Brands Need Artificial Empathy. Here’s Why.

Brands Need Artificial Empathy. Here’s Why.

by Glen Drummond
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Part One in a two-part series

Empathy.  It’s such a defining human quality, you could say it’s in our bones. For sure, it’s in our brains. Neuroscience reveals that we have “mirror neurons” that cause other people’s emotional experiences to become our own. That concept would be astonishing if it were not so familiar.   Empathy runs in our veins. The hormone oxytocin – makes us closer to those we’re close with.  

Beyond this, there are the mental gadgets that history has draped on our biology. For instance, our fine-tuned sense of justice, fairness, and balance.  These qualities also incline us to prosocial behavior, such as helping a stranger on the street, supporting a local non-profit,  separating our recycling…

So if empathy comes naturally, why call for “Artificial Empathy?”  (Presuming, of course, that such a thing could even be possible?)  The answer begins with an observation about a trend in scale. Human nature developed over a long period in which there were rewards for co-operation within groups and competition between groups.  But compared to today, the groups were small. It’s not clear that biologically-rooted empathy equips us adequately for the scale-change.    

It’s not merely that there are more of us, although the human population has tripled since 1945.  It’s that the nature of connectivity between us is transformed.   As members of media-fueled electorates, our mood-swings are damaging institutions that took centuries to build.   As members of a global economy, our collective emissions are generating planet-scale impacts on the environment.  

There are broad conversations underway about these forms of our connectivity. Less so about our participation in corporations.   Arguably, no prior form of connectivity rivals the modern corporation’s capacity to pursue its objectives with such speed, scale and precision

And big corporations are getting bigger.  The World Bank reported in 2016 that among the 100 largest revenue-collecting entities in the world, 69 are corporations; 31 are nation-states.  A decade ago, the US Supreme Court awarded corporations a human right: freedom of speech.  The Danish government has appointed an Ambassador to liaise between the midsized nation and giant tech corporations.

If you have spent your career inside corporations, you know there are instances where scale acts as a liability as much as a strength.  The world knows that something went wrong at Volkswagen, at Facebook, at United, at Boeing.   And while the particulars are different, the circumstances rhyme.  A group of people sincerely felt it was their job to do something that the public would come to hate and the owners would come to regret.   What corporation is free from this risk?  

So why does business need “Artificial Empathy?”  It’s partly because natural empathy is poorly matched to the scale of the modern corporation.  And it’s partly because the consumer and the public are not going to let corporations off the hook for un-empathetic behavior.    

Here’s the basis for my confidence in that second observation.  People imagine brands as if they were other people. The marketing practice of managing brands using a system of archetypal characters speaks to this fact.  So does the blow-back that follows when corporations act in notably inhuman ways. There’s even neuro-imaging research that shows we look at logos and faces in surprisingly similar ways.      

So here, in a nutshell, is why brands need artificial empathy:  

  1. Because we imagine brands as if they were other people,  and 
  2. Because we expect other people to be inherently empathetic, so 
  3. We also expect brands to be inherently empathetic too, and
  4. Brands have no natural capacity to fulfill this expectation

This fabric of observations explains a lot. Corporations,  pursuing their interests without paying attention to this prevalent expectation, violate customer trust. And sometimes, public trust too. 

Only on the rare occasion does this violation happen in the dramatic ways cited in the cases of Volkswagen’s emissions masking or Cambridge Analytica’s democracy hacks.   

Far more common are violations so banal they barely register. Robotic voice response systems that remind you: “please continue to hold,  your call is important to us.” Departure lounges that add acoustic assault to the list of insults suffered by air passengers. Manipulative marketing and sales tactics like the email that arrived this morning in my inbox, by no coincidence, at 9:18 AM with the subject header, “9:00 AM Meeting.”   

Viewed through the lens of empathy, (and the lack thereof)  the distinction between the dramatic and undramatic instances becomes only a distinction of degree, not kind. And that observation is potentially helpful because it offers some guidance on what needs to be done.  

Now, you might say, “Ah, you’re talking about customer experience,” and yes, in a way that’s true.  But insofar as the term “customer experience” stands for a department, a performance measure or one in a set of parallel business disciplines,  a “customer experience” capability will only act on symptoms while failing to address the root cause. (Sociopaths are known, after all, for their ability to charm.)

Or, you might say, “Ah, so you’re talking about corporate governance.”  And yes, again in a way that’s true. But how much real capacity do the people charged with such weighty responsibilities have to intervene in the minor daily violations of the customer’s expectation of empathy?  It’s been observed for some time, that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”   

Since empathy violations appear to take place despite the ubiquity of “customer experience” and “corporate governance” functions the empathy gap – the delta between customer expectations of empathy and the level of empathy corporations are presently organized to muster – is a real business problem.

It seems like a problem that would be worth taking risks to explore, based on the value of the potential outcome if it could be solved.  

To summarize, let’s retrace our steps.   

  • Corporations are large, powerful, engines of collective influence and action.   
  • They are growing increasingly large, powerful, and influential in the lives of people.
  • People expect them to act empathetically, but corporations have no natural inherent capacity, like people do, to fulfill that expectation.
  • So, we should expect the empathy gap will grow with the power and reach of corporations, until such time as either corporations design a technology of empathy – “artificial empathy” if you will – or face a more concerted backlash directed at individual brands (“United breaks guitars”), at industry sectors (say, “big tech,”) and at corporations in general.   

Despite all the technical progress, investment and hype devoted to it, there remains a debate over whether “artificial intelligence” (AI) actually exists.  The concept of “artificial empathy,” if it were to enter the public discussion, would be subject to a similar philosophical challenge.  

So why talk about it at all? 

Because corporations have plenty of resources for tackling challenges once they can be identified. This one is staring us in the face. 

Since the processes, which we call “artificial intelligence” will inevitably shape more of the experiences that corporations project and customers and the public will absorb, is there any question that the need for artificial empathy will grow with each passing day? 

The conjunction of “artificial” and “empathy” is a provoking framing of a problem that exists. It matters greatly to a corporation’s stakeholders and deserves far more rigorous thinking and effort than has been devoted to it thus far. Rather than being a zero-sum game, “artificial empathy” will be a project that aligns the interests of shareholders, employees, customers, and the public.  Rather than being a departmental problem, “artificial empathy” will require a systems-level response.  

I’ll leave for a subsequent article the questions of how “artificial empathy” might work and what resources it might draw upon.   For now, suffice it to say if corporations need empathy and don’t have it as a natural quality, then the commercial incentive is there to synthesize it. 

The ingenuity and organized effort that has made predictive science – machine learning, deep learning, expert systems, big data, or more generally, “artificial intelligence” –  such an important component of corporate strategy today, provides at least a framing metaphor for this initiative – and maybe some important tools too.   

But intelligence (natural or artificial)  is no substitute for empathy. No matter what strides we make in AI, brands need to make progress now on Artificial Empathy. And if AI begins to make strides on its own, there’s a good chance brands will need to pick up the pace.   

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Open Workspaces Don’t Work, but Outdoor Spaces Do

Open Workspaces Don’t Work, but Outdoor Spaces Do

At first, I used to hide it, my dirty little secret. Someone on the call would say, “Is that a bird chirping?” Or they would notice that I didn’t join the video feed like everyone else. At meetings, they’d say I looked “healthy” and ask about my vacation even though I hadn’t been anywhere.

That’s right, I was a closet outdoor worker.  At first, it started out of necessity. My office was on the second floor of a twenty-story building. The air condition ventilation system followed the elevator shaft up the building and my office was first from the elevator. It was an artic ground zero on a hot day. When I heard the air come on it literally sent chills down my spine.

By noon I had get out of my office or risk hyperthermia. I’d venture outside like a lizard seeking a warm rock to restore my body temperature. My time outside continued to lengthen and I noticed that not only was I more comfortable, but I was also more productive.

For years, I experimented with lighting trying to simulate natural light in my office. Incandescent and fluorescent lights were like kryptonite to me. The truth that I was hiding from was that I was a full on biophilist, a landscaper trapped in the body of an office worker.

But I never talked about it. Afraid others would judge me and think that I wasn’t taking work seriously (as if the mere fact of working in an office space made you more productive).  After founding a company last year, I am now free to work where and how I want and that extends to our whole team. It’s part of our culture.

Our team video conference calls are open kimono. We wear our birds chirping, dogs barking, and background wind chime noise as badges of honor. No longer am I sneaking a snack of “sunshine.” It’s all out in the open, literally. Speaking of open, now that the research is in let’s stop hiding the fact that open work spaces were a mistake. They don’t work, but you know what does…outdoor spaces and there is plenty of research to prove it.

Hopefully, the outdoor work space concept will replace open space offices. Apple, Amazon and others have already incorporated in their new headquarters. Let’s also dispel the notion that you need an office to be productive. It’s time to accept that work is a mindset, not a place. Employees should be able to work when they want, how they want, and where they want.

Got to go, a bird just created a mess that I need to clean up…quickly. It’s not all perfect.

Why Amazon is the New “Google” for Buying

They’re referred to as the “Duopoly” of online advertising. Facebook and Google account for 75% of the US digital ad spend and almost all of its growth according to Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Facebook reported 45% growth in the last quarter and Google’s parent company, Alphabet posted earnings of $26 billion, 87% coming from advertising revenue.

But are these behemoths about to blindsided by a fierce competitor with a better ROI? We recently completed a consumer research study for a beverage manufacturer that uncovered an interesting trend, one that might tip the scale for advertisers.

Consumers, who had an Amazon Prime account, started their search for a purchase at Amazon 100% of the time. If they knew what they wanted to buy, they went directly to Amazon to search for different brands with the best price and delivery options.

With 85 million Amazon Prime members as of June 2017, it’s not going to take long for consumer brands to discover that if you want to invest ad dollars towards finding buyers with high purchase intent and conversion rates, Amazon is going to be hard to ignore. Although small in comparison to Google and Facebook, only 1% of global ads, it is one of Amazon’s fastest growing businesses, now on track to generate close to $2 billion this year.

Amazon also offers organizations a broad spectrum of advertising products ranging from their ad platform, offering mobile and desktop display and banner ads, to dynamic and coupon ads. Customer campaign pages allow advertisers to create immersive cross platform landing pages which can display more than one product.

With the digital ad market predicted to grow at 16% this year to $83 billion the “Duopoly” will get their fair share, and almost all of the attention, especially considering the growth of Facebook’s Snapchat ad revenue, up 158% in the past year. And that may be just how Amazon likes it. Having a history of sneaking up on competitors…just ask Microsoft and IBM about Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Andy Jassy, the AWS CEO said that in some ways the growth of his business was a classic case of disruption dynamics. “The competition simply didn’t believe there was enough of a market to worry about it. The dominant players don’t have any reason to worry about someone attacking the bottom of the market.” AWS now owns a third of the Cloud Infrastructure Services market, more than three times that of its next closest competitors.

Amazon seems to follow Al Pacino’s “never let them see you coming” advice from the Devil’s Advocate but one executive, Martin Sorrell, WPP CEO’s has noticed. Sorrell  in a recent interview with Bloomberg said, “The company that would worry me if I was a client – or I think worries our clients, more than Google and Facebook – is Amazon.” Smart ad dollars follow consumer behavior and from we just learned, those consumers, are headed to Amazon.

Do You Know Your Andres?

There is a grocery store a few miles from my house. It’s small and older, at least thirty years in its current location. Usually, the shelves are poorly stocked with a limited selection compared to the newer stores surrounding it. Despite these facts, the store manages to stay in business which is somewhat hard to comprehend given the cut throat, low margin nature of the industry. It survives because it has a secret weapon.

His name is Andres. He’s a cashier and has been at the store for twenty plus years. Andres speaks five languages and knows most of the customers by name, typically, greeting them in their native language. He knows where everything is, or isn’t, and if it’s not there he knows when it will arrive. He is the store.

While some customers, like my wife, frequent the store because it’s convenient, and quick, as long as the item is on the shelve. The majority of the customers go because of Andres. The store is in an affluent international neighborhood with many retirees. These core customers have time to shop and chat with Andres. For them, a trip to the store is an experience, not an errand. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I would guess that the revenue per square foot is why it survives.

The interesting thing, having worked with B2B companies for the past twenty years, is that many of my past clients also have an “Andres.” His, or her name may be different, but their role inside their organizations are not unlike Andres. They know the customers, how to get things done, where the “dead bodies” are buried, and how to navigate the complexity of the organization. They are the company.

As organizations rapidly move to “digitalization” and look for AI to play a larger role in customer interactions, they need to consider the importance of these essential employees. Like the grocery store, there are customers who may be highly profitable that aren’t doing business with your company because it’s convenient or fast. They are and have been customers, because of the experience. And a good portion of that experience is shaped by the “Andres” of the organization.

As other grocery stores move quickly to eliminate cashiers, Andres’s store has no self-checkout or online store pickup. Management seems to recognize the importance of the shopping experience, which seems to make up for the lack of selection and inventory. As your organization moves toward the future, does the management team fully understand that not all customers are the same, or want the same things. They may also speak separate languages and while self-service may work well for some, others want the full experience, which may include a personal conversation with their “Andres.”

How Endpoint Computing Could Dehumanize Communication

Where does the signal to pull your hand away from heat originate? If your answer is the brain, you’ve already been burned. Instinctively, we pull our hand back without conscious thought, because the response to the stimulus takes a short cut and originates in the spinal cord because of the need for quick action.

According to venture capitalist Peter Levine the need for this same type of short cut may be happening soon with computing. Mr. Levine said that he saw a shift in computing coming from the cloud (centralized) to the return of edge computing (decentralized) because the wave of innovations from IoT, and AI, are driving the need to have decisions made in milliseconds.

As Mr. Levine points out, a connected car is basically a data center on wheels “it has 200 plus central processing units…doing all of its computations at the endpoint and only pass back to the cloud.” Just like you hand doesn’t have time to send a signal to the brain, autonomous vehicles need to react instantaneously to the situation.

Data, insight, and now action, will be moving to the point of engagement in this future view. Now think about the potential challenges that present marketers in staying on brand, and controlling the message with thousands, or even millions, of touchpoints acting independently. Today, the best messaging and value proposition work can (and usually does) go off the track the moment it makes its way to sales and service reps.

Marketers live with the daily issue of cross channel attribution, add cross channel communication to the mix and we better have really good tracking tools! Sure, we can pre-set the messages, designed algorithms to present them at the right moment in the buying cycle, but controlling and tracking the delivery of each message in the context of an overall brand story will be the challenge.

And keep in mind, machines aren’t the only things that learn. As research has shown, the buying process is a highly emotional roller coaster. With machines entering the process we risk driving efficiency at the expense of dehumanizing the experience. As machines learn, we also begin to sense whether we are dealing with a human or a machine.

For example, do you really get the “warm fuzzies” from all those “HBD” messages on Facebook, or the “Congrats on the New Job” on LinkedIn? Machines have been great at helping us be more informed, but they have also have made it easy to turn highly personalized interactions into transactional tasks, void of any emotional connection.

The first wave of machine learning has been about improved efficiencies, productivity, and predictability. As Jeff Bezos stated in his brilliant letter to shareholders,  “Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deal recommendations…much of the impact of learning will be of this type – quietly, but meaningfully, improving core operation.”

As the next wave approaches, we should be cautious on how it is applied to the buying process. The focus should be on making humans more human, becoming more instinctive, so potential customers don’t get burned.

3 Mind Benders from Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference

This year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen was an incredible experience.

FullSizeRenderThere were fantastic insights dropped by speakers like Rahm and Ari Emanuel, John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Reid Hoffman, CEO of Greylock Partner and co-founder of LinkedIn. I came away from the two and half-day event with three “ah-ha’s” because of their potential impact as game changers for marketers.

The New Native Advertising

Consumers are interacting with brands nearly all of the time. In the past, no one was watching and no one really cared, but new digital platforms and big data companies are about to change that. Companies like Storehouse, are giving consumers a platform to tell and share their story, many of which involve brands. Organizations like are capturing those moments and are beginning to alert brands. This “new native advertising” will grow out of naturally occurring brand experience that quickly get amplified and shared with others — real people, experiencing real brands, in real time. As this trend evolves, look for the role of the agency to shift from that of being the creator of disruptive ads aimed at getting your attention to amplifier and distributor of consumer generated organic ads.

 Smart Carts recently launched to bring club discount shopping online. Its innovative business model is built off of the “smart cart.” As consumers fill up their cart, the price of the items begins to change based on availability of the item and the shipping location. sources items from small business and tries to fill orders from local merchants. For example, you buy a baseball and a bat; you’ll get one price, add a baseball mitt and it will change the price for all three items depending on what type of mitt you are buying. To get the best price, wait a couple of days for shipping. Buy it immediately, and you’ll pay another price. promises savings of 10-15 percent by using the advantage of filling orders locally and then passing the shipping cost savings along to the consumer.

The Internet of Things

Connected cars are coming. Actually, you could argue that it arrived years ago with GM’s OnStar. The next evolution later this year will include apps, beacons and commerce platforms like Visa Checkout and Apple Pay. Order a pizza from the Pizza Hut app on the screen in your car and payment processes automatically. Pull into the specially marked space in front of the restaurant and a beacon alerts them you have arrived for pickup. It also verifies your identity confirming payment. As beacons and autos unite, companies must begin to find ways for that 5-8” screen in your car to be the next big opportunity for advertising. IMG_0930

The most mind-blowing thing I saw or heard, though, is Founded by Damien Patton, the company is what Inc. magazine describes as the “The Most Important Social Media Company You’ve Never Heard Of.”, by mining social media, can figure out what is happening anywhere in the world in real time by looking at a specific place at a specific time. was the first to detect the Boston Marathon bombing, the Ukrainian plane downing and even the Amtrak train wreck in Philadelphia. According to Patton, they beat traditional media organizations to the story by eight minutes on average.

Here’s the mind-blowing part: has built a virtual grid of more than 25 billion squares as an overlay of the entire globe. Their software monitors geo-located social posts for anomalies and then flags them for further investigation. It is, as Damien describes, “a crystal ball.” For marketers, it presents an opportunity to help facilitate the new native advertisement I mentioned above.

IMG_0936Overall, the event was one of the most insightful conferences I’ve ever attended. From the location (Aspen) to the speakers, the event had a certain energy unlike any other event. It could be because of the amount of start-ups and investor present, but I believe it came from the attendees themselves. I met interesting people from fascinating companies who had a shared goal of meeting people and gaining knowledge. If you have the opportunity, put this in your budget for next year and book this event. I highly recommend it