The space between your business and customer collapses when empathy kicks in. It’s when your customer has the vicarious positive experience of using your product through someone else’s eyes. But what drives empathy?
Liberal and conservative customers have different empathies, and you can adapt your business to fit them to accelerate alignment. It’s another case of shaping your business to how your market sees and makes sense of the world.
When liberals are labeled “bleeding heart,” you might assume they are more empathetic. But, similar to the expression “conservatives don’t like change,” these statements oversimplify. Conservative and liberal customers both have empathies but with different groups or “targets.” They also process the emotions associated with empathy differently as inputs to a purchase decision.
Liberal customers will more likely empathize with wider circles of people than smaller ones. For example, liberal customers tend to empathize more with friends than family. Moreover, these wider circles extend to people that liberal customers don’t know, as well as animals and even inanimate objects.
Conservative customers have stronger empathy for more structured groups that may be more familiar. This includes having more empathy for family versus friends and country versus strangers. Conservative empathies tend to lie with more hierarchical groups than those with a flat, egalitarian structure.
This doesn’t mean liberal customers aren’t empathetic with family and conservative customers aren’t empathetic with friends. But when you look at these two groups as markets, there are skews in empathies that trend in one direction or the other that your business can use as market insight.
The interesting twist here is how emotion and feelings associated with empathy are integrated - or not - into an evaluation process. Liberal customers will tend to view emotions as a viable input to rationale. In contrast, conservative customers may consider it more as an anomaly that may interfere with decision-making. This distinction parallels each group’s thought style: liberal customers employ a more integrative thought process taking on a broader range of inputs, while conservative customers use a more incremental, ordered process.
Adam Waytz, a professor and psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, led a team of researchers to understand better how liberals and conservatives express empathy. In the team’s paper, Ideological Differences in the Expanse of Empathy, they state, “ . . . liberals tend to empathize with larger, farther, less structured., and more encompassing social circles whereas conservatives tend to empathize with smaller, closer, more well-defined, and less encompassing social circles.” More specifically, they state, “Across these studies, we found that conservatives tend to express their empathy toward family (versus friends), the nation (versus the world), and humans (versus nonhumans), whereas liberals showed the opposite pattern, preferring larger groups.”
To the point about humans and nonhumans, Waytz and his team also state, “Overall, these results demonstrate that political conservatism is linked to a more enclosed moral circle that is exclusive to human beings and not to other animals or lifeforms. Liberal ideology is linked to a moral circle that includes nonhumans (and even aliens and rocks) as well.”
Time Magazine ran a study of 200,000 customers that backs up the results from Waytz. In the Time study, conservatives agreed more with two statements: “My government should treat its citizens' lives as much more valuable than other nations” and “I am proud of my country’s history.” A positive reaction to these two statements supports the idea that conservative customers will have more empathy for the country and more closed systems. A third statement - “I wish there were no nations or borders and we were all part of one big group” - was far more favorable for liberals than conservatives, reinforcing the idea that liberal customers will empathize with wider-ranging groups.
Two researchers from business schools in the Netherlands and Israel analyzed the alignment between ideology in the United States and the consumption of movies. They found family-centered films were more positively received and consumed by conservative customers than liberal ones.
A team of psychology researchers conducted three studies to evaluate how emotion is processed as an input for decision-making. They commented, “Our findings suggest though that liberals view emotion as a feature of rationality while conservatives view it as a bug. Across three studies, liberals viewed emotion as more functional than conservatives – that is, as a healthy source of information about the self that provides direction in life rather than as a weakness and a waste of time.”
Differences in empathy can be applied across a range of business and product experiences, including how you define a brand, demonstrate a product, and communicate the product’s connection to the market. This includes who you show with your product and the range of emotions connected to the product experience.
There are simple choices to make about who you show using your product - are they perceived as friends, family, strangers, members of a more hierarchical group, or even animals or aliens? Apartments.com is a more liberal brand with a liberal-skewing market (apartment renters skew urban and vote heavily Democratic). Their ads feature single people, friends, and pets. Weathertech makes rubber mats for cars and is a more conservative brand with a conservative-skewing market. Their ads often feature suburban families. Both invoke appropriate empathies and are successful companies.
The more interesting application of empathy relates to how the two groups process emotions as inputs for purchase decisions. Marketers often distinguish between the “emotional” and “rational” components of brands and communications. When communications are more emotional, they may be more suited for attracting liberal customers versus conservative customers.
Countless pieces of marketing communication show customers experiencing a product in a state of near-exaltation. For example, television ads for Rakuten show people dancing in public as a result of using the mobile app for shopping. This type of creative execution will serve as stronger input for a more liberal market than a conservative one based on how liberal customers integrate emotion in decision-making. For conservative customers, this execution will contribute far less to their assessment, as self-expression may be deemed a distraction.
Rakuten is a mobile app that delivers rewards for shopping, which will broadly appeal to both groups. Now consider where many of Rakuten’s ads run: on NBA games, especially Golden State Warriors games where they have a sponsorship. The NBA overall, and the San Francisco Bay Area specifically, skew quite liberal. So you can argue that Rakuten has the proper execution targeted to their liberal segment. Is this all intentional or merely the natural reflection of a more liberal marketing culture within a more liberal geography? Probably the latter, and it happens to work this time.
Misalignment of empathies won’t upset anyone, but your business and its communications can fade into the background for one of the two segments. If the default setting in marketing communications is to show overly expressive, emotional friends and strangers to demonstrate a positive product experience, it may or may not line up with the market you need.
Every product or service can invoke empathy to create a stronger connection with its market - it’s just a question of being intentional based on who your customers are, your market’s worldview makeup, and which group (or both) you want to attract. How you invoke empathy will help shape your brand, products, and communications so you have your best shot at lower customer acquisition costs, higher customer value, and stronger growth.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Red and Blue Customers.