that you provide to your reader, which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

In any organization, there is an accepted way of thinking and seeing the world. In addition, employees work in functional silos: they are rewarded for thinking about product design or marketing, rather than focusing on customers as real people (who don’t live and breathe the organization’s products and services!) The challenge is to encourage managers and employees to work in a cross-functional team approach, to think about customers’ real lives, how they feel and behave, and then think about how to serve them better in an integrated way. The Strategic Empathy® Process provides a philosophy, process and tools to encourage managers and employees to work this way and is proven, in the case studies in my book, to be successful in driving innovation and marketing success.

Here’s another hypothetical question that I have been eager to ask you since I first read your brilliant book. Let’s say you have been interviewing several candidates for a summer internship with the ModelPeople headquarters. Of all the advice that you provide in the book, which — in your opinion — would be most valuable to that young person’s effectiveness during the association with your firm? Please explain.

This is a situation that I have recently faced. A student of Anthropology applied for an internship because she had seen the book and felt the idea of Strategic Empathy® was unique. She was most interested in some of the consumer research techniques I describe in the book but I also told her that understanding the components of a good marketing strategy, and how empathy research helps shape these components for competitive advantage, is critical. Marketers have become overly tactical in approach as they wrestle with the demands of 24/7 social media channels. More emphasis on long-term brand building, based on empathy with consumers or customers, is long overdue.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Marketing with Strategic Empathy will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

My book is structured around several theoretical frameworks such as behavioral economics and emotions theory, which will give new business managers useful ways to think about customer behavior. It also explains the components of a formal marketing strategy and how to develop them.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

The first chapter of the book explores how strategy and insights executives can place too much emphasis on data, believing that customers or consumers always behave rationally and predictably, and too little emphasis on the emotional, cultural and contextual drivers of consumer behavior, which are levers the organization can pull to deliver greater innovation and marketing success. Large organizations need to nurture empathy with how customers feel and behave, and why as a form of ‘muscle memory’ to guide effective strategy formation and correct understanding of data. My book offers frameworks and a process for doing this.

To owner /CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

They are typically Strategic Empathy® natives, having built their businesses on intuitive understanding of their customers. However, as their companies grow, the challenge is to develop this type of deep understanding or empathy in their managers and employees.  My book emphasizes suggests several practical tools to help and over 50 case studies which show how these tools work in practice.

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Claire invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Marketing with Strategic Empathy Amazon link

ModelPeople link

Link to Claire talking about Strategic Empathy®

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