In the most dramatic and unexpected ways possible, 2020 was a crazy year for everyone, marketers included. After enjoying nearly a decade of annual economic growth, many marketers implemented very little change in overall strategy during the uptick. When 2020 blew up all the trends, strategies and consumer insights we had come to expect, it signaled a dramatic shift in thinking was necessary. Each new idea saw continued need for change over the course of the year to respond to lockdowns, protests, social movements, politics, the economy and the 24-hour news cycle. 

Each new event meant that consumers were trudging through changing emotional cycles, too. Messaging needed to be more effective than ever. While many remain hopeful for more stability and economic growth in 2021, the strategies we use to communicate with consumers must change yet again, but with one likely point of stability. To be the most effective, the emotion that marketers need to show in 2021 is empathy

Empathy is when we recognize and share the feelings and emotions of someone else, an emotion that was in short supply in 2021. Psychologists remind us that it’s important to always show empathy, but especially when people aren’t faring well emotionally. When a person feels down, for example, being shown empathy will make them feel valued and understood, creating positive emotions towards the person or entity displaying empathy. Generating positive emotions towards your product, service and company is ultimately the goal of marketing, as “affinity” is the psychological driver most closely associated with long-term success of any enterprise. 

So how does one show empathy to consumers with so many crazy things going on in society?

We must first genuinely understand what consumers are experiencing in their lives, especially as they interact with your product or service. It’s not sufficient to look at the attributes they like about your company or goods. Marketers must understand the emotional “why” consumers engage, buy, promote your brand, and speak to it BEFORE introducing the product or service through the prism of that emotion. For instance, a marketer selling desserts might first acknowledge how stressful things are in the world, thus Jane Consumer might want to treat herself to something sweet to have a moment of peace, a reprieve from the stress. There are numerous ways to both demonstrate and evoke empathy, but they must be intentional and real. 

Empathy is simply about addressing and appreciating the need state of the consumer. Most importantly for marketers, being empathetic is wildly effective at driving results. One longitudinal study that looked at the effectiveness of ad campaigns for the IPA Effectiveness Awards (Binet and Field, 2011) showed that campaigns that successfully connected emotionally with consumers sold 19% more than those that did not. Another study showed that a successful emotional and empathetic strategy will have an even larger effect on secondary marketing metrics (likeability, recall, and affinity) – increasing effectiveness by a whopping 100% over baseline. 

To be empathic or to evoke empathy starts by understanding our consumers and their psychological state of mind. This goes FAR beyond understanding who they are demographically but seeking to understand what drives their behavior and the ways to affect that behavior. Luckily, the savvy marketer has numerous tools to help them really understand their consumers. Surveys, social listening, focus groups, interviews, or a psychology-driven marketing agency are all easy ways to understand what drives people and make our marketing more relevant and effective. 

The marketers that can adapt to the challenge will find success in 2021 and beyond. Those that empathetically give back will be rewarded through the psychological principle of reciprocity–our strong psychological need to reciprocate acts of kindness, creating emotional connections and driving sales. In any case, being empathetic is far better than the alternative, being seen as promoting fear-based or tone-deaf ideologies. We can do our part to make customers’ lives a little bit better in 2021 and we can be effective as marketers while we do it. What could be better than that?

Of course, we’re happy to help you with your marketing challenges here at Intermark Group. Just give us a call at 800-624-9239 or email us at And here’s hoping that 2021 isn’t quite as bad as 2020. 

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