Insights and strategy must have a voice in the C-suite and must be concerned not only with analytics but also with empathy-based learning, Claire Brooks tells Sangeeta Tanwar
In a world where corporates chase profits relentlessly what role does empathy play in strategy?
In a slow growth environment, corporations are investing in predictive and prescriptive data analytics to guide decision-making and optimise sales. However, data alone cannot help managers develop a deep understanding of how consumers think, feel or behave, and to design effective products, services and marketing programmes. Nor can data easily spark the personal and subjective insights and intuitions; the metaphors and mental constructs which are essential for successful innovation. My research over the last 12 years has shown that the key to profitable marketing success and growth is for managers across firms to develop deep understanding and insight - empathy - with consumers within the broader context of their lives, as a basis for marketing strategy formation and activation. This requires a systematic approach to deep insights and empathy-based strategic learning about customers. This is what we call the Strategic Empathy Process. Empathy in this case is not a soft skill. Empathy without effective strategic action is not strategic empathy.
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You have said traditional theory and current best practices of strategy formation are out of sync. What exactly is amiss?
Leading corporations have rigorous annual marketing strategy planning processes, lasting several weeks, once a year. Yet in a VUCA world - one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - markets are now moving too fast for traditional models of strategy planning. Henry Mintzberg of the McGill University Faculty of Management first demonstrated that the strategic planning processes carried out by major corporations ignore the frequent reality that strategy formation is not a deliberate, planned approach, but is emergent. In many successful Fortune 500 firms, forward strategic planning is being replaced by strategic learning - an ongoing process of shifting strategy based on the existing knowledge and new learning of stakeholders at all levels of the firm. In this new business environment, every manager, perhaps even every employee, must become a strategist.
How can organisations move towards flexible strategy formation and activation to keep pace with competition?
The Strategic Empathy Process was developed to facilitate strategic learning, as the basis for a flexible, dynamic approach to marketing strategy formation and activation among stakeholders who need to address specific marketing issues. However, it also promotes organisation-wide strategic learning in support of ongoing, emergent strategy formation at all levels.
Step 1 of the Strategic Empathy Process involves the core stakeholder team in immersive research with consumers and customers, which nurtures deep and nuanced insight around one-dimensional data. In Step 2, the stakeholder team pinpoints the key insights and decides how each insight must be activated to address marketing issues. In Step 3, "Strategic Story-telling", the core team decides how to socialise strategic learning across the firm in a way which will nurture empathy among other managers and employees. For example, we brought the US-based global brand team for a beverage brand to India, to experience immersive research in partnership with the local marketing team and local research specialists. The team needed to decide how to position and launch the brand in the Indian market in about four weeks. Following research, an activation session was held with the Indian and US teams and all the partner agencies to share learning, ideate, and confirm the launch strategy and creative briefs.
How should companies go about building brands that are not just "wanted" but "desired" by the consumer?
Leading consumer marketing corporations are becoming strategic learning organisations because they know that the key to meaningful brand differentiation is depth of consumer understanding: empathy. Empathy-based strategic action, leads to the development of products and programmes which meet the consumer's needs and desires. Empathy must be patiently developed with the guidance of deep insights and brand marketing specialists, using multi-disciplinary theoretical frameworks. This means that insights and strategy must have a voice in the C-Suite and must be concerned not only with analytics but also with empathy-based learning.