Empathy doesn't feel like a power move for a brand. Its definition, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, seems at odds with the need to differentiate from the competition, stand out on the shelf, and cut through the noise. But empathy can be a surprisingly powerful tool, says Andy Last.

If brands want consumers to engage and buy, they have to understand their values, what motivates them, and what they care about. But there's also a broader empathy game in town. Brands are being forced to show empathy for others beyond their consumers through social and economic issues like equality, fair pay, and climate change. Gen Z consumers want them to show support for the causes that matter to them.

According to Deloitte, 50% of consumers in this category have reduced how much they buy, and 45% stopped purchasing certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns. Beyond that, retailers want brands to deliver on sustainability commitments, regulators require them to meet social and environmental standards, and investors need them to meet ESG criteria.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Governments, businesses, NGOs and academics came together to agree on the 17 interlinked issues that we all need to act on as inhabitants of a shared planet. And many brands and brand owners now look to the SDGs for guidance on where they need to act and be seen to be acting. But how do brands link all this empathy without confusing everyone, most of all their consumers?

As well as being one of the world's biggest food brands, Knorr is one of the most complex, with more than 15,000 SKUs [stock keeping units] and multiple different lead products across more than 70 markets.

Centring empathy to future-proof the brand

In 2020 the brand redefined its purpose, putting empathy at its heart. Simply stated, Knorr exists 'to reinvent food for humanity'. It's a big purpose, but it's appropriate given the brand's size and reach. To reinvent food for humanity, Knorr has had to empathise with all the other groups that such a bold purpose points to, especially farmers and future generations.

Future generations, in particular, need brands like Knorr to step up to the plate. Monoculture farming will prevent us from feeding the 10 billion mouths predicted to be on the planet in 2050. This focus on such a narrow range of crops depletes nutrients from the soil and can accelerate damage to such an extent that we are losing soil equivalent to the size of 30 football pitches every minute. So, how can a brand like Knorr address all these different needs? How can it balance consumers' demands for tasty, satisfying food with the health needs for better nutrition? How can it balance farmers' needs for predictable returns while tackling soil erosion that threatens future generations?

The brand purpose points to the urgency of the problem and the scale of the ambition. Still, it's empathy for these different groups' needs – farmers, consumers today, future generations – that has led to the brand's solution, Eat for Good.

Eat for Good was created by Knorr and its IPG team of agencies, including MullenLowe salt. It targets 'eat-ivists', people who believe food can be a force for change and consciously choose food that is good for themselves and the planet. And it very deliberately links what the brand is doing (through its supply chain, product innovation and working relationship with farmers) to what it is saying (the call to action to consumers to change what's on their plate to be better for their own and the planet's health).

Source: Unilever 

One of the key elements of Eat for Good has been the celebration of Future50Foods – 50 foods for healthier people and a healthier planet. The ingredients featured were chosen for their high nutritional value, relative environmental impact, flavour and accessibility. Knorr has worked with farmers to help them diversify these crops, thereby improving soil health and using Knorr's brand role to change the food system for the better through both farm production and consumer demand. It's seen substantial gains in penetration off the back of the campaign across key markets, with sales currently growing at a historic rate. 

Turning empathy into a commercial advantage

This focus on empathy also informed the social mission of Andrex (the UK's biggest non-food brand). From a sustainability perspective, there are a lot of issues for a brand like Andrex to consider, including the supply of paper and, therefore, the question of deforestation. Kimberly-Clark, Andrex's parent company, has a long-standing fibre sourcing policy that has been welcomed by campaigners and includes Forest Stewardship Council certification on-pack.

It would have been tempting to use this as the brand's key sustainability platform with consumers and retailers, but Andrex selected a sustainability initiative that resonated more closely and that could be a powerful tool with which to gain competitive advantage. What could the brand do that demonstrated it understood its consumers' values, what mattered to them, and its place in the wider world?

The social mission created – 'to bring the dignity of improved sanitation to all' – led to a partnership with UNICEF to support sanitation programmes in Africa, retailer promotions that give the brand preferential positioning in-store, and a platform to talk about toilets and increase brand consideration.

The programme, now known as Toilets Change Lives, has become core to the business, providing the highest ROI of any Andrex programme in the last two years (2018, 2019) and the highest impact on sales per pound spent (when you remove price and promotion). You only get those results if the programme is inherent to the brand; the social mission has to connect to why your brand exists and everything else you're doing if you want to generate loyalty and returns.

None of this is possible without empathy. Without empathy for future generations, sustainability commitments remain sideshows for brands. Without empathy for farmers, the custodians of the soil become numbers on procurement ledgers. And without empathy for consumers, brand programmes become self-congratulatory puff. Embedding empathy in brand planning will lead to better engagement with consumers and better delivery on the increasing expectations for brands to play their part in the issues facing all societies.