Is There An Empathy Delusion in Marketing?

A rising tide of evidence for purpose marketing has been shored up by Covid-19. Companies have grappled with how to engage an audience who are in lockdown. The challenge; limited resources, reduced purchasing abilities and interests more attuned to health and wellbeing rather than shopping. Companies quickly became more empathetic through purpose marketing, sidestepping from profit-first to community-first. Although, as lockdown eases, there have been questions surrounding purpose marketing and how empathy is used in promotions. Are these questions well-founded?

Empathy in marketing is the ability to connect with people at a deeper level, helping companies understand how they are feeling and to react appropriately. Empathy allows purpose marketing to tune a company’s value proposition into what matters most to their audience guiding marketing and encouraging trust, loyalty and advocacy. 

Some marketers and agencies may hope to return to marketings ‘good old days’ where the job had clear boundaries; to promote product and services. But, a marketer’s role is evolving into an ever-expanding list of company purpose, cause marketing, society benefit, equity accountability, sustainability communications… etc. Aline Santos, Global Executive VP of Marketing for Unilever supports this narrative;

“Consumers also expect brands to step in the centre up to help solve society’s problems. We can’t just think about top line and bottom line, we have to be in the front line.”

The marketing role is becoming quite a handful for an agency or a sole marketer. Juggling between activism, cause and promotion is a precursor to doubts about the profitability and effectiveness of purpose marketing. Although many ‘push backs’ on purpose marketing are worryingly short-sighted, there was one that I found interesting. The Empathy Delusion delved a little deeper. It explained how people think in different ways and raised an interesting point about social representation in marketing and discrimination of opposing views. Although, there are still glaring questions and gaps in the presentation i.e. their Brexiter/Remainer Dictator Game experiment, how will this behaviour transfer to marketers work? Please see the video below.

Marketing today is technically highly skilled with a whole stream of software for SEO management, analytics for reporting and many online and offline promotional channels. The Empathy Delusion’s foundation argument is that marketing is elitist, suggesting that marketers do not represent the thinking of broader society. However, many if not all UK companies will have segments that can be monitored by listening tools rather than broadly advertising to everybody. Marketers relentlessly pursue and investigate segments to understand who’s likely to buy their products and adjust their marketing to suit. So the answer to the representation argument really depends on a company’s customer base, the buyers intent and the product or service they are purchasing.

Although, with the skills required in marketing today, it may be fair to say marketing is elitist. The definition of elitism is;

  • a way of organizing a system, society, etc. so that only a few people have power or influence.”
  • “relating to, or supporting the view that a society or system should be led by an elite.”

Companies will want the very best marketers, the ‘elite marketers’. Many will often be well educated and, it could be argued, from a privileged background. Elitism is a structural policy issue that runs across many highly skilled occupations, not just in marketing as can be seen in the Empathy Delusion’s own presentation below. Although, this is a reductionist representation of society (some would suggest there are seven classes) it does indicate a need for more representation and social mobility between social strata in the marketing industry.


The Empathy Delusion suggests that it is this elitism that causes an over-reliance on purpose marketing. But in my opinion, purpose marketing should play a role in promotions but shouldn’t be the only message. Do you think the below far-right activist bought his Nike trainers for their social equity values? It’s narrow-minded to suggest purpose will have a negative impact, exclude rather than include broader society. Ben and Jerry’s equity purpose is actively more inclusive rather than exclusive to society.


The Empathy Delusion suggests that social virtue or ‘saving the world’ marketing is not grounded in the needs of the mainstream but driven by people working in the marketing industry. I disagree. I believe it’s the product of marketer’s investigations into what matters most to their audience as they follow evolving markets, strengthen their brand and become more profitable.

Plus, in the below snip, the Empathy Delusion’s own investigation suggests benevolence is the strongest value in society, so perhaps they disagree with themselves. I will leave you to make up your mind.

For more on purpose marketing, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.








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