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Great Brands Start with Empathy

By Neil Wengerd
Great brands start with empathy. Here's why.

Often, companies see building a brand as another expense for their already stretched budgets. “How can we spend money on design-y stuff when we need to be spending on product development and customer acquisition and finding more revenue?” As a business owner myself, I get it.

But here’s the thing. “Brand” is often misunderstood as a curb-appeal project for your company. Visuals are certainly part of it, but that misses the depth and value of what a great brand can do. Let’s take a look at three ideas that reframe branding.

Building a brand is about understanding people.

Developing the right brand is an exercise in empathy. That means having a willingness to understand what people want and need from you. Then, you give it to them in an authentic way. Without empathy, you can spend way too much time looking inward. It’s like going on a first date and only talking about yourself. It’s easy to talk about yourself and what you do. But it’s a lot harder to talk about what your customers actually get from you. (Especially if they don’t really know what they want).

Take The Contemporary Theatre of Ohio, for example. The Contemporary produces contemporary, sometimes original first-run, plays. On the surface, they’re about entertainment. But what they’re really about is the transformational power of storytelling. They engage with the current moment, creating opportunities for new ideas and discussion. They bring people together through theatre. Theatre gives a voice to ideas, to empathy, to humanity, to progress. Leading with that empathetic point of view connects with people at a very deep level.

Pay attention to what your customers are doing right now. Understand them and speak their language. Get these things right, and you’ll know where to go from there.

Your product and brand are inseparable.

You’ve got a product or service road map. That’s essential. But what about an emotional roadmap? Do you know what emotions your customers have? What about the emotions you want to evoke at any given point in their interaction with you? Having a great brand foundation means having a north star for your company. It sits at the center of your company, and it tells you what to build and what not to build. It tells you what to say (and how to say it). It tells you what not to say. It frames you as a distinct, recognizable company. And, most importantly, it builds an emotional connection with the people that matter.

Megen Construction is a Cincinnati-based specializing in construction management and A-Z construction expertise. They realized that, for their customers, what they do goes beyond contracting. It’s about the perspectives Megen brings to the table. Those perspectives give their clients what they really want: peace of mind, clarity, and proactive thinking. Their brand and service offerings followed suit. Leading with empathy for their clients emotions made Megen distinct. (Their sales have since skyrocketed.)

Brand is a long-term play that needs to start early.

Your product can shift, your customer focus can shift, even your logo can shift (if it must). Your core brand experience shouldn’t. And you need to consider all this sooner than you think. There’s a reason companies that invest in great brands outperform those that don’t. (For example, strong brands outperform weaker ones 3:1 in customer acquisition costs.)

Let’s say you’re an early-stage startup, for example. You've got a bit of funding and you haven’t yet established any basic brand foundations. It’s time to build a minimum viable brand just like you’d build a minimum viable product. An MVB is designed to get you the essentials now to start reaping the benefits of a strong brand. And it’s designed to grow with you.

Or, let’s say you’re a more established company without an established, consistent brand. There’s no time like the present to start building your brand. Oculii, a radar tech company, built a brand system on a bright, friendly visual language. Their tone of voice stands apart in the jargon-strewn space. (All this played a critical role in positioning Oculii for a successful acquisition.)

Start with empathy.

With all this in mind, where do we start? Start with empathy. Pay attention to what your customers are doing right now. That will give you a glimpse of their future behaviors. Learn what they want and need, and when. Understand them and speak their language. Get these things right, and you’ll know where to go from there. Let's get to work.