Brands Need to Refine Their Empathy Messaging If They Hope to Reach Consumers

'We're here for you' messages are no longer enough

Most consumers are stressed in some way right now, but Burke's research defines eight groups based on their pandemic responses. Getty Images

Back in distant March and April, when the pandemic first clawed its way across the country, one brand after another lined up hastily produced spots reminding Americans that they were “here for you” and “ready to help” in these “challenging,” “troubled” and “uncertain” times—“now more than ever.”

These messages—along with the slow-mo stock footage of empty streets set to melancholy piano music—became so ubiquitous that a video titled “Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same” went viral.

Perhaps there was no helping it. After all, Covid and its disruptions were as new to marketers as they were to everyone else. Brands were taking a shot at empathy and, regardless of how well it translated, they tried.

Now comes a new study that suggests empathy is still a worthy message—but this time, since there’s a bit more experience and applied science to incorporate, brand messaging can be better tailored.

The research, titled The Refracting Nature of Covid-19, conducted by marketing innovation firm Burke and sister company Seed Strategy, identifies eight specific consumer groups that have emerged since—and as a direct consequence of—the onset of Covid. They are:

  • The Wayfinders: Concerned youth who fear missing out on what they want their life to be today and in the future
  • The Determined: Young Americans trying to maintain their independence and current lifestyle, despite a setback
  • The Isolated: Worried seniors who have reluctantly sheltered in place to protect their health
  • The Frazzled: Stressed families struggling to juggle work, childcare and financial obligations
  • The Enlightened: Secure older adults who use their experience to help others navigate these challenging times
  • The Protective: Vulnerable family units that are staying safe at home due to health concerns
  • The Bold: Independent thinkers who want businesses to get back to “normal” despite the risk
  • The Empathetic: Thriving households that feel a serious responsibility to care for both their family and their community

As the breakdown makes clear, most of these groups can be characterized as functioning under a goodly amount of anxiety or the weight of responsibility. Whereas companies making broad appeals in the pandemic’s earlier days were responding to the overall shock of consumers either losing jobs or being quarantined at home, Burke’s data permits a more nuanced look at the various ways that consumers are coping—or not coping.

Burke’s chief research officer, Jamie L. Baker-Prewitt, identified several factors that played a role in determining which groups consumers fell into. “People’s health status plays a big role; this is fundamentally a health crisis after all, though many people view it equally as an economic and financial one,” she said.

“Concern about someone around them getting sick or getting sick themselves, versus the health of the U.S. economy or keeping their job—these worries differentiate consumers and affect the decisions they’re making right now,” she added. “Finally, a person’s life stage has a strong effect on how they’re experiencing this pandemic and what their priorities have become.”

But what’s a brand supposed to do with eight new consumer groups at a time when targeting is already a perplexing science? Baker-Prewitt said that, odds are, few brands are targeting so wide a swath of the consuming public anyway and they can use the new breakdowns to better tune their messaging in ways that are in step with their priorities and concerns.

Overall, she stressed, empathy is still an important message, but it’s one that brands should try to tailor more specifically to their intended audiences.

“Brand and product managers can adjust their strategy and tactics to be effective through what they now know about the tensions, needs and motivations of consumers during this unique and challenging time,” she said. “And through this knowledge and empathy, they might conclude that they will be most successful by appealing to a tighter set of consumer segments because of the alignment between what they can and do offer, and what certain segments want and need right now.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.