SXSW 2019: E–M–P–A–T–H–Y Find out what it means to me

If Aretha Frankin were alive and songwriting in Austin in 2019, I can’t help but think that her cult song, ‘Respect’, would have been called ‘Empathy’ instead.

Empathy and trust have been two key themes running through the SXSW Interactive programming, as concerns rise based on recent statistics that trust has hit an all-time low globally.

One of the stand-out SXSW sessions for me has been Michael Ventura’s session ‘A Crash Course in Empathy and Leadership’. Ventura, CEO of strategy agency Sub Rosa, literally wrote the book on empathy.

Ventura’s method of applied empathy shows that putting empathy at the heart of strategy can not only make the world a better place, build connection and trust and increase retention; but it can also be a powerful marketing tool for businesses to connect with their customers.

GE decided to put empathy at the centre of its mammogram product in order to use human-centred design to make the experience more positive for women and launched GE for Women by Women. In doing so, they made the full customer journey sympathetic and warm, making major adjustments to the functionality of the machines themselves right down to small environmental adjustments such as developing comfortable gowns to wear during the process, warming treatment rooms and fast-tracking the reporting process to cut down anxious wait times. In doing so, they decreased discomfort by 79 percent and anxiety surrounding the test by 54 percent and lifted the efficacy rating of the mammogram by 12 percent.

The findings of the study opened up an additional revenue stream for GE, with hospitals and clinics seeking them out to provide not only the machines, but the overall experience for patients too. GE are now monetising this as a service offering.

Nike has also used empathy as a strategy to sell features of their Hyperfeel sneaker. Tapping into the art and science of feeling, Nike launched an immersive experience to educate their customers on the important connection between a runner’s foot and the earth. In the immersive experience, people removed their shoes and donned a neuro-headset that monitored their brainwaves as they explored the pitch-black space, with only their bare feet and the texture of the ground to guide them. At the end of the experience, their neuro-activity was downloaded in real-time and processed through a visualization algorithm. Guests were then taken into a product try-on area to purchase limited edition Hyperfeels.

Below are Ventura’s seven encouragements to put empathy into practice in your life and work:

  1. Be curious
  2. Be honest (otherwise you’ll get bad data)
  3. Be vulnerable
  4. Be open minded
  5. Be selfless and share your ideas
  6. Be undeterred — you need to commit long-term to put empathy in the centre of strategy
  7. Be brave

The parting words from Ventura were that empathy will slow you down before it speeds you up, but – as he and Ms Franklin know – legendary work is rarely done overnight.

  • Sarah Geel is Anthem’s senior account director.

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