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Walking in each other's shoes

By Ariane Rabuteau, Bart de Leeuw and Bob Bruinenberg

Twice a year, everyone from The Oval Office meets for TOOday. A day to reconnect, discuss agency news and gain inspiration. This time, we met in Paris. Most of us hadn’t even met our French colleagues in real life yet, so we really enjoyed walking in their shoes for two days. We feel that’s the best way to really get to know someone: by engaging in an empathetic way. We like to do that with our colleagues, but also with our clients and their target audiences. This is how we bring empathy to our work and to our world. For real. 

We are currently facing big societal challenges: a climate crisis, a surge of inequality in the broadest sense, mental health issues and, of course, the pandemic that is still disrupting our lives.  These challenges have proven to create division among many different groups – between the old and young, the haves and the have-nots, the conspiracists and the supporters, the activists and the traditionalists. Kindness and empathy are usually energised in trying times like these, because in order to overcome these challenges, we need to connect and stand united. 

This also goes for the relationship between brands and people. For a long time, brands used their communication as a smokescreen to seduce consumers. The only objective was to sell products and make money. Even when the added value of those products or services was sometimes… questionable. In recent years, brands realised that responding to the real needs of their consumers was important in order to reach them. Now we have to take a step further, because there is a difference between real empathy and merely responding to the needs of the target audience. The latter lacks a certain level of authenticity and sincerity. When you think “needs of a target group”, you are a professional in communication. But when you think “empathy”, you are a human having a conversation with another human, a conversation that entails emotion. It’s a less opportunistic approach that eventually benefits both parties. 

At The Oval Office, we take empathy very seriously. Within every project - whether it’s a campaign strategy or employee experience - we deep-dive into our audience. What is it they’re truly thinking? What are their challenges? How do they feel? This can be done in many ways: from exploring data and interviews to co-creation sessions and workshops. Essential is to meet people and talk with them, for real. Based on the powerful insights we gather, we create a solid foundation upon which to truly connect them. But empathy is not only about the audience, it’s also about expressing the brand essence in an authentic, honest and transparent way. If you make the brand story more interesting than it actually is, you would be far from empathetic. 

Consumers are looking to reconnect with friends, family, colleagues and themselves. Brands have the opportunity to act as a unifying force among consumers by being thoughtful, insightful and useful at the right moment. Brands have to demonstrate meaningful commitments: merely speaking the empathy language is not enough. From philanthropic initiatives to random acts of kindness towards customers, there are numerous ways to spread thoughtfulness and compassion. Especially with live experiences that add real value to people’s lives. 

Empathy: it sometimes sounds a little ‘soft’, like the need to feel sorry for someone. But empathy goes beyond that, it’s one of our best chances to create a better world through a positive change in our society. Because empathy is more than just listening to someone. You really have to step into someone else's shoes for a moment and try to understand what is going on there. It’s about truly connecting with someone in an authentic way. You need to get it, feel it, mean it and do it.