Consumers Need Empathy Now More Than Ever

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Our Thoughts
  • by Rachel Brennan, Kellie Coppola, Sarah Urmston

Lauren Whitney, a mom of four was just one of billions of people experiencing her own range of difficult emotions this past week as she set out to buy diapers for her daughter. With an ex-military husband and having recently been demoted at her job, her family, like many, struggled to keep up when the panic buying set in.

In an interview with, she says, "There's so many people out there like myself that we, we don't get paid very much so, you know, we're low income families and so it's hard for us to be able to just go out and buy a large amount of things at one time."

As a parent of a toddler with another on the way, I was crushed after watching Lauren’s video. I became full of unsettling emotions: concern that it had come to this, disappointment in myself for not recognizing my own privileges when bulk buying and apprehension about my own ability to get diapers in the coming weeks as shelves continue to look bleak and empty. 

As consumers, we’ve never experienced such a unique time as this: a time when more people are making decisions based on uncertainty and anxiety than ever before. When we make purchase decisions at a very foundational level, out of necessity, or comfort, or even out of pure survival, we take on an entirely different mindset than when making decisions based on our aspirations and desires. Every person is adjusting to this experience in a different way. Just as each of us had different lives before COVID-19, we are all impacted differently by it now, and we will all be impacted by it differently after. 

That is why empathy has never been more important in understanding consumer motivations than right now. Eventually, the economy will bounce back and while some consumers will revert to their prior behavior, others’ attitudes and mindset are likely to change for the long term. Consider our parents and grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression. I think of my own grandmother who kept her pantry stocked for years and would cook us grandkids simple meals well beyond the decades that followed her families’ struggles during the Great Depression. 

As researchers and as brands, we need to keep an ongoing pulse on how this pandemic will change our world views. Once we emerge from this crisis, some consumer behavior is going to change. It’s not a question of if brands should change their strategies, but how. 

As you think about talking to consumers in the coming weeks, months, or even years ahead, consider these approaches deeply rooted in empathy and compassion:

  • Give them grace.
    Consumers are dealing with new challenges and are likely unable to be as focused, articulate or as present as we might expect them to otherwise. They may be juggling homeschooling their children while also caring for the needs of an elderly parent. They may be missing loved ones or skipping birthdays. Now more than ever, we need to be patient, give them space to fully express themselves, and be concise in what we ask of them. 

  • Be more transparent.
    Be more open with consumers by "peeling back the curtain" on our intentions and goals with this research. Consider sharing the clients' goals and potential outcomes of the research to make them feel like they are part of finding future solutions for others. 

  • Let down the divider.
    Even for the most privileged, the stress of this pandemic is a lot to handle. When building an empathic connection, we have to be especially cognizant of bringing up topics that make people uncomfortable or feel like we don't value their struggles at this time. Now more than ever, we have to focus on the common human bond and, in doing so, catch ourselves before we bring our worldviews or judgments into this connection we are building with others. 

  • Be compassionate, not stoic.
    It’s easy to fall into the notion that remaining neutral and unaffected as we conduct research establishes us as confident researchers. However, it’s important to recognize that uncertainty is a natural emotion for everyone right now and by being a calming and supportive voice through all aspects of the research process, we can establish a level of trust that is essential to building connection and ultimately stronger research. 

  • Acknowledge that no two experiences are the same.
    As researchers, it’s our job to find themes and connections in the human experience, but it’s important to acknowledge that while we’re all experiencing the impacts of COVID-19, every situation is different. Some people have jobs while others do not. Some are living amongst friends or families, others on the front lines of grocery stores or hospitals, while some might find themselves in total isolation. Understand their reality, but also recognize that no two realities are the same.

  • Seek to understand their changing motivations.
    It’s important for us to understand consumers’ best-case and worst-case scenarios during this time. Acknowledge that circumstances in their lives may have recently changed – whether that be uncertainty about finances, shopping for an elderly relative, or suddenly finding themselves as a stay-at-home-parent. Understand their baseline experiences prior to COVID-19, what it looks like today, and how they anticipate it will impact potential future motivations. Continue to keep a pulse on consumer behavior and reactions over a period of time, as opposed to a single moment in time. 

Now more than ever, it's our job as researchers to use empathy to acknowledge that our context looks very different. But within this context, we are all tapping into similar rooted emotions: fear, anxiety, grief, and uncertainty. Whatever those emotions are, none of us are feeling them alone.