The Single Biggest Branding Mistake I’ve Seen Companies Make

Smart brand strategy is built on a foundation of empathy for your customer. Here are a few insights on what empathy looks like—and what it doesn't.

Lindsay Pedersen, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader's Guide | Courtesy Photo
Lindsay Pedersen, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide | Courtesy Photo

Smart brand strategy is built on a foundation of empathy for your customer. Lindsay Pedersen offers a few insights on what empathy looks like—and what it doesn’t.

In late 2008, Seattle’s adored Washington Mutual Bank (known locally and affectionately as WaMu) failed and was subsumed in a shotgun wedding with Chase Bank. Seattleites were reeling in the early days of the Great Recession, and WaMu’s going under was salt in that raw wound as they watched thousands of friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues get laid off.

Then came the final blow: Chase plastered this line on buses and billboards throughout the city: “Seattle: land of coffee, seafood, and now helpful banking.”

“Now helpful banking?” says Lindsay Pedersen, Seattle resident and author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. “We previously did have helpful banking. It was called WaMu. Who did this outsider think they were, coming in and telling us we needed them? How dare they?

“Understanding our response required empathy from Chase—stepping into our shoes and feeling the wound with us,” she notes. “Chase could have empathetically let us Seattleites be the hero and resolve the tension, the anguish of this communal loss. Instead they positioned themselves as the hero and insulted us further.”

This, says Pedersen, is the single biggest mistake companies make in their brand efforts. They fail to be on the customer’s side. They fundamentally fail to respect the customer. They commit a breach of empathy—that elusive ability that lets us see things through the perspective of another.


The foundation of a compelling brand

“At the foundation of a compelling brand is empathy—putting yourself in the customer’s shoes,” she notes. “You have to truly get to know the humans you’re seeking to connect with. When you don’t, you’ll not only fail to persuade them to buy and build a loyal relationship over time, you may put out a tone-deaf message—like Chase did—that blatantly alienates them.”

Keep in mind that our brand is more than the marketing messages we send out—far more. It encompasses everything from our product to our pricing to our SEO tactics to our customer experience. And Pedersen says companies are constantly failing to notice and bridge the “empathy gap” that exists between their offerings and the customers they’re trying to reach.

“Empathy has to be baked into your processes and the very fabric of your culture.”

How to practice brand empathy
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That said, empathizing begins long before you sit down to conceptualize messaging. Empathy has to be baked into your processes and the very fabric of your culture. Otherwise, you’ll fail to serve the customer and ultimately fail the business. In fact, Pedersen says most serious brand mistakes come down to the central cardinal sin of failing to empathize.

Pedersen offers a few tips to help you sidestep this big branding mistake:


1. Forget the Golden Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, the goal of the marketer is to tap into the customer’s needs and wants—to empathize with her and to meet her where she lives. If we don’t, and instead we market as if we ourselves were the target, we’re going to fail. Rather than doing unto them as you would have done to you, do unto them as they would have you do unto them. It’s not about you—it’s about them.


2. Cultivate the ‘beginner’s mindset’

This is what Zen Buddhists call the receptive, unguarded, eager state of childlike wonder. Take this approach to understand your customer and what he is trying to accomplish. In this state, you will be vulnerable—open to learning, to be surprised, to be wrong—even though you might find this feeling uncomfortable. If you’re not approaching your customer with vulnerability, you won’t allow him to be vulnerable, and this will prevent meaningful insights from emerging. You will merely hear confirmation of things you already knew.


3. Find out what customers really want and need, not just what they say they want and need

This requires some digging and dot connecting. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have answered ‘faster horses.'” Instead, you must a) discover the deep-seated, unspoken, perhaps even unconscious desires of your target and b) create an offering and communicate that offering in a manner informed directly by your understanding of those desires.

“It’s not easy,” says Pedersen. “And it’s not just product developers who risk a lack of empathy. Smart, experienced, highly trained marketers have fallen prey to the empathy gap. But, meaningful do you want your offering to be? Do you want it just to plug a hole, or do you want it to add meaningfully to the lives of your customers?”


4. Make your customer the hero in your marketing

Your customer—not your business—should be the hero of the story. Your business exists to resolve the tension and advance your customer’s story. The goal is not to show the world how great you are. When you tell stories about your own business, let that be a device to show the audience themselves in your brand story.


This last point is where Chase went wrong. Pedersen notes they should have taken an approach similar to PEMCO Insurance during the same period. PEMCO developed an out-of-home bus campaign featuring humorous Pacific Northwest images that sparked Seattleites’ sense of community, pride, and kinship. The caption for each ad was “We’re a lot like you, a little different,” featuring inside jokes like the “Supercharged Seahawks Fan,” “Green Lake Power Walker,” “Recumbent Bike Commuter,” “Oblivious Left-Lane Occupant,” and “Fremont ’60s Holdout.”

“Instead of presuming a superior place at the family table, they became one of us,” says Pedersen. “They felt the zeitgeist and made the Seattleite the hero of the story. I still witness people grin when they encounter a PEMCO ad. Not surprisingly, PEMCO’s revenue has flourished in recent years, growing 30 percent between 2003 and 2015.”

We can be PEMCOs, says Pedersen. To do so, we must continually orient ourselves to our customer’s perspective throughout the brand-building process.

“Tell your story in a way that allows your respect for the customer to shine,” she says. “Before seeking to resonate with them, first seek to let them resonate with you. Before asking them to like you, make sure you first like, understand, and empathize with them.”


Lindsay Pedersen is the author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. She is a brand strategist, board advisor, coach, speaker, and teacher known for her scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She developed the Ironclad Method for value-creating brands while working with billion-dollar businesses like Starbucks, Clorox, Zulily, T-Mobile, and IMDb, as well as many burgeoning start-ups. Lindsay lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. For more information, visit ironcladbrandstrategy.com.


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