The Empathy Imperative: Designing Brands that Matter to People

by Allison Roger

Illustration by Ben Young

This summer, I went on a national parks tour of the Canadian Rockies. Across country, state and party lines, elevation changes and continental divides, I traveled with open eyes. Through landscapes stretching layer over layer, and then on into wild places that continue to bear the mark of millions of years of elemental truth: what we’re made of, how we move and change and keep on going.

Reaching 232km through the Canadian Rockies, the Icefields Parkway is home to the Athabasca Glacier. Covering 6km, it ranges from 90–300 meters thick and peaked around 1800.

I thought a lot about how putting ourselves so far outside comfort pushes us to connect to the world beyond ourselves. It invites us to meet others in new places, in new ways. Here, we start to see differently. Think differently. Relate differently. Things on the surface get deeper, rise up, become clear, become a part of us as we become a part of them.

As brand designers, metaphorically speaking, this is our work: to realize — and then help others remember — the world is bigger. Bigger than our commute, our meeting schedule, our contribution, our recognition. Most importantly, it’s bigger than ourselves. It sounds so simple to say it but, if we’re being real, we know this is hard to do. Really hard.

The purpose of our creativity, and the mark of its success, is to remove the blinders that keep awareness and connection small. This calls us to look for the challenge beyond the task, the aspiration beyond the function, the promise of all that waits beyond the current line of sight.

To get there we must invite a new kind of perspective, one that delivers on more than market demands. One focused on something exponentially more meaningful:

Human needs.

Not the material kind — the emotional kind. The kind that wakes people up. Makes them pause, think again, laugh, cry, get angry, get going! The kind that makes them feel anything and everything so long as they feel seen.

Yes, empathy.

An exhibition by the Institute of Empathy focused on stepping beyond the normal and routine to better understand others, a skill that’s believed to have eroded in the modern world.

Empathy is big and, like those Rocky Mountain glaciers, connected to a whole lot going on below the surface. But thinking about empathy this way is part of the challenge to overcome.

As human-centered creative Kevin McKeon explains, empathy isn’t a feeling so much as it is an action. A verb guided by the deep and unshakable understanding that, as creative people, we have daily opportunities to take powerful, meaningful action in service of the human beings on the other side of what we make. Empathy is not the end of our work. It’s the beginning.

“Empathy isn’t what you feel. It’s what you do… Use empathy to power action. To go make things. Things that serve people’s needs. Things that brighten people’s days. Things that add value.” -Kevin McKeon

Back at the start, I gained a piece of invaluable perspective on what it means to create with empathy. A writer by trade, I learned that if you’re going to write, write so your audience is somehow better for having read it. To this day, I’m guided by the question “Who cares?” Who cares about one airline over another? About where the fish sticks came from? About sneakers? About who’s narrating their ads? The next question is “Why?”

We are people — just like our audience, our clients and the teams we work alongside day in and day out. We understand how this goes and what that can be worth. The brands we build are most impactful when we can truly see the people they are for, what they feel, what they need and what we can do about that.

Empathy is our greatest tool, a shared language, the perspective that expands and contracts in relation to what we focus on.

This all depends on the context. To continue with Kevin McKeon’s perspective, what we need right now (particularly as Americans, each day more than the last) are the things that bring us together. These moments of shared understanding connect us as humans in the human experience: “More fun. More laughter. More reminders of how amazing life can be. That’s showing empathy too.”

As creative people, curious people, intentional people, emotionally driven people, and most simply — most powerfully — people, we know this. The trick, the gift and the challenge, is to remember it. See it. Act on it. Steer by it. Give it to ourselves when reserves are low so that we can give it to our work, and thereby give it to the people on the other side, in abundant supply.

Empathy is our greatest tool, a shared language, the perspective that expands and contracts in relation to what we focus on. In the coming months I’ll look at these ideas in more detail, in the spirit of bringing brands and people together.