Cultivating Empathy: Lessons from SXSW

Published on March 22, 2024

At this year’s SXSW, I participated in a panel discussing how brands can create more empathetic experiences, particularly in the health and wellness space. Joined by founders and executives from Advanced eClinical (ACT) and She Matters, the conversation yielded valuable insights any business leader can apply to build deeper connections with their customers, a coveted subject during a time when brands are vying for consumer engagement.

Here are the takeaways:

Building Structures for Understanding

A core theme was the need for brands to genuinely understand the perspectives, challenges, and emotions of the people they serve. 

As Jade Kearney, Co-Founder and CEO of She Matters, stated, “To be an empathetic brand, you have to have some relationship to your company, to what you’re doing and to the impact that you’re creating.” 

Without that genuine understanding and connection, it becomes difficult to truly empathize with your customers. Kearney emphasized listening intently to directly grasp the pain points and unmet needs of those brands serve.

Shabnam Safarzadeh, co-founder of ACT, shared how actively listening to students revealed a lack of accessible, on-demand training options tailored to their busy schedules as parents or workers. This insight allowed ACT to build more flexible, simulation-based programs to better meet learners where they are.

Keeping Your Team Connected to the Mission

Another key takeaway was the importance of building teams composed of people who personally resonate with and buy into the brand’s mission. Jade noted, “We keep our team reflective of our customer base…people are here to see change.” 

This approach helps companies avoid a disconnect between the stated brand purpose and the actual experience delivered to customers. Team members closely tied to the community being served can provide invaluable perspective.

It’s something we think a lot about at THE FIFTH. We put this into practice by bringing in creators as consultants on campaigns for specific communities. We see creators as ‘super-consumers’ who represent a whole wealth of people behind them. They understand firsthand what their community experiences.

Making Space to Listen to Underrepresented Voices

The discussion also raised the crucial point that developing empathy requires making space to listen to voices that have historically been muted, ignored, or discriminated against.

Especially prevalent in healthcare, many professionals have lacked awareness of systemic biases impacting communities of color. By educating providers on these realities, SheMatters aims to better “understand the struggles of the people they serve.”

My co-panelists and I agreed: developing cultural competency must be an intentional focus for companies, whether it’s hosting expert training, embedding diverse perspectives into product/service development, or purposefully hiring underrepresented talent.

A Role for Everyone in Cultivating Empathy

When an audience member asked what a male CEO could do to make their company more empathetic, the panelists provided a range of perspectives:

Men in power need to proactively advocate for equality, equity, and cultural competency within their organizations and industries. Setting that tone from the top is crucial for fostering an empathetic culture.

Jade argued it first starts with having empathy for your own employees across gender and background. “You can’t start with your consumer if you don’t treat your employees well,” she said. “The CEO sets that standard.”

Shabnam took a unifying view, noting that at ACT, “we can all learn and grow from each other” across gender lines when there is mutual uplifting and openness.

Ultimately, the resounding message was that cultivating empathy is an ongoing process that requires humility, intentionality, and creating space for underrepresented voices – regardless of your role or gender. It’s about deeply listening and allowing that input to shape your perspective, product/service, and entire organizational ethos.

In an era where consumers crave authenticity and human connection from brands, those who embrace this spirit of empathy will be positioned for greater relevance and success.

Jess Markwood is part of Grit Daily's Leadership Network and COO at THE FIFTH, a world-class creative and influencer agency.

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