The Mystery of the Missing Empathy
I was asked this morning when I was doing a session on the key trends I see for 2021 on whether we have changed as individuals. Are we more empathetic? Is the world a kinder place? A quick google search should convince you that not just individuals, even companies have dramatically improved on empathy. First – and yes, I’m a language nerd – let’s get the definition out of the way. Empathy is to put yourself in someone’s shoes. Sympathy is to feel sorry for someone in distress. 
One of the big cribs at Infosys in the days when intensive overseas travel was a job necessity was that the travel department always tried to optimize cost over convenience. The travel team were not being deliberately obtuse. But they just had never been to the US or Europe and therefore had no empathy for us when we whined of a 8 hour layover in Singapore. At one point Mr Narayana Murthy, the then Chairman and CEO, used his airline points to send the two senior members of the team to the US – a simple way to improve their capacity for empathy. At Wipro the sales training program encouraged new hires to spend a couple of weeks in India – increasing empathy for what it was like to work here. As an aside, empathy does not always result in sympathy – we may use our survival of an experience to harshly judge those who are struggling with it.
Whenever we go through an experience, particularly a novel or challenging one, we acquire the capacity for more empathy for anyone else going through or surviving the same. This I would label as passive empathy. For example, through no choice of ours, we have all gone through a lock-down and now we are empathetic towards anyone else going through a lockdown. This can inspire product innovations too – Microsoft Teams has announced some pretty cool features in their products to help with managing the work-life continuum and improving mental health. These would stem from their own experiences struggling with the lockdown and work from home.
The second type of empathy is what I would call learned empathy. As a rookie at Ogilvy and Mather with the Unilever tea portfolio, I was asked to spend a month visiting the local markets. I have drunk tea in hundreds of “Hot Tea Shops” in Kanchipuram, Ellora, Aurangabad, Parry’s Corner, Hosur….and hung out at weekly haats. Having (literally) tasted a month in the life of my consumer and the sales team, I acquired a lot more empathy for their struggles, and an understanding of their drivers of purchase. Before doing this I was questioning whether it was right to persuade people with limited budgets to pay a 5 paisa premium for a branded tea sachet. After, I understood that the 25p pack of branded tea was an “affordable luxury”, a way to show the family you cared to give them the very best you could afford, a way to start the day with a smidgen of pride.
Sympathy is a broad sentiment – we can be sympathetic to anyone without having actually been through the experience. Empathy is a narrow sentiment – we have to acquire it through experience.  
Satya Nadella of Microsoft talks about empathy as a leadership asset. And how his experience with raising one child with disabilities and another with learning difficulty have shaped some of his ideas. He sounds like a really nice person and I would imagine these experiences have forged a passion to create products that embrace diversity and tap into the power of AI, like “Seeing AI” to help people see better. Empathy can make the world a better place, and lead to good business too.
But empathy is not a new attribute or marketing tool. It’s been around under different names for years. It’s the objective of that old staple of FMCGs “market visits”. It’s the reason why the young scion of the family starts on the shopfloor before graduating to the corner office. Mystery shopping is another marketing tool that literally puts you in the shoes of your consumer. Customer Journey Mapping, done right, is a way to show empathy for your customer. And it is the most scaleable and process heavy of these methods – though surprisingly few companies do it, and do it right. Put on your empathy hat and visit your digital portals and feel their pain! I was speaking with Vaishnavi of OriginUX (a Digital CX partner) and the key trends she sees includes making sites way more accessible to new-to-digital users and embracing diversity of content. 
Research shows that humans are afraid of AI. They fear that the chatbot has no empathy. But it can. If the business programs it to. If we want to be a nicer company we need to work on (a) empathy (b) sympathy and (c) empowerment to act upon a and b. I get really, really, upset when businesses say “we are sorry for your trouble” and then refuse to do anything to make it better.  
I often write about the fact that business can’t have morals – only people can. In the same way, a business can’t be empathetic. Employees can. And they can build processes that scale and standardize this empathy.
I wrote about the 5 key trends for 2021 back in November and I’m starting to see some of these in action at brands I use or consult. But at present while there is a lot of talk of empathy and the desire to build a cleaner, kinder, greener world, opportunities to experience it have been few. This list of 21 innovations might act as a thought starter for how you can channelize your empathy into a structure. 
But let me come to the original question – are we more empathetic as a result of living through 2020? I say no. We are empathetic – as always – in the context of a shared experience. It so happens that our shared experience of COVID-19 embraces a larger number of people and is more memorable than say our shared experience of going to a particular school, or being present at WEF, Davos or being a Floyd fan.  But even in the COVID context we would be more empathetic to ‘people like us’ rather than say a construction worker or farmer, though we might be sympathetic to them. We are also far more empathetic to those in our mini-circles – our online communities, Facebook groups, Whatsapp/Signal groups – those are built on a shared affinity or experience, and in 2020 we had far more time to invest in these digital communities, and benefit from them, even ones with really long names like “Simple Recipes for Complicated Times”.
So what are the marketing takeaways from this newsletter? Invest in scaling and standardizing empathy for your customers and key stakeholders. Second, invest in online communities. I run a number of online communities – the easiest one to sign up is
What about me? As Paul Writer completes 11 years and I celebrate being in marketing for 26 years – OMG – I have been thinking about my own levels of empathy and how they have evolved.  And I’d say that a broader set of experiences – as an employee, board member, investor, entrepreneur, author –  gives me the privilege of empathy and insight with a larger and more diverse set of audiences.


  1. Good read Jessie. Empathy is also linked to levels of oxytocin release in human body. Some have good levels naturally, and some have to work really hard for it

    • Thanks, Nupur for this. I went into a rabbit hole of researching oxytocin 🙂 But my understanding is that oxytocin increases the more loving and social you are. So empathy increases oxytocin. And of course more loving people would have more oxytocin. But stuff like yoga also helps.

  2. During my Design thinking training, Empathy stood out to be the most important criteria for any marketing professional. The 5 stages of design thinking—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test—it is generally helpful to handle issues that are badly characterized or obscure.
    For me, the key takeaways are:
    – We need to empathize with our clients, not sympathize
    – Innovation is a process
    – There’s no right solution at times, we need to focus on aligning the process which leads to suitable & sustainable outcomes


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