How to Determine Your Brand’s Empathy Quotient

Poet Maya Angelou wrote that “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The same can be said about brands. Do you know how your brand makes your customers feel?

The most successful brands have high empathy quotients, or EQs. They befriend their customers by demonstrating their compassion and commitment to putting customers’ best interests first.

The best brands do this in many ways, both big and not so big. They understand their customers’ specific needs, and provide compassionate product solutions.

Who’s doing a good job with their EQs? Let’s look at a few examples.

— Republic of Tea —

It’s clear that the world does not revolve around left-handed people — or tea drinkers. Even many fine restaurants and hotels show total disregard for those of us who prefer tea, while going overboard to accommodate coffee drinkers.

Since I’ve found it nearly impossible to find a cup of high-quality, decaf black tea to accompany my dessert in the evening, I’ve resorted to bringing my own tea bags with me and simply asking for a steaming cup of hot water.

The folks at Republic of Tea empathize with this tea drinker’s dilemma and have created the perfect solution for these situations. The merchant’s compact Traveler’s Tea tins fit in nearly any briefcase or evening bag, hold six teabags, and are refillable.

The “Ministers of Sipware” (as merchants are known at Republic of Tea) have thought through every aspect of their customers’ needs and the tea experience. And they’re providing solutions to accommodate those needs.

In other words, this brand delivers on its clearly stated commitment to “taking care of its customers in a kind, respectful, and compassionate way” and “building long-term, mutually rewarding relationships” with them — as well as with its suppliers, communities and employees.

— Spanx —

Most women have a love/hate relationship with pantyhose. Sara Blakely, founder of shapewear company Spanx, was no exception. Blakely befriended women across the country when she invented a whole new category of undergarments by cutting off the feet of her pantyhose in order to look better in her off-white pants.

This entrepreneur turned an everyday problem into a $300 million business venture simply by having compassion — first for herself, and then for women everywhere. Blakely continues to listen to her customers’ gripes and devise ever-more-empathetic solutions to their problems.

For example, one of the company’s newest inventions, the Bra-llelujah, was designed to eliminate visible bra lines and camouflage back fat. Spanx definitely “gets” its customers’ issues.

— Sherwin-Williams —

While Sherwin-Williams is in business to sell paint, its unique value proposition lies in a commitment to selling customers only the exact colors that will delight them. The company knows that this is best accomplished through trial and error, and its branding strategy is to be a low-risk, compassionate partner in that process.

With Color-To-Go paint samples, customers can buy small amounts for test painting. Further, a Color Visualizer allows customers to upload images of their own homes and view various paint colors on the screen.

By assisting customers at each of the various paint decision pain-points, Sherwin-Williams differentiates itself from its competitors.

— Chinaberry —

Back in the early ’80s, Ann Ruethling was disturbed by “the lack of caring and respect” expressed in many of the children’s books that she found at the library for her daughter. She then set out on a mission to find positive and uplifting books.

On Chinaberry’s website, Ruethling explains how this personal quest evolved and ultimately led her to found this children’s book company to help other parents: She subscribed to numerous children’s literature publications and scouted out as many libraries as she could, keeping notes on index cards about the books she liked and at what age she would introduce her daughter to each book.

Ruethling began to realize how much time and energy had gone into this mission — and that there were probably a lot of other concerned parents who could greatly benefit from her research: “I felt that if parents could just feed all those wonderful books into the hearts and minds of their children, the world would have to become a better place. Thus, Chinaberry was conceived — at first as a free service, and then as a catalog business to make it easier for parents to buy the books I was telling them about.”

Nearly 30 years later, Chinaberry continues to show compassion for children and their busy parents and passion for its mission of making the world a better place through its meaningful offerings.

— Nike —

Despite the simplicity of its tagline, Nike understands that it’s far from easy to “just do it.” Nike knows that having goals and supportive friends makes just doing it more doable for its customers.

Nike’s creation of Nike Plus, a running community, and SportBand, a device to track runs, complements its running shoes with supportive services and shows compassion for its customers’ dreams.

And customers have responded, big time. had more than 2 million members worldwide as of mid-2009, and the cumulative miles-run tally on the site is now fast approaching 290 million.

Brandweek, which declared Nike Plus “the digital campaign of the decade,” confirmed that the program is credited with powering Nike’s gains in the running-shoe category. Nike Plus has become “the blueprint for how marketing and product development can combine in a system that extends value to consumers and builds loyalty,” the publication noted.

Best Buy —

Brands that befriend their customers know that compassion is a round-the-clock job — presale, during the sale and post-sale.

Case in point: electronics category leader Best Buy, which strives to make every aspect of buying and maintaining devices — and even disposing of old ones — as easy as possible.

“We’re transitioning from being just a mover of boxes,” Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn told Fortune. “We want to help customers get better use of technology, whether they are buying, installing, fixing or disposing of their hardware.”

Here’s how Best Buy describes its recycling services on its site: “You trust us when it’s time to buy the latest electronics. You can also trust us to help you safely dispose of your old ones. Regardless of where you bought it, what brand it is, or how old it is: bring it to us. We’ll make sure it’s properly and safely recycled. It’s all part of our Greener Together program. And we’ll take just about anything electronic, including TVs, DVD players, computer monitors, audio and video cables, cell phones …”

Easy recycling is just one example of Best Buy’s 360-degree customer care philosophy. The dedication of the retailer’ team is its core differentiation. It understands that delivering on this promise hinges on being accessible and really listening to customers.

In a Brandweek interview, Best Buy chief marketing officer Barry Judge explained the company’s extensive technological outreach, including a Twitter “Twelpforce” of employees who respond to customers’ tweets. “The concept of customer service 3.0 is to go where the conversation is happening,” he said. “Our people can help before, during and after the sale. We’re a chain of a lot of people who are dedicated to that mission.”

Your brand’s EQ is one of your most critical competitive differentiators. Pay attention to how your brand makes your customers feel. They’ll notice and remember.

Andrea Syverson ([email protected]) is president of the consultancy IER Partners, and author of BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Playbook for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.