There’s a lot of talk today around engaging with… forming a dialogue with… having a conversation with… customers. But how many brands make an attempt to really feel like their customers? People (like you and me) want authenticity and trust in relationships, so how many brands are using a truly “empathetic” approach in their brand communications?

We know that Apple’s marketing strategy, developed in 1977 by its advisor, Mike Markkula, put empathy in first place. We can feel it the most in Apple stores and as Steve Jobs rightly stated “Apple employees are so deeply entrenched in and committed to the customer’s experience.” So how do they do it? Well, it’s no secret that Apple spends an enormous amount of time observing customers using Apple’s and other brand’s technologies. They call this “participatory design” or “usability testing.” By doing this they begin to learn the brand touchpoints that are the most painful and those which are the most gainful. They also developed a training manual around this original 3 point strategy targeted at its “geniuses” and still very much in use today. So, maybe the key is to engage with employees first? According to a Gallup Worldwide Poll in 2013 only “13 per cent of employees are engaged at work.”

To have empathy, we have to try on the shoes of the customer and walk a couple of miles in them. Then, instead of saying, “What can we Tweet about today?” we could ask ourselves, “What does Laura need to do today?” Finish her presentation for tomorrow, buy some food and get dinner on the table, and help her children with homework all being possible conclusions.

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So what are other brands doing to create real empathy with their customers? Here are the top 20 brands who know how to engage with their customers on Twitter. They have many ways of doing this, from dedicated Twitter accounts for a more personalized customer service, to a more rapid response time to respond to every tweet from a customer.

But how can smaller brands show empathy? Those without a huge team of staff working around the clock responding to clients on social media. What are the more ‘human’ ways of of really feeling like a customer?

A good example is cycling brand Rapha, formed by Simon Mottram 10 years ago. His empathic brand strategy is based on “being the consumer” and so his first cycling top was designed with a waterproof valuables pocket, a ring-pull zip you could still use wearing gloves and a fleece chin-guard to prevent collar chaffing. Rapha has always employed people active in cycling so that they can go beyond consumer understanding to total consumer empathy.

“Rapha recruits are presented with a welcome box – an essential cycling kit and literature – and all 100 staff at the London HQ are given Wednesday mornings off to go out on their bikes.” The Times call this “Mottram’s marketing alchemy.” The brand forms its communities off-line as well as on-line via the brand’s flagship stores, called “cycle clubs,” which are places where you can have a coffee, connect with others who are passionate about cycling, see exhibitions and really feel like a member of the Rapha community.

In the early days, Rapha’s marketing budgets were limited which meant that they had to find other ways of talking to their customers. So Mottram would spend his Sunday afternoon’s cycling around Richmond Park and talking to other cyclists about their passion for cycling, the problems they experienced and what they really wanted from a cycling company.

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Rapha’s communications with the customer are also interesting. Their invoices and communications adopt a ‘first name’ only approach. Their packaging contains stickers and other Rapha goodies, and it brings to life its passion for cycling through its storytelling.

10 years ago Rapha was a fledgling brand (the first years were a real financial struggle), but through its passion for cycling, along with its creative marketing, product and store design all based on having empathy and really understanding customers’ needs, it has built a brand which is now a clothing partner for Team Sky.

Mottram calls road riding “suffering in the most beautiful way” and this brand brings together the suffering and the beauty of cycling by truly feeling like the customer. If you’re curious, be sure to check out Rapha in this video from its recent talk at this year’s Advertising Week.

Image source: Going Going Bike