Understanding how to emotively connect with your consumer has never been more important. Brands and businesses have always needed to weave some kind of emotional tie if they are to build brand loyalty, but recent events have brought emotive connection front and centre. The brands that get this right now and during the recovery will win.

In previous posts I have discussed the importance of Community, Caring and Belonging, not only as basic human need states but also as strong values of the current Covid-19 consumer. But just how do we ‘care’? What do consumers of this Captive Economy expect of us?


The three phases of this pandemic from a consumer perspective (the NOW, THEN & WHEN – see last blog post) require a business to be emotionally active and engaged, across all key phases.

I think most businesses need a lesson on emotional engagement and indeed, the continuum that exists when it comes to human understanding.


Stage 1: Indifference


This is where you do not recognise that the individual is in any emotional distress. You do not acknowledge their suffering nor do you action anything that may relieve said suffering. If you were in a personal relationship where your partner was always indifferent to your emotions, we would say that is an unhealthy relationship. No one likes to be on the receiving end of indifference. It makes you feel small, inconsequential, weak, unimportant.

However, in business we do it every day. Brands miss out on moments along their customer journey where they could have made an emotional connection but instead opt for indifference. Needless to say, indifference is never a winning strategy.

Personal Story 1: A financial services company with whom I have had a relationship since 1997 will lose all my business in 2020. Their complete indifference to me as an individual, a customer and a claimant during their claims process means they lose a customer forever. All their communications have been bureaucratic, designed to minimise their outbound payments, and heartless. Not once in the 3 months has any individual asked after my health or wellbeing despite the claim being as a result of a serious accident. Not even a glib “I hope you are recovering well” in an email opener. Just absolute indifference to any physical or emotional state. This is Customer Experience 101 – identify with your customer and make them ‘feel’ something. In the beginning I found it amusing, the lost opportunity for connection. However, as the corporate communications kept coming, slyly trying to minimise their claim liability, the lack of emotional care grated on me.

Obviously, make sure there are no indifferent touch points anywhere in your customer journey. If your business premises or activity is closed during this current phase of the pandemic, don’t stay silent. Indifference is not an attractive quality.

Stage 2: Pity


Pity is the acknowledgement of suffering. On the emotional engagement continuum, it is near the lower end, meaning that there is little emotional investment. We can feel pity for someone, feel some discomfort for their distress, but remain relatively removed from their suffering.

You might pity a grieving widow if you didn’t really know any of the family. You would pity a gazelle as a lioness takes it down on the Savannah. You may have feelings of pity for the homeless as you walk past them on the way to work. The suffering is acknowledged but that is all.


Personal Story 2: After my injury in December, knowing that my 2020 revenue would be adversely affected by my not being able to work, I had applied to take a mortgage holiday with my bank. The application process was again complex and bureaucratic, requiring tax and financial statements stretching back three years – you know the drill.

Four months later, the application for the payment holiday is still ‘pending’ and their last request was for tax paperwork I’d already submitted to them and they’d misplaced. Sadly, due to the pandemic, the particular tax office are unable to provide copies of the desired statement (as their office is now closed) and the paperwork is not available for online download. On explaining this to the bank I received a “we are sorry to hear that you cannot provide the requested paperwork, but we need it to process the application”. So basically, pity (that you can’t get what you need) but no actual ownership, care or suggestion as to how they might help.


Nobody wants to be pitied, to explain their plight only to have a brand or business pretend to care but then shrug their shoulders. Businesses in hibernation need to show a lot more than pity. Pity is the most passive of the emotional engagement states, and in the current phase of the lock-down, one that is viewed the same as indifference.

Stage 3 : Sympathy


Sympathy is where you have feelings of care/concern for someone, accompanied by a desire to see them better off or happier. The difference between simply acknowledging the suffering (pity) and sympathy is the care component.

Right now, most of us feel great sympathy for the Frontline Healthcare workers, putting their own lives at risk during the day, and then returning to their families at night, terrified they may bring the infection home. We can all sympathise with how that must feel. We feel sympathy for the 75-year old widow, home alone without anyone to talk to. We feel sympathy for a friend who has lost his job or a family member who is not coping well from a mental health perspective with this new normal.


We care. This is the starting point for any brand, to actually care. Not in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) way, but in a genuine way.

However, sympathy isn’t action oriented, nor do you have to really identify with their emotional state. I am neither a 75-year old widow or a frontline healthcare worker, but I can sympathise with what they might be going through. Or at least I think I can.

This is why the celebrity cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ backfired so spectacularly. Celebrities were claiming to care, to acknowledge that we were ‘all in this together’, that they were sharing in our suffering. However, that is the definition of Empathy – a shared sense of suffering.  Similarly, the (awfully produced) cover version actually did nothing to change the suffering or pain we were feeling. It wasn’t a fundraiser, but a cry for help from celebrities who were choking to death on the lack of ‘attention oxygen’. And social media responded appropriately.


Your customers may be going through financial instability, all sorts of uncertainty, massive social and behavioural changes. The starting point is sympathy, building a level of genuine care into every CX touch point.

Stage 4: Empathy

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions, including, if any, their distress.


The difference between being Sympathetic and Empathetic confuses most, but it is really quite simple. This is up another level from sympathy, as here not only do you care, you see it from their side, and even identify/share their emotion.

For example, I can be sympathetic to the physical pain of giving birth but I can’t be fully empathetic – I can try and understand the pain but cannot really identify with it unless I have experienced it.


‘We are all in this together’ is something that you will hear everywhere today. SaveOurFaves, a gift card site for quarantined restaurants and coffee shops in San Francisco was launched by Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. 3-4 weeks without cashflow can kill a hospitality business and so this app was launched so that consumers could help their favourite businesses survive, empathetic to the struggle.

Stage 5: Compassion

Compassion is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering. Or more simply put, doing something about it. Most brands (and people!) would describe themselves as compassionate, but unless you can point to something you have actually ‘done’, then it is likely you were just sympathetic. To be compassionate you have to actually do something.


On April 14th, The Bay Horse, a pub in Glasgow put up a post on its Facebook page offering free pints of beer delivered to customers homes, free of charge. Needless to say, there were plenty of smiles in their local community over the coming days.

Identifying with your consumers needs, struggles, pain or fears is key to building a connection. But identifying with them, caring about them is one thing. Doing something about it is another. The solution for this business was simple. Our regulars are all stuck at home forgetting about us. This is our moment to connect, to do something unique, to relieve some of their suffering. So, they brought their pub to the homes and driveways of their customers, and in so doing became a viral sensation


Compare that to all the other pubs who have simply put their businesses into hibernation until they can open again, their social media posts full of memes about how good the party will be when they reopen. Sympathetic to the circumstances but not compassionate.

IKEA have released their famous meatball recipe to the world so customers can enjoy them at home. McDonald’s have done the same with their Sausage & Egg McMuffin. A micro-brewery in Aberdeen has promised to buy ‘everyone a beer’ when this is all over, a genius way to internationalise their brand and drive a global sampling campaign for their IPA.


Insurance companies are reducing their premiums to consumers due to lower risk/claim levels. Banks are offering bureaucratic-free approaches to mortgage holidays (just not to me!). My broadband provider doubled my monthly allowances and reduced the fee due to the pandemic.

Compassion means doing something to relieve the distress consumers may be feeling.


What should be very clear is that in times of high stress and anxiety, consumers need action. They need to see compassion from the brands they interact with. During these last weeks (the NOW), and the next few, compassion should be your leading strategy > action-based community care. Your brand or business needs to be actively making a genuine difference in your ‘community’. This is not a time to lead with commercial messaging.

As we push into the THEN phase – the long bottom, we need to hold on to the empathy, the genuine care, but can begin to combine it with commercial messaging. This is about the consumers reflecting the support we gave them back at the brand. We were there for them and they are there for us.


Lastly WHEN the recovery goes well and things return to normal, while we still need to always remain emotionally connected, hopefully the investments made in compassion and care in the previous months will pay significant dividends.

Just remember, sometimes the smallest of things mean so much to people who are struggling. Just watch this simple video of some Pick n Pay shoppers being given their Christmas groceries for free at the checkout in South Africa. Connect with a customer emotively and you build a bridge of possibility for life.

I know it’s a bit early for a Christmas video but hey, it kind of feels like Christmas as every day is the same!

This is Part 2 of an article series on the stages of Covid19 recovery. Read Part I here.

Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.

To book Ken Hughes for a Webinar for your business or to learn more about his new keynote on The Captive Economy, click here.


Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

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