Peel Back the Layers With This Soft Skill

All too often, marketers build strategy and creative for audiences without understanding their buying habits, motives or tendencies. Marketing and advertising have always been focused on providing solutions to customers’ problems, but how can that be done without understanding what their problems are? For marketers, it’s about connecting with the emotions of our target audiences in such an intimate way that we feel what they are feeling. And, the deeper the level of empathy a marketer has for their target audience, the more successful their message will be.


Empathy is not only understanding what someone else is feeling but also being able to identify emotions in others and feeling those emotions with them. Understanding your target audience in marketing is a layered concept. It starts with sympathy which can be equated to seeing a pain point in the research and generically addressing it by talking about the features and benefits of what’s being sold. As you peel layers back, you can identify a pain point and share how you understand the struggle too, even if it’s not relatable to anything you’ve ever experienced (i.e., empathy). If your mindset starts there, anything that follows in your strategy and creative will create potential connections with your audience.

Purina could have talked about the quality of their ingredients, the variety of flavors or their price point in the commercial above, but instead, they used their knowledge of the emotional ups and downs of becoming a puppy parent. Sure, the video is funny (which is effective in marketing in its own right), but it also paints a realistic picture of what owning a puppy entails and the connection the owner and the puppy can have. This story was born from experience and speaks to shared feelings in an authentic way the audience relates to.

Similarly, The National Autistic Society in the UK could have used a compassionate and sympathetic celebrity to tell you why you should donate or how you should understand the challenges faced by people with autism. Instead, they literally put you in the shoes of a child with autism. Not only did it take a deep level of empathy to create this video, but it creates a shared opportunity for empathy for the viewer by seeing things from a different perspective.


Finding emotional connections with your audiences isn’t always something you can do by just thinking harder, especially if your experiences are far removed from those you’re trying to persuade. Research and observation are always where the process of empathy should start. Gaining true insight into what drives your audience is crucial since you can’t be in someone else’s shoes if you don’t know where and why they’re walking. Formal research is expensive, and you might not have the resources, but you might also find that the true insights driving your audience don’t have to come from that method.

As @leeclowsbeard once said “Researchers have long known that people often say one thing and do another. Except, of course, in focus groups where their word is bond.”

Get out and observe your customers. Watch as they interact with your brand. There’s an old advertising agency folklore where an LA-based agency on the Toyota account asked their new employees to stand on the median at an intersection outside their office and ask drivers in Toyota vehicles why they picked a Toyota.

Asking your audience questions informally to try to get to the true meaning behind their answers is the only way to start down a path of building a connection full of empathy-driven insights.



Jared Miller

VP, Interactive Media