Robby Fowler Articles

Empathy Has Two Sides in Your Marketing (And One Side Is Devilishly Dark)

‘Vollent’. (Pronounced, Vō-lent.)

Yes, you read that correctly. No, it’s not a typo. It’s the name my International friend took when he came to the States for education.

Only later did he discover it’s not an English word or a name…or anything. Instead, it’s a weird mashup of two English words—wallet and violent. But he chose it in a hurry after learning of his acceptance into an American University.

Vollent packed a suitcase, kissed his parents’ goodbye, and watched Thailand disappear out the 777 window. It had been four long months since completing an ESL program in the UK. Now his dream of studying abroad was in full flight.

The time between when he landed in Indiana and the start of his first semester was a blur. As with many International students braving similar circumstances, Vollent knew no one. He managed to find his way to classes that first week. But he was thousands of miles from home, in a different culture, and surrounded by complete strangers. Loneliness followed him around campus like a dull migraine.

A few weeks into his first semester some American students befriended him. Vollent enjoyed being ‘one of the guys.’

Late one Thursday night over pizza, the gang started talking about the opposite sex. They asked Vollent if he liked American girls.

“Oh yes,” he answered through his outgoing smile.

“It’s probably difficult coming to a new country and trying to meet girls. That’s hard enough in your own country,” one pepperoni-eating friend noted.

Vollent shook his head in sheepish affirmation.

“Do you know what to say to a pretty American girl on campus?” another friend asked.

Vollent was puzzled. He learned a handful of British English idioms while studying ESL in the UK. But relationship advice was not covered in his intensive training.

A smile stretched across his face. His new American friends were about to share a secret not revealed in a book or a classroom. He just knew it.

He leaned forward with eagerness.

“Alright, here is what you say the next time you see a pretty American girl. You walk up to her and say this…American girls love it,” one friend said. Then they taught him the magic phrase. They even had Vollent practice with them to ensure he got it right.

Vollent was hypnotized. It felt like insider trading. That night he tossed and turned with anticipation in his stiff dorm bed. 8 a.m. class could not come soon enough.

Friday’s sun finally began to peak through his dorm room mini-blinds. Vollent woke without an alarm. Anticipation carried him like wings to the shower. He donned his favorite outfit and walked through a mist of cologne out the front door.

At the first opportunity, Vollent put his insider trading tip to the test. He spotted a brunette from his Economics class headed his way. With smiling confidence, he delivered the line he had rehearsed all night.

With the flash of a grenade, her open hand slashed across his cheek. Before the bite of pain settled, she turned and walked off.

Vollent stood there, stunned and embarrassed. Shame rushed over him as students stared.

Last night’s friends were nowhere to be found. Neither was his dignity.

How I Learned of Vollent’s Not-So-Funny Story

I met Vollent 4.5 years after this story. He was a grad student starting his Masters at a nearby Dallas university. We met through the school’s “Adopt an International Student” program.

With the passing of time, Vollent could share the story with me and laugh a little. But I could interpret his posture. It betrayed the effects. Hesitation and mistrust caused an almost involuntary stance. At a moments notice, he was ready to retreat. If not physically, emotionally.

This story was why.

Who’s Side Are You On (And Why I Already Know the Answer)

I started with Vollent’s story because I have a few questions for you.

So let’s make a deal. If you answer these questions for me, I promise I’ll help you with marketing your personal brand. It’s all connected!

Spoiler: I already know your answers.

3 Questions For You To Answer

    1. What feelings or emotions did Vollent have in the story?
    2. When have you had the same feeling (even under different circumstances)?
    3. When the story ends, whose side are you on? Vollent or his ‘American friends’? Why?
    Easy-peasy, right?

    Here are the answers to the test.
      1. Loneliness, excitement, anticipation, all swallowed by gut-wrenching betrayal.
      2. You’ve had the same feelings.
      3. And you are squarely on Team Vollent.

      None of your answers is a surprise.

      This is the predictable power of empathy! And this force is the impetus for the articles in this series.

      Here’s a recap of this series…
        1. Empathy has superhero power for your marketing (Read it here)
        2. Empathy has 2 steps in your marketing (Read it here)
        3. Empathy has 2 sides in your marketing (this article)

        Wait, How Many Sides Does Empathy Have? (And Why Should You Care?)

        Empathy is old news. It’s been around since the beginning.

        In the first article in this series, I showed God’s empathy towards Adam in the Garden. In the grand story of the Bible, empathy exists before sin enters the world—before the Fall.

        Here’s why that matters…

        Empathy has superhero power for your marketing because it’s woven into the fabric of how life works.

        But We’re Not Done Yet…Because You Already Knew That

        The story of God, Adam, and Eve is NOT the only time empathy shows up in the Bible’s opening pages. In fact, empathy makes another appearance in the next scene. This appearance is far more famous than the first.

        Empathy Has a Twin

        Send a bit of Empathy’s DNA to 23AndMe, and here’s what you’ll find. Her family tree goes back to the Garden. She first shows up in partnership with God and his empathy for Adam.

        But empathy has a twin.

        She enters the next scene on the slippery tongue of a shrewd serpent.

        Empathy’s Twin Enters Stage Left

        The Temptation story is a familiar one on Sunday mornings. But the rich details and marketing insights are perfect for the office on Mondays.

        I’ll run through a brief outline of the story to jog your memory. Then I’ll reveal a key insight and application for your marketing.

        The Familiar Story in Outline Form…
          • The scene opens in the heart of paradise
          • A ‘shrewd, crafty’ serpent starts a conversation with the human Eve
          • Eve listens to the snake’s shifty voice
          • She then takes a bite of the forbidden fruit
          • Adam, standing passively by, follows suit
          • All hell breaks loose

          The Devil Is In The Details—Detail #1

          Now, if curious marketing insights from the Ancient Near East don’t normally tickle your fancy, today will change your mind. Me? I can’t resist the temptation.

          Put on your marketing glasses and look closely at this story. It’s rich with details.

          First, the snake is described as shrewd. Some versions say crafty or clever. The Hebrew word is עָרוּם (ʿarum).

          “Dude, did you just refer to a Hebrew word from the Bible in your article on marketing? Are you nuts?!?”

          The answer, yes and yes. But hang with me. If this article were a rollercoaster, we’re nearing the top of the click, click, click…Zoom.

          The previous scene wrapped up with some famous words. They describe Adam & Eve’s relationship with each other and God—They were naked and unashamed. Those words set the stage for the Temptation story.1

          Now back to our Hebrew word for a second…

          There is a wordplay in Hebrew between the words “naked” (עֲרוּמִּים, ʿarummim) from the previous scene and “shrewd” (עָרוּם, ʿarum) in this scene. The purpose of the wordplay is to connect the snake’s craftiness with the humans’ integrity.2

          Don’t miss this…

          The serpent is about to use empathy with Eve. But something will go horribly wrong when he does. And here’s what we know from the foreshadowing of the wordplay…

          The dark side of empathy involves integrity (or a lack thereof).

          The Devil Is In The Details—Detail #2

          I want to note one more important detail from this story. Then I’ll reveal the direct connection to your marketing.

          The Hebrew word עָרוּם (ʿarum) translated shrewd, crafty, or clever is NOT inherently morally negative.

          Surprising, right?

          Here’s what one scholar notes…

          The Hebrew term ʿarum does not carry the negative moral connotations of the English words “crafty” and “cunning.”…The serpent’s initial question sounded quite innocent…Did the serpent merely misunderstand what God had said? In these ways, the subtlety of the serpent’s approach to the woman is captured by the narrator. 3

          Do you know what that means?

          The dark side of empathy is almost indistinguishable from the good.


          Put this all together and here’s what it means for your marketing…

          Empathy is so powerful in marketing, you can fake it and it still works.

          marketing plan quote warning empathy works in a marketing plan even if it is fake

          Let that sink in for a minute.

          Even with the wrong motives, empathy will add irresistible power to your marketing. Your customer, like Vollent, will believe you care and act on that belief.

          Think of it this way…

          Empathy’s power in your marketing does not have an on/off switch.

          marketing plan quote highlighting the power of empathy in your marketing plan

          Rather, empathy is always-on, like a high-voltage transformer. The difference is, fake empathy has no brightly-colored warning label.

          Empathy always works in marketing. It’s free to use. But when you fake it, someone always pays a heavy price.

          Empathy’s Dark Side: A Remake

          There is a remake of the same Garden story. It came out much later than the first and may be less familiar to some. In the remake, the serpent makes a reprise appearance. But this version is not set in a Garden of paradise, but an arid desert. And the star of the show isn’t Eve or Adam, but their son, Jesus.

          The remake, like the original, is grouped under the History-Altering Temptations genre. You have to scroll past Romantic Comedies and Documentaries.

          I won’t ruin the remake for you. You should check it out for yourself.

          But the plotline starts off identical…
            • The scene opens in the exact opposite of the heart of paradise—an arid desert
            • A ‘shrewd, crafty’ figurative serpent starts a conversation with Jesus in the middle of a 40-day fast
            • Jesus hears the snake’s shifty voice
            • Yada, yada, yada (I said, ‘no spoilers’. But here’s a hint: it is good news!)
            • All heaven breaks loose

            Do Not Miss The Epic-ness of Empathy

            Here’s the point I want to drive home. Here’s the reason behind sharing each of these stories (and this 3-part series).

            Empathy is at the heart of the grandest, most epic story ever told.

            marketing plan quote showing how epic empathy is in your marketing plan

            On one side, you have God’s empathy for humans when He gives Adam, Eve, and Eve, Adam. That’s a picture of empathy’s power in its purest form.

            On the other side, you have the serpent. His words sound remarkably familiar. His concern seems genuine. His offer is reasonable. But his is a dark empathy, yet not devoid of power.

            The point is, BOTH work!

            Both kinds of empathy ask your customer for trust. But only one is worthy of it.

            Why Empathy’s 2 Sides Spell Danger for Your Marketing (Stated in 3 Woes)

            Pick a decent marketing book or marketing framework and you’ll find ‘empathy’ in the closing topical index. It may be roman numeral III, sub-point B. But it’s there.

            In my first article, I said empathy doesn’t belong there. I argued for far more prominent placement in regards to your marketing. In the second article, I showed how empathy in marketing is not a single move. In this third article, I’m asserting there’s more to empathy in marketing than ‘[insert empathy here]’.

            The Difference Between ‘This Is Fun’ and ‘THIS IS FUN’

            Every parent gets this. And every child has heard it.

            You spend half your savings and take the family trip to Disney. It’s day two of the vacay and the kids are whipped. The 3 a.m. wake-up to get to the airport Monday and squeeze in a half-day at the theme park wreaks havoc on Tuesday.

            There’s whining, meltdowns, sit-in strikes, the works.

            You reach the tipping point. You know how much money you drained from the savings account to experience the magic. But your little guy Jack just spit it out like spoiled baby food.

            You grab Jack’s five-year-old arm with the force of a gorilla. (There’ll be an outline of your fingers on his arm thirty seconds from now.) You duck around the corner of the closest building. It’s you, followed by Jack’s arm, and then like a slingshot, Jack. Enraged at the gall of your child, you DEMAND FUN!

            “You listen to me, young man…[spitting words]…we did this for you…[wild gestures]…and YOU WILL HAVE FUN or so help me…!”

            Guess what parent, and marketers, and personal brands?…

            There’s a world of difference between ‘You should use empathy in your marketing’ and…Empathy.

            marketing plan quote contrasting real empathy and fake empathy

            Just like the world of difference between little Jack saying, “This is fun!” on the Dumbo ride, and you yelling at little Jack “THIS IS FUN!” with hot lava dripping from the corner of your mouth.

            You can’t demand fun. And you can’t command empathy.

            Here are three Woes that come from the ‘[insert empathy here in your marketing]’ approach.

            Woe #1

            Beware. Following the advice of a marketing book, course, or guru to use empathy is NOT the same as you HAVING empathy for your customer.

            Don’t use what you don’t have.

            Woe #2

            Warning. You never set out to employ the evil side of empathy in your marketing. It’s never something you plan. It’s something you subtly slide into…like how a snake slivers.

            You don’t empty the savings account, burn all your vacation days, and get sunburned at Disney to scream at little Jack. That was never on the agenda months ago when you started planning. It happens under the pressure of the moment.

            The same is true of empathy in marketing.

            There is a temptation to plug in empathy where the marketing book says to insert it. You may or may not have genuine empathy. But in a hurry to finish the marketing course homework, set up the sales page, or knock off the product launch emails, you [insert empathy]. It happens under the pressure of the moment.

            The grave danger is it will still work.

            Woe #3

            Curse. Fake empathy pits you against your customer.

            In both of the Bible stories mentioned above, the serpent is AGAINST. He is against Eve and Adam. Not for them. He is against Jesus, not for him.

            Here’s what is fascinatingly deceptive about simulating empathy in your marketing…

            You assume the role of villain in the customer’s story.

            Stop for a second.

            Think back to Vollent’s story at the beginning of this article. Who’s side are you on when the story ends? Are you Team Vollent, or Team Terrible Friends?

            You are all-in on Vollent!

            You feel for Vollent. You identify with him. You want to put your arm around him. I did when he shared his story with me over dinner one night.

            What about his supposed ‘friends’?

            You want to punch them in the face. You want to drop them off in a foreign country by themselves thousands of miles from home. Then we’ll see who’s laughing.

            Suffice it to say, this is NOT how you want to position your personal brand or business.
            Fake empathy is far worse than no empathy in your marketing.

            Characteristics of Fake Empathy (How to Know You’ve Wandered to the Dark Side)

            So how do you know if you’ve faked empathy? How can you tell the twins apart in your own marketing?

            What alarm bells ring if you’re simply ‘[inserting empathy]’ because a marketing book told you it works?

            Here are 4 Characteristics to Look For in Your Marketing

            1.) Phony empathy fakes concern for your customer to mask selfishness.

            On the surface, it looks like the serpent cares for Eve. It appears he wants Jesus to snag a bite to eat to relieve his hunger. And in marketing, it seems as if you care about your customer.

            In the end, fake empathy is solely a means to a selfish end.

            2.) Faux empathy mirrors the reflection of true empathy for your customer.

            Ever seen a picture in a magazine ad where you know the image is reversed? You know the famous mole is below the left eye, not the right.

            That’s the danger of fake empathy. It looks like, smells like, and feels like the real thing in your marketing. Only after you take a bite do you realize the offer was not good.

            3.) Imitation empathy uses all the right words…almost.

            Fake empathy in your marketing uses the right words. But it will shift the emphasis like the previous sentence. Bold the wrong words. Spotlight the good and leave the other in the shadow. It’s subtle.

            If you’ve never done it before, do a quick comparison of precisely what the serpent says to Eve and what God actually said to Adam & Eve. Man is it close. Lady is it dangerous.

            4.) Artificial empathy works…at first.

            Eve takes a bite. Adam follows. So will your customer.

            The question fake empathy asks is: Can I get my customer to bite?

            The quest for true empathy says: Can I give my customer something worth eating?

            The Ultimate Test

            In the end…
            Empathy is a matter of the heart, not a to-do in a marketing plan.

            marketing plan quote saying empathy is more than a to-do from a marketing book

            As with all matters of the heart, the ultimate test does not come merely in the possession of a feeling. It’s confirmed in reality by action.

            Genuine empathy for your customer will require giving over gaining at times. If at times, it irks you, but you choose to act anyway, that’s real empathy.

            In other words, you know your marketing empathy is real when it costs you something. That is a feeling you won’t be able to ignore.

            Let me conclude with a recent example from my own business.

            Last week I got a text at 4:15 p.m. It was from a ‘barely’ client. I did a tiny thing for her three years ago. She’s computer-challenged. Anything web, tech, phone, app…does NOT go well for her. Part of the tiny work I did a few years back involved setting up her domain and email.

            We talk once a year, precisely when her domain expires. I’ve tried getting her to ‘own’ her domain. I’ve initiated the transfer. I’ve told her the domain registrar will walk her through the process—even do it for her over the phone or chat.

            “I’m not smart enough. I have tried,” her text read at 4:15 p.m. (It’s the same text every year.)

            “Just need fixed. Expecting big email,” was her next text (errors and all).

            Not surprising, her annual emergency never happens at a good time. Last week it hit with less than 45 minutes for me to finish a project. I was about to tell her it would have to wait. But I stopped.

            I preach this message in my own marketing. One of my core values, in fact, is to be good news for my clients. Practically, that means remove burdens, clear obstacles, lift the weight off.

            That stupid 4:15pm text had my insides swirling. My genuine empathy test had arrived like an unscheduled pop-quiz.

            I knew I could fix her problem in less than 5 minutes. But a big part me wanted to refuse and ‘teach her a lesson this time.’

            By God’s grace alone, 5 minutes later, my text reply read, “Done. You should be good to go.” (Turns out, grace has enough power for me and my clients.)

            My Marketing Conclusion
            Empathy is power-packed for your marketing. That’s why so many books and experts tell you to include it in your marketing.

            But empathy has two sides. Real empathy in your marketing demands real action on your part.

            Or to say it another way…

            If the only action required is on the part of your customer, you don’t have true empathy.

            Empathy always works in marketing.

            Wield it wisely. Beware how easy it is to fake. Do more than tick off a pragmatic box.

            Use it as a power to serve your customer, not a charm to slither open their wallet.

            Use it as a verb, not simply a feeling.

            And when the cost of true empathy comes calling, answer it. It’s worth it.