Ruthless Empathy: Cutting to the Core of Your Brand

We don't judge when marketing becomes an afterthought in your business operations.

Maybe you’re a start-up sprinting to earn your keep, or working in a marketing department for a big company that is slow to move and slower to pivot. Whatever the reason, sometimes your market, or your offering, shifts faster than your marketing strategy can adapt. You may find yourself developing marketing strategies to solve a problem that you’re not sure is real, for an audience you’re not sure exists. There is an uncomfortable tension as everyone keeps moving dutifully forward, but the heart of what made your offering exciting isn’t there anymore. Sound familiar? 

It’s time to call in reinforcements and ask the hard questions. Sure, “who is your audience and why do they care about this?” is a daunting question to get from your creative agency, but rest assured it’s much scarier when they don’t ask. Without a clear benefit to your audience, the marketing exercise becomes very abstract and self-congratulatory, asking that busy everyday folks engage with your message just for the sake of pretty words and pictures. 

This is frankly not the work that we get excited about putting into the world, and not the kind of work that serves our clients well. We capture this dogged pursuit of clarity, reality and emotionality in our ethos “Ruthless Empathy”. Put plainly, it is meeting real people where they are and offering them real value. It sets aside ego and challenges us to operate outside of our biases. Here’s how we do it.

Start with what is already true.

Let your benefits lead you to your audience.

This may be counterintuitive, but leading with the demographic of the person you want to market to isn’t necessarily actually a customer-centred approach. Take for example Toronto-based brand Mejuri, a retailer that has successfully positioned their fairly priced jewelry as an empowering choice for women to buy for themselves. 

If this brand had followed the traditional, heteronormative script of jewelry buying, they may have wound up trying to position budget-friendly jewelry as a good gift for men to buy women, and struggle to tell the story of why women should want a cheaper gift from their partners. It doesn’t lend itself to very romantic or special storytelling. 

Instead, they flip the script by promoting “Everyday luxury”, building in a call to repeat purchasing and doing away with the need to wait around for someone to deem you worthy of a necklace. They quite literally have done away with the middle man (both in the procurement and gifting processes), elevating the perceived value to the customer and saving women all over the world from those weird heart pendant necklaces (you know which ones we mean). 

Ruthless homework:

  • What’s the best thing about your product? Who needs that thing?
  • What do people currently believe about your product’s category? 
  • Are those beliefs outdated? Who do they leave behind?

Solve a real problem.

Rather than the ones people “don’t know they have”.

A very large cannabis corporation, which for legal reasons is fictional, found itself in a pickle at the outset of Cannabis legalization 2.0. Having grossly overestimated the demand for cannabis capsules, a new format dropping on the scene, there was a sudden crunch for all hands on deck to create assets that pushed the abundance of cannabis capsules. 

Unfortunately, neither the case for cannabis capsules, nor the audience, was readily apparent or well-defined. The product wasn’t born out of a customer pain point, the pain point belonged to the supply chain, and the strategy became “let’s get these pot pills the hell out of here”. 

The product was totally unfamiliar, even to the most cannabis-enthused. Unlike fun, snacky edibles and beverages, this category remedicalized something in a product portfolio that was emphasizing fun and recreation. Dosage education was needed for canna-curious consumers, while everyday consumers needed to be convinced to pivot from their smoking rituals. Without a clear objective or strategy for determining their audience, the marching orders were to include every product RTB on every place the product was advertised. Confused? So were the customers. We would show you, but again, the corporation is fictional and this definitely didn’t happen in real life. 

For context, the two best-selling capsules are value options, which is a pretty standard preference-driver across most cannabis categories. Unlike some other categories where THC is queen, however,  six of the top ten best-sellers are CBD products. This might suggest that capsules exist as an alternative to CBD oil, not as a pivot from smoking flower. This has totally different implications for messaging and audience, potentially that capsules offer value to those looking for less psychoactivity and more medicinal benefit, and for a pre-dosed alternative to CBD oil. 

Ruthless homework:

  • What’s the best thing about your product? Who needs that thing?
  • What do people currently believe about your product’s category? 
  • Are those beliefs outdated? Who do they leave behind?

Meet your audience where they are.

Not where you want them to be. 

Literally, make sure you’re reaching your audience when and where they’re listening. For example, you probably won’t make run ads for DVD player repair on Netflix. Or you might not want to be retargeting people who just bought a couch with more couch ads. They only have one butt and most houses aren’t in need of many simultaneous couches. 

Figuratively, don’t assume product knowledge in your audience. Build in product education into your brand identity, so that you have brand elements people have a genuine reason to interact with and come back to. This could look like really well-made instructions, or a unique way of communicating your product’s values. 

A company that succeeded in the clear expression of their values, was Oatly’s “Are You Stupid?” campaign built credibility and preference. They asked consumers to identify plant milk from conventional dairy products in a grocery store environment, after EU legislation threatened to heavily legislate plant milk packaging to exclude words like “creamy” or “dairy-free” per dairy lobbyist objections. This so clearly established the brand’s tone of voice and values, inspiring an easy and feel-good action for consumers to take (signing a petition to block that legislation) and making it easy for consumers to align themselves with the company’s values. 

Ruthless homework:

  • What do you wish your audience understood about your industry?
  • What’s a fun fact about your product that people are surprised to learn?
  • How can you be more transparent with your audience? 
  • What’s a cause that’s aligned with your brand and your audience?
  • What keeps your consumer up at night?

Build for the consumer’s eye.

Not the marketing professional’s.   

Take a step back and look at the big picture. Can the work be understood? Does it add value to the audience? 

Making your brand memorable isn’t an exercise of cramming your logo or tagline into a space as much as it will fit. Let your audience remember you for beautifully designed work that genuinely enhances spaces and experiences. 

Before your audience even makes up their mind about your work, it needs to capture and maintain their attention. Design to reduce the cognitive lift required by consumers through copy that’s easy to read and UX that’s intuitive. 

As for copy, write with intention. Every year, new words enter the “advertising filler word” category, used to replace actual information about a product. e.g. “mindfully produced”, “curated”, “meticulous”. Savvy consumers understand that fluff doesn’t improve understanding, and are intentionally chosen to absolve the brand of commitment to any substantive standard or action. 

Lastly, whenever possible, say less. If you can’t explain your offering in a sentence, it’s not simple enough. 

Ruthless homework: 

  • Ask a friend to describe what your workplace does? 
  • Do people know how to say your company’s name? 
  • What does your company do to be accessible? 
  • Do you fully understand the information captured in your brand book?

Act like humans.

Real recognizes real.

In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Dr. Travis Bradberry says “likable people are genuine and consistent, make a strong first impression, and greet people by name.”  In other words, people tend to show you, rather than tell you, who they are. When we see marketing as an act of relationship-building, we can think about how to harness humanity and likability. 

In a cluttered landscape where so much advertising is clearly being optimized for computers, not people, the adaptable consumer is learning how to see through the BS with an accelerating quickness. They appreciate the rarity of authenticity, and still make purchasing and attention decisions that are emotional at their core, and most compelling when coming from a trusted source with a well-managed reputation.  

So how do you get people to want to relate to your product?
  • Select and segment your audience for values and behaviours rather than identity markers like age, gender and race. This helps believers identify themselves, and pass the message on. 
  • Simplify and stay on message. You don’t want to cannibalize or dilute testing of messages in-market by trying too much all at once.
  • Make it a sensory joy to interact with your work and a fun experience to show someone else. People can recognize, and are unmoved by a Canva template at this stage in the game. It’s worth investing on a little razzle dazzle.

Ruthless homework: 

  • How do you promote originality and emotional thinking in your organization, especially re: brainstorming?

Listen, we get it.

Real recognizes real.

As women we have seen firsthand how flat a brand story falls when it oversimplifies or gets our experience wrong. As marketers, we bring this understanding into our work, and look for opportunities to make our audience and our clients heard. Our specialty markets, cannabis and craft alcohol, are both very crowded with brands that rely really heavily on stereotypes. Here’s how we highlight our client’s best assets: 

  • We listen: We start wide and reimagine what constitutes a stakeholder, gathering expertise from all around your team. 
  • We ask questions: You say jump, we say “How? Why?”. Be extremely wary of teams who don’t seek clarification, symptom of rueful apathy, a.k.a. People who will just lob assets back and forth across the fence at you. 
  • We cut the crap: We have all been in a creative shareback that borders on spoken word poetry. We practice what we preach, we make sure you know what is going on and you’re comfortable with what you’re signing up for. 
  • We kill your darlings: Say goodbye to that barely-rhyming tagline that your CEO came up with a week into concept development that everyone is too scared to tell him doesn’t really make sense. Let us get to the bottom of your bad ideas so we can make good ones happen. 
  • We’re kind and smart: We like this line of work because we work well with others. You can trust us with your hard work, and we’ll work tirelessly to produce something that we’re all proud of and makes sense to everyone.

Ready to get started? Book some time with us.