Empathic marketing: Swimming in the deep end

By Kirsty Whelan, Strategy VP, imre health

As we head into 2018 planning, can we all agree to kill our new favorite buzzword, “empathy”? Completely eradicate it from all of our strategies and tactical tables. I speak as one of the biggest offenders of leaning into this jargon. It’s been useful shorthand for getting marketers to focus on value to the patient, but its overuse cheapens and undermines the actual effort that’s required for understanding people and doing something for them. Let’s instead arm ourselves with tools, insights and training to help us understand our audiences better.

Let’s have empathy - not just say it.


You could argue that empathy is the antithesis of marketing, if marketing is by definition the act of promoting or selling a product or service. With marketing, often our motivations are in competition with our audiences. In contrast, the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share someone’s feelings. This cannot be manufactured. Can’t be cooked up in a lab. You can’t fake it till you make it. You have to work harder than that and it starts with “listening” and “caring,” two simpler and more actionable concepts.

If we’re listening to how our audiences are expressing themselves and care enough to understand the motivations behind that expression then we can better empower them to share and engage as a complement to their therapy. As ambitious as it sounds, we as marketers could strive to treat the whole person and not just their illness.

Here are some small ways to infuse your ideation with more listening and caring, as you start planning.

Put in the time.

A lot of the listening we do in social is automated. It’s heavily curated by algorithms, or served up on demand by keyword. But this type of listening creates a vacuum of understanding. We need to spend more time with qualitative insights and with real patients. What we tend to share online is just one dimension of how we feel and how it impacts our behavior. Let’s make sure we have as many inputs as possible.

Swim outside your lane.

Look up from your cubicle. Walk outside. Meet someone for coffee that works in a completely different business than you do, but whose efforts serve patients. Learn about their passions and struggles and share with them some of yours. Be aggressive in the pursuit of new perspectives. Then inform your ideas with those perspectives.

Be more inclusive.

Don’t shy away from reaching out to those segments of your audience that are often ignored. Our lifestyles and backgrounds impact our unique experiences as patients, but if we speak to everyone in the same way, a lot of us are destined to fall through the cracks.

As an agency, we’re investing new methodologies and training to to help us listen better and care more. We’re excited to share back some of our experiences with the hope that “empathy” in healthcare marketing can become more than just lip service.


Empathic marketing: Swimming in the deep end