A Lesson for Brands in Empathy Building

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Consumer Empathy, Grow / Maintaining Strong Brands


Jorge Martínez-Bonilla

Senior Vice President, CultureBeat

During recent visits to a prestigious business school to talk about multicultural consumer research with graduate students, Neiman Marcus’ highly priced collard greens and the Pepsi commercial blunder were discussed. The products and brands were not the core of the conversation, but instead the uproar on social media they caused.

Those discussions were the highlight of the class: some students felt strongly that there’s an issue, while others felt that was not the case. Both groups had legitimate points, and I imagine the discussions we had were in line with the ones held in meetings across corporate America when discussing diversity in marketing and branding.

Considering what’s happening in our society and the current discourse about diversity and intolerance, it is understandable and almost mandatory to ask the question of ourselves: “have we become too judgmental and skeptical of brands’ efforts to connect with us?” As we firmly know, Pepsi, United, and many other brands were painfully reminded that everyone has the right to have their own opinion, and social media gives everyone a place to voice them. And, whether consumers are too sensitive these days is secondary, what’s more relevant is that when a brand’s actions strike a chord (good or bad) with enough people, those opinions and voices will be heard.

In the case of marketing efforts gone bad, it’s important to consider who the disenfranchised are. But doing so is always easier said than done; that’s why at CultureBeat we talk about inclusion and cultural understanding: the more angles you consider in your communication, the more voices that are part of the conversation, the more likely you are to identify potential pitfalls.

Take the Pepsi commercial: well-intended for sure, but painfully missing the mark. At face value, the ad seemed to trivialize very serious social issues and in the name of inclusion, it appeared to make sure many checkboxes were marked; unfortunately for them the execution fell short by playing to racial and ethnic stereotypes rather than truly elevating the importance of diversity.

Then comes the new Heineken commercial, and bloggers and consumers alike start to praise its message. What a difference a few weeks make in the marketing world: airing on the foothill of Pepsi’s ad nightmare couldn’t have been better planned or more timely, it must be an act of the advertising gods or pure serendipity.

While I am not a Heineken drinker, I must give it to them, the ad and its message are very powerful, touching, and flat out inspiring! And it is so because it goes to the very root of key virtues that make us better as humans: compassion and empathy.

One of the key things that stand out to me is that the Heineken commercial does not come across as prescriptive, but rather it puts people in the driver’s seat. In its plot, it is the people themselves who must come to the realization that they have blinders on… and that’s how you break down the barriers. On the flipside, in Pepsi’s ad, the sequence of events suggests that their product can be the panacea, the universal unifier of all things broken and then mended.

The Heineken ad is also brilliant in that it addresses inclusion and the cross-directional influence that different groups of people have on each other. As humans, as people of diverse backgrounds, we’re not only givers but takers of influence. By including people from different walks of life, the Heineken video makes the audience aware of the brutal stereotypes that surround different groups; by enabling the conversation and arousing our human instinct to connect, help and serve, it also brings the audience to a place of understanding and empathy.

Marketers of the world take note: being inclusive pays off. Make sure that your every-day work and especially your campaigns are always illuminated by the power of inclusion and diversity so that the power of people itself makes your brands’ connections to them impactful and long-lasting.

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