thought leadership

Empathy in Market Research:

How human-centered stories lead to brand opportunities

By Karen Lynch

As market researchers, we are nearly 100% focused on understanding people. We concentrate on learning what individuals think and feel about a myriad of topics of interest to the brand teams we serve. We ask questions about what products they use, why they use them, when they use them and how often they use them. And our challenge in getting answers to marketers’ strategic questions is not to sacrifice our critical cognitive empathy.

Are we listening to individuals with an empathic ear?

In human-centered design, or design thinking, the iterative process for new product development starts with empathy. Empathy, in this initial phase, is the work done to understand people in the context of a design challenge. If you’re designing a new widget, you must first seek to understand how people use the widgets they currently have. You learn what they love about them. You learn about people’s pain points when using them.  If you’re lucky, you learn about what they wish for, the unmet needs. All that information becomes stimuli for new product ideation.

Back to research? We’re in the business of empathy. Yet empathy is often cast aside due to the pressure to meet objectives and get answers to all the questions that brand teams need to address.

How can you tap into Empathy in a research setting?  

Be mindful about it. Practice Empathy. As Stanford University’s Jamil Zaki wrote in a February 2017 letter published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, “Through practice, people can also build their empathy over time.”

A Creative Exercise:

Use Empathy to Find the Brand Opportunity in Each of the Following Stories

When you take an empathetic approach to research, you can effectively insert your brand as a character into an individual’s story.  But first you have to ask for and listen to the stories they are telling.

Duke University’s James A. Rose wrote in his March 2017 white paper, “The emotional resonance evoked by a narrative stimulates neural systems related to empathy.”

Let’s look at some narratives. Below are four mini stories, gathered during four separate qualitative research initiatives. To practice empathy, read them with an empathetic mindset. Try to feel what they are feeling. Then try to identify an opportunity for a product, a potential brand positioning or messaging strategy:

  • A 35-year-old woman was asked to pick up a Visual Explorer Card that metaphorically connects the condition of her skin during a focus group on skin care. The card she chose featured an image of a beautiful bride, with an incredible smile on her face, and a handsome groom opening a car door for them both. When it was this woman’s turn to introduce herself to the group, she silently started to weep then explained, “I was in an abusive relationship for many years. It took me a tremendous amount of courage to leave him. I felt ugly. I felt worthless. Hopeless. I never thought I’d find love again. And today … I’m engaged to the most wonderful man. All I think about is that. How lucky I am that I am loveable.” 


  • In an in-depth interview on beverages, a 22-year-old man in a torn leather jacket kicked back in his chair, explained how he partied quite a bit, stayed up most nights half the night, and worked at a vape shop by day. Then he described what a good day would consist of. “A good day for me? That would be when a hot chick comes in to the shop. And I get her number. On a reeallly good day? Maybe I even get some.”


  • During a focus group discussion on snack foods, a middle-aged mom with a houseful of teenage children shared that her oldest was pulling away from her, wanting to spend more and more time with his friends and less of his time at home. “You know what they want those teenage kids? FOOD. And not healthy food. And I realized, if I feed them, they’ll hang out at my house instead of some other kid’s house. And I can keep an eye on what they are doing. So I always make sure my snack cabinet is loaded with all the good things. They’ll empty it in one afternoon, but I don’t care. They’re there. They want to be there.”

  • On an ethnographic interview for a food service business, a young man in his thirties who works side by side with his father shared that he knowingly broke the law by delivering unused food at the end of the day to the local homeless shelter. “It’s kind of like a calling, the restaurant business. Like there’s a higher power that put you on this earth to feed people. How can I ignore that calling? At the end of the day I’m going to throw it away? Not when I’m serving God. Not when people are hungry.”

Stories like these are elicited with open-ended questions and creative, projective exercises. Anyone in research, moderators and observers alike, must listen empathetically to those stories. Find the connection between yourself and the people you make products for. When you are emotionally connected to those individuals, you will intuitively know how to communicate with them more effectively about your product’s benefits and the needs of theirs you will meet.

Seven things you can do to practice empathy while observing during your next qualitative initiative:

  1. Examine your attitudes towards the human beings at the table
  2. Put aside your own personal biases, judgments or critiques
  3. Focus your attention on each person’s wants, needs and welfare
  4. Listen to understand, not to refute
  5. Find the connection you have with the men and women you’ve gathered
  6. Seek to find a human value that together you share
  7. Reflect upon the stories they hear. Write them down. And retell them, with Empathy.

As Senior Director, Qualitative Insights, Karen Lynch leads InsightsNow’s qualitative and hybrid programs, expanding on their quickly growing co-creation and co-design methods uncovering sensorial triggers of behavior.

Watch her webinar  “Uncovering the Human Behind the Behavior: Modernizing your qualitative approach”       HERE.