Fall 2020 Issue

Thomson Reuters – the international news agency - recently invited 40 global thought leaders to discuss how brands impact society today. Luminaries from PepsiCo, General Mills, Survey Monkey, AT&T, AARP, PBS revealed their predictions for 2021 and beyond. 

The world's most influential marketers expressed their prevailing views at a conference on strategic marketing during the era of pandemics. And the message that kept resurfacing pointed to empathy and the trifecta of transparency, truth, and respect, as the model for success. 

What is Empathy, You Ask?
Maital Rasmussen, Head of Marketing for Roche, explained, “It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I’ve worked alongside some CEOs with severely deficient levels of this skill.

For example, an employee may hear this insult from the boss: ‘Take responsibility for yourself and stop bothering the team with your chronic moods of depression.’

Or how about this one: ‘You are responsible for achieving successful month-end results, don’t complain to me when your commission cheque is short.” Empathy is not always an easy skill to learn.

You can take this online empathy test to learn about yourself. Here's a caution: Don’t be disappointed in the results since the average test taker only gets about two-thirds of the questions correct.

What's your Level of Empathy? 
The Roche marketing executive says empathy involves digging deeper to know more about your customers. 

“Your target audience is a person on the other side,” says Maital Rasmussen. “When they feel understood, [your audience] feels a connection to the identity of your brand and to your core values.”

This path creates credibility which leads to trust. “And trust leads to action which is buying…the job of the marketer.”

Marketers need to aim for more right answers when it comes to showing empathy for frustrated customers who need help with shopping carts, or returning an online order shipped with the wrong contents.

Yet, it's her proviso that I want to underscore: The responsibility for incorporating empathy goes beyond the marketing department. It must be embedded at the core of your company.

Stay Focused with Evidence-based Research
How do you find out what your audience needs? Here's a simple idea: Ask them. 

Leela Srinivasan of SurveyMonkey told us that people are consuming increasingly more content online. Of course, we knew this but what is the online survey software being asked to research? Here are three examples:

  • Companies want to know how employees are coping in isolation;
  • Governments and public services inquiring how citizens are navigating health symptoms;
  • Marketers want messages tested in advertisements, logos, and packaging to ensure their communications are on target.

Leela also really wants marketers to understand where customers are at in their lives before developing messages. And to pivot fast when needed.

Penny Baldwin of the powerhouse wireless tech company, Qualcomm, couldn’t agree more. “Acceleration is in supercharge now," and connectivity is at the core.” Baldwin encouraged marketers to double down on purpose and to make sure it aligns with markets.

The Power of Story
Let’s get back to empathy. It’s how good corporate storytelling makes us care.

Global brand journalist Tripp Braden moderated a panel with two irresistible anecdotes from AT&T’s Kevin Peck and GrubHub’s Alex Weinstein.

Peck and Weinstein gave examples of how empathy had impacted their employees and customers – not to mention the wider community.
Including me.

AT&T’s motivation to build FirstNet for first responders came across as believable. Compassion was not an in-your-face sentiment when the company offered to help emergency teams do their dangerous jobs. 

“When the country was in lockdown, it felt inappropriate to push out offers,” said Kevin Peck. “It would have been tone-deaf.”
Tripp pressed to learn more about FirstNet's instinctive skepticism of marketing brands. Especially since these professionals were spread so thin given forest fires in the west, weather storms in the east, and the pandemic everywhere.

They had every right to know if a brand wanting to provide service to them was legit. So, they asked:

  • Can your brand be trusted?
  • Will you be here next year?
  • Who am I really dealing with?

“We needed to find a balance for what we had to offer and what was good in the world,” said Peck. Here’s what they did as thoughtful partners:

1. Ensured First Responders had what they needed - all the time;
2. Didn't turn off service for any users in financial crisis;
3. Provided no-cost calls for Navy ships;
4. Offered a percentage off to teachers;
5. Covered phone bills for nurses and docs for three months.

Peck shared some key lessons learned from this experience:

  • Take time to really understand your customer;
  • Fight for your customer;
  • Be a learner, not a knower.

Alex Weinstein's company, on the other hand, delivers food. Last year, GrubHub had 19.9 million active users and 115,000 associated restaurants across 3,200 cities in the United States.

“We knew our consumers had a good knowledge of food delivery,” said Weinstein. “What they needed was education around safety,” amidst the arrival of COVID-19.

The company also set its sights on mom and pop shops which demonstrated high forms of survival. “So, we re-invested all profits into making our restaurants survive.”

GrubHub also knew consumers loved receiving deals on food which led to creating “a lot of offers for our consumers,” in partnership with the restaurants.

Serial entrepreneur Carol Tran shared some helpful insights on behalf of small business owners. 

They’re saying, “Please help me. Please make it easy for me,” cautioned Carol. Here are three more tips from the former Head of Growth for Dolby Laboratories: 

  • Be as transparent as possible with consumers. If a shipment takes two to three weeks, that is OK. Just don’t fudge the promise.
  • Customers notice compassion and empathy. Support your community and, if you’re already doing so, don’t be shy to share your stories.
  • Get involved with solving global crises if you have the tools and resources.

Shoppable Media Here to Stay
Shoppable media is an advertisement – in the form of video, photographs, or text – that enables the buyer to research a product and to complete the purchase.

Cathy Taylor is the US Commissioning Editor at WARC. Their corporate statement appeals to me: “Our mission is to save the world from ineffective marketing.” Taylor shared some key e-commerce statistics that are relevant for this discussion:

  • In the last 10 years, e-commerce as a share of total retail sales increased 10 points. Between April and May 2020, it increased 11 points.
  • Shoppers are favouring Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) products for the cheaper cost (48%), fast, free shipping and easy returns (43%), superior customer service (26%) and better product design (22%).
  • Consumers are buying clothing and apparel (57%), personal care and beauty (54%), food and drink (45%), travel (38%), pet care (36%), and home and furnishings (36%).

Nobody expects that with these developments, we'll go back to the old days of only shopping in-store, said Taylor. The implications for marketers, especially retailers, is that shoppable media is here to stay, as is e-commerce.


The most salient take-a-way for me from these leading brands is the importance of converting awareness into evangelism by unwavering listening to our audiences. Ensuring your customers feel heard and uniting them with an irresistible experience is crucial for success. 

Entrepreneurship, Magazine Publishing, and Social Marketing are the threads that weave throughout my career. They reflect my professional life driven largely by purpose and relationships — most recently through WorldGate Media and Boards of Directors for TechInvest Alberta, and RoadShowz/StreetSeenz.

Yet, it was through starting up and running Edmontonians magazine for 21 years where a reputation for community engagement flourished. In some ways, I see the magazine that covered leaders of commerce and the community as a predecessor to social media!

My world changed dramatically in 2010 given the disruption of traditional media which led to the sale of the magazine…and my launch into new media. The disruption opened doors for an investor start-up in online wellness with an international team. Experience with journalism media and community publishing incubated an understanding of content creation, distribution, and network platforms.

Every skill acquired during the foundational years has been leveraged to serve my passion for professional communications in the digital age. Social enterprise fired up all my neurons and stretched my resilience. I now help professionals and business owners flourish using traditional and modern forms of communications marketing. Learn more