Caring as a business tool: humanising companies with empathy

Caring as a business tool: humanising companies with empathy

As Comedy Central and Coca-Cola discovered, connecting more closely with people can make businesses stronger than ever

Christophe Fauconnier and Benoit Beaufils

theguardian.com, Friday 10 January 2014 21.40 GMT

Care, the conventional wisdom goes, belongs in the bassinet, not the boardroom. We disagree. We believe that care is the most essential ingredient of business, brands and marketing, today and in the years ahead. It makes us work as people, for other people. It helps us create brands and products that are meaningful for them, not simply transactions for immaterial targets. It will give us, our brands and our businesses longevity, the staying power that only comes from adding value to the lives of the people we serve.Care creates empathy, shapes ecosystems and reinvents value in a way that nothing else can. This is because it allows us to shape brands and businesses with our hearts and not just our heads, for the benefit of others as well as ourselves.

Care creates empathy

A few years ago, we helped the TV channel Comedy Central better understand laughter. The company had just been bought by MTV and was having an identity crisis. Business was not good.

The problem, as we identified it, was that Comedy Central thought its business was about piling up comical shows for viewers who just wanted to have fun. We showed them that laughter helps us deal with tough moments in our lives and withstand hardship, and this concept gave them a new raison d’être. Comedy Central adapted its programming and marketing to reflect the idea that “comedy matters” – and put its business back on track.

The lesson is valid for any business: without empathy, we’re just creating products for targets that serve needs we decide they have. With it, we gain a true understanding not of purchase behavior, but of hopes, dreams and fears. Beyond the product and category, we understand how a brand can help solve the tensions people live with and support what they live for. It helps us shape brands and products that have a purpose.

Empathy is a business tool that can provide direction from the top down or from the bottom up. For example, in 2013, we helped Unilever turn empathy into a market research method. All 7,000 of the company’s marketers now routinely converse with the people they serve, in their homes. The marketers get to know them in a way that’s intimate and meaningful, and understand how Unilever’s brands touch on essential aspects of life.

The brand Sunsilk, for instance, discovered that hair is a key part of image for young, emerging, middle-class women who want to craft their own paths in a world that too often tells them what to do. Across the globe, Sunsilk wove together stories that celebrate feminine independence. After years of decline, the brand shot back to growth.

Care enriches ecosystems

In 2013 the Coca-Cola Company launched its Ekocenters, off-the-grid, modularly designed kiosks that provide clean, safe drinking water, as well as other services such as Wi-Fi, electricity and vaccination storage. At the heart of Ekocenter is a technical innovation, which produces drinkable water out of any fluid.

But what made it a success was Coke’s “eco-system” approach. Working with families, local communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs, we worked with Coke to explore how its innovation could provide value to the whole community. The result was a community center, a tool to improve conditions for community development. This concept won support from both communities and NGOs that had never previously been supporters of Coke.

Through the lens of caring, a business or an innovation does not just serve “consumers”. It serves a whole eco-system of people and communities. It becomes a tool to nurture a common purpose.

Caring reinvents value

In 2013, we brought together a group of executives from diverse backgrounds, and challenged them to reinvent AIG, the insurance giant that the subprime crisis turned into one of the world’s most hated companies. (A Harris poll actually rated it the single most disliked company in 2013 out of the 60 most visible US brands.)

Using empathy and exploring the entire eco-system in which it operates, the executives imagined a new AIG. They suggested that with its unbeatable knowledge of risks, AIG could serve communities by preventing uncertainties, but also reduce its damage payments and hence boost profits.

A flurry of new product ideas emerged – including an Agoda-style frequent traveler’s app that could offer localized security advice and services, as well as one-click, day-by-day travel insurance. The exercise showed the executives how a company could go beyond creating value for its customers to facilitate value creation between all those who touch the brand.

It’s another example of how care, again, can serve as a business tool.

So as you embark into a fresh new year, dare to care. Change your focus from “consumers” to the people you care for. Build empathy into your market research processes and find out what moves people, rather than just what they think about your products. Look beyond the people who buy your brands to understand how your business impacts your suppliers and distributors, the communities you operate in and the NGOs who challenge you. Explore their aspirations to find a single purpose that can unite them, and position your business to serve that purpose. Because when you set your business to the benefit of everyone, your business benefits too.

Christophe Fauconnier is the CEO of Innate Motion and Benoit Beaufils is a founding partner. They also co-authored Creating Value People to People

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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