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Jim Needell

September 2020

Jim is the Chief Client Officer at Ipsos MORI, spending much of his time advising brands on how to uncover and activate growth opportunities.


2 - 3 Minutes

Empathy: an antidote for forward-looking brands

The brands most likely to meet the demands of short-term and structural global trends can show their empathy. That is the key message emerging from work done by my firm, Ipsos MORI, both before and during the COVID era.

We found that 59% of nearly 23,000 people in 33 countries said they “tend to buy brands that reflect my personal values.”1 That was last year, admittedly, but my belief is that the 2020 data, to be published shortly, will see a strengthening of these and similar sentiments.

COVID, meanwhile, has practically re-invented empathy as a must-have social standard.

For evidence, look no further than the way the majority of the world’s population has changed behaviour with others in mind. In at least the first six months of the pandemic (March to September 2020), people around Europe stayed at home, cancelled visits to friends and family, wore face masks, and gave priority to healthcare workers in shops and on transport.


tend to buy brands that reflect personal values

Heart of the matter

Reflecting the rising importance of such sentiments, Ipsos MORI recently asked a select group of consumers to write imaginary love letters to their bank. Alternatively, we said, they might compose a break-up note. The results of this quirky experiment were as informative as they were entertaining. Whether warm or cold, the letters shared a common desire for the personal touch.

“Thank you,” wrote one participant, “for treating me as an individual person, as a valued equal. You listen to my needs and you go out of your way to make me happy. You hold my hand when I need you to and let me be independent when everything is going well. You remember what I tell you. You are the bank I need. Carry on treating me well and you’ll have me for life.”2

A satisfied customer expressing dedicated loyalty because the bank has empathy. “You hold my hand,” the correspondent writes. Critically, the bank is also sincere. It shows real human understanding and engagement: “You remember what I tell you.” It is clear that genuine empathy requires demonstrable authenticity.

Doing the ‘right’ thing

It is hard to define empathy even by those who try hardest. It means different things to different people. It is also a ‘feeling’ and by its nature tricky to measure. We know it when we see it, but are often unable to explain why we feel that way.

Empathy can help resolve the conundrums because it motivates consumer-specific responses. And of course, it’s good business for the future. Younger generations lead the desire for brands to act responsibly. Nearly two-thirds of those born after 1981 say they try to buy products and services from brands that act responsibly, even if it means spending more, according to our data.


think climate change is as serious as COVID-19

Climate fears have not gone away

It’s true that environmental concerns have dropped down the list of worries, but our research shows that they are still very important for consumers. In April 2020 – when COVID fears were at their strongest – we asked 28,000 people from around the world whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “In the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19 is.” Those agreeing or strongly agreeing made up fully 71% of the total; 21% disagreed or strongly disagreed.4

Any brand that thinks it can forget about environmental credentials is making a mistake.

Moving Targets

Not only do people want to be treated as individuals, their attitudes shift over time. Meeting consumer needs is nothing if not a moving target. Often, the process can be slow – as with attitudes to climate, gender, ethnicity, and diet. The onset of COVID, however, has prompted step-changes in, for example, the use of technology. In the US, e-commerce penetration in retail sales grew steadily from around 6% to 16% between 2009 and 2019. In just 8 weeks in early 2020, however, that figure rose to 27%.5 In telemedicine, only 1-in-10 US healthcare professionals had seen patients down the line prior to the spread of COVID. Now, 80% have.6

Digital demands

The pandemic has led to multiple changes in behaviour for societies, citizens and consumers. It has also created and reinforced tensions. Many surface in digital and data arenas. As many as 79% of those 23,000 questioned in 2019 agreed with the statement: “The world today is changing too fast.”7 Meanwhile, 77% of those questioned agreed that:

“It is inevitable that we will all lose some privacy in the future because of what new technology can do.”8

Attitudes and preferences can appear contradictory. For example, large majorities say they are concerned about how personal online information is used, while also admitting they don’t bother fully reading terms and conditions before clicking on the ‘Accept Cookies’ button. Populations in emerging markets are more anxious than apathetic while the reverse is true in more mature economies. Overall, though, complex mixtures of sentiment may only be understood, and managed, using empathy.

Health versus wealth

Shutdowns have had a larger effect on those in lower paid work because so many of their jobs are in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality. The self-employed are more vulnerable than employees. The accounts manager with an internet-connected computer can work at home with relative ease. The flight attendant? Not so much.

Wealth inequalities are mirrored by decidedly uneven attitudes elsewhere. Most recent Ipsos MORI data – drawn from our weekly Essentials Report – shows that health concerns are running at about half the levels seen in late February and March when around 50% of people polled in Spain and Italy said health was a high or very high personal threat. Around 40% of populations in France and the UK gave the same answers at the same time. By the end of June only around a quarter of people voiced the concern - though worries are running higher in Spain and lower in Germany.9

And the young, as mentioned before, think differently from their parents and grandparents. They are more sanguine about the COVID health risks, but also tend to be more fearful of financial futures.

Balancing act

Balancing key tensions – such as health worries versus stretched personal finances, economic recovery versus climate politics, rising inequality between the haves and the have nots, and the proliferation of data versus privacy concerns – all point to a world where trade-offs will need to be carefully managed if brands are to realise the opportunities and avoid the bear traps.

Expect the unexpected

Alongside all analysis of observed trends, we need to remember that unpredictability is a constant. Who wasn’t surprised by COVID? Only 4% of participants in the 2019 Ipsos MORI Global Trends Survey believed that an infectious disease was the biggest threat to societies.10 In health, wealth and consumer trends, it is as well to expect the unexpected and be ready to adjust, in real time, to surprises.

The short- and long-term trends show that consumers wish to be treated as individuals; that preferences change over time; and attitudes differ in different circumstances.

But ask me if there is a single quality that successful brands can use to tackle the challenges? The answer is empathy.

1 Ipsos Global trends 2020 Edition: https://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/

2 Ipsos Money Talks, Women and Money 2020

3 Ipsos Global trends 2020 Edition: https://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/

4 Global Advisor Green Day, April 2020

5 Bank of America, US Department of Commerce, ShawSpring Research

6 Ipsos Covid-19 surveillance, US only, April 2020

7 Ipsos Global trends 2020 Edition: https://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/

8 Ipsos Global trends 2020 Edition: https://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/

9 Ipsos Essentials Covid-19 Tracker, February & June 2020

10 Ipsos Global trends 2020 Edition: https://www.ipsosglobaltrends.com/

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