This article was originally published by MediaPost

In a rare panel during Advertising Week New York, four women took to the stage on Wednesday not to discuss #MeToo or Time’s Up, but rather the gender-agnostic issue of how to use technology to understand the human behind the computer — and how to communicate that understanding, or empathy, in marketing messages.

“I like to say the era of the consumer is over,” says Abigail Posner, head of strategy, Brand Unit Google. “By calling people consumers it implies we are only thinking of them as people who consume our product, but we all know they are much more nuanced on that. And technology can help us understand that nuance and holistic view of people.”

The differential for pharmaceutical company Lilly is to step away from the actual product to instead support what the product does. Psoriasis advertising, for instance, became about the journey and release from the disease rather than functional benefits of its treatment, says Lina Shields, senior director of consumer marketing, Lilly.

For Norwegian Cruises, the travel company’s challenge is that its guests expect it to know them very well and market accordingly. “How do we meet their expectations and not mess it up when we introduce technology?” said Meg Lee, CMO, Norwegian Cruises, adding that Norwegian needed to accomplish this on a reasonable budget.

“Social media is word-of-mouth on steroids,” says Lee. Norwegian started off just having a conversation with its travelers using these channels, but now Lee says it is the number-one driver of consideration and purchase.

Gathering insights about customers and prospects has always been a key marketing objective, but empathy “tells you what you should do,” says Kristen Colonna, chief strategy officer, OMD. Understanding this difference lets marketers become more relevant and profitable. “You need to deliver what the consumer needs, not what is disposable,” says Colonna.

Panelists agree that there’s no such thing as too much empathy — but just like superheroes, you have to wield your power carefully. “People give us a lot of information and there are some details we don’t leverage,” says Lee, explaining they know everything that goes on during a cruise aboard ship, including medical and personal habits. “We focus on leveraging the right data,” she says.

Empathy is a big ambition to deliver, says Colonna. For OMD, it requires the merging of different data sets and agency divisions to work as one holistic hub. It isn’t a one-step solution. The path to purchase is more obvious, whereas true empathy reveals the untapped opportunities.

Recognizing the difference is how new startups transform into billion-dollar brands. Netflix and AirBnb are perfect examples because they saw a need in the marketplace that wasn’t fulfilled and figured out a better way to meet consumer needs.

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