ConsumerInsights | 7 min read

Technology for Empathy: Finding Brand Purpose with AI Enabled Consumer Insights

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Technology has given brands the opportunity to make consumer-centricity the cornerstone of marketing strategies through 2020 and into the future. Linkfluence Chief Evangelist Benjamin Duvall, together with a panel of thought leaders in Social Intelligence, discussed the future of AI-Enabled Consumer Insights on November 30.

Rob Key, CEO of Converseon, Cinny Little, Principal Analyst at Forrester, and Jessica Liu, Senior Analyst at Forrester, dove into brand purpose and consumer insight tech, with examples from CPG, AlcBev, automotive, and beauty.


Many of the last months have been spent adapting to new trends influenced by COVID-19. Now, more than ever, customers are willing to take their money elsewhere when brands fail to meet their expectations. Real-time, no-touch research can strengthen not only marketing but help firms better identify brand purpose. The question is, how to  leverage resources in support of that brand purpose, and how to further consolidate that with consumer values.

Understanding Consumer Attitudes Around Brand Purpose

Between the ongoing pandemic, recession, environmental crisis, and protests, 2020 has been a year of lessons and challenges for businesses. Leveraging brand purpose to achieve marketing goals is not new. “If you don’t stand for something, you don’t stand for anything”, explained the panelists. However, communicating empathically has become increasingly important as many expect companies to stand for causes previously considered outside their corporate purview. Uncovering deeper brand purpose lies in looking beyond a brand to the external forces affecting consumer behavior and overall sentiment. What is the perceived value of the products or services, and how do they improve lives and society?

Some brands, including Nike, have focused on brand purpose for years. Source: Nike Purpose Statement, Nike #equalitywins

Brands that have yet to act face the challenge of defining their purpose. While traditional market research methods can uncover valuable insights, the value derived from them relies on the questions asked. AI-enabled social intelligence allows for a richer picture of the wider market by looking at multiple data sources and consumer touchpoints at the speed of culture.

Giving actionable insights to stakeholders in formats they are familiar with can supplement the wider company strategy in powerful ways. Most importantly, it can dictate which next steps a brand needs to be taking that it has not already planned for. It is these insights that can help identify which causes best align with both a corporate mission statement and clients values. Data structuring by an AI enabled digital platform can give a clearer picture and valuable insights to uncover new areas of opportunity.

Winners in Empathy: Brands That Made Progress in 2020

Several brands have been proactive about leveraging technology in order to empathize with consumers even before the pandemic began. By marshalling their considerable resources to help make this situation more manageable for customers, they did well this year.

Managing Customer Expectations and Employee Safety

For American retail company Kroger, marketing and operations depended heavily on their existing social insights structure at the outset of the pandemic. The brand is the second-largest general retailer and the largest supermarket in the United States by revenue. Understanding consumer sentiment was crucial to ensuring their sensitivity in this time of uncertainty. As an essential goods retailer employing frontline workers, they needed to maintain their safety measures and adjust for increased anxiety. Balancing this demand with a desire to empower their workforce to make a seamless transition to new health guidelines required quick action.


Source: The Kroger Company, Brand Purpose and updated statement.

By leaning on social listening to execute their marketing and operations strategy, they were able to support their wider strategy. Focusing on educational content, customer support, and uplifting messaging allowed them to quickly address safety guidelines and open earlier to allow seniors a safer in-store experience. When it comes to social insights, picking up on what people are saying and absorbing it is just the first piece of the puzzle. Deploying that into operations is what puts brands like Kroger ahead of the pack explained Duvall.

Anticipating Supply Chain Stressors

Brand purpose must drive the actions of the entire firm. For the King Arthur Baking Company, an American supplier of flour, ingredients, baking mixes, cookbooks, and baked goods, this informs every step of their process. As home baking became the lockdown activity du jour, demand for King Arthur baking flour tripled in March in the USA. The brand saw the demand spike coming and doubled their output within weeks by updating their supply chain explained Panelist Cinny Little.


Source: Linkfluence Radarly, Social Conversations around Flour spiked in early March: 4.5 Million posts

They managed to get back on the shelves much faster than any other firm in the market. When they identified the consumer need for baking tips, they further isolated that the profile had shifted from professional B2B to less experienced B2C bakers. The company executed a rapid pivot to accommodate a higher volume of e-commerce orders, and managed to double manufacturing output quickly and safely for employees. Beyond gaining points with their key consumer base, they undoubtedly got their product into the hands of new home bakers. Being able to act quickly and be that prepared necessitates planning, and for brands like King Arthur Flour, this preparedness was years in the making. It is important to lay the groundwork now for future moments of crisis firm wide.

Keeping Brand Purpose Top of Mind

There are countless more examples across numerous industries of adaptation informed by empathy as discovered by social insights. Delta Air Lines initiated flights stocked with PPE for frontline health care workers, and their advance efforts in implementing safety measures protected both customers and crew in April. The US Department of Homeland security issued COVID-19 specific guidelines on March 23, but Delta Air Lines moved as early as March 5 to explain the situation and restrict service to protect customers and crew.

In the Restaurant and Hospitality Industry, QSR brands who quickly pivoted to drive through only services were able to make the most out of the uncertain situation. Since March, American coffeehouse Starbucks has been working to provide first responders and front-line healthcare workers with free coffee. The world's largest coffeehouse chain has made community a key value as part of their wider brand purpose, and essential workers have championed the brand on social media.

These small actions foster goodwill with customers, but it is important to make a sincere effort. Consumers have a sharp eye for which actions are legitimate and brands acting in pursuit of positive marketing. Bringing rigorous measurement to brand purpose can bring efforts beyond lip service.

Adopting Social Intelligence: the Four P’s of Social Intelligence

From an organizational standpoint, making insights actionable requires a full understanding of all data streams. It is important to keep an eye on the big picture as the algorithms become more complicated. Implementing a framework for intelligence is important, but defining what exactly goes into its creation is a key step. “You can not manage what you can not measure, and you cannot measure what you cannot define”, remarked Panelist Rob Key.

Purpose, People, Platform, Process

This is bigger than social media, and applicable to all facets of a company looking to leverage consumer touchpoint data. Tracking success is not easy without first not concretizing the campaigns primary purpose. Defining this helps measure and iterate on the processes, and ensure the goals are reached. Strategy leaders, data administrators, and analysts are integral to this end. A formalized method for going from data to actionable insights is what gives all of this structure.  

With so many people contributing to these efforts, a smoothly functioning workflow is essential to tracking maturity. There are three understood steps in the process: 

  • Descriptive analytics: What has happened?
  • Predictive Analytics: What could happen?
  • Prescriptive Analytics: What should we do?

The aim is to be able to take data from passive listening efforts and move beyond descriptive analytics to active listening. Once a firm is able to define what could happen, only then can broader intelligence gathering to finally supplement organization wide decisions. This evolution is already happening, as firms move toward using social data to inform their decisions.

So where is the disconnect?

Training on using the tools is integral to achievement, it is all about how the data is used. Beyond this, data scientists need to leverage their data story telling skills to better connect with key stakeholders to make their insights actionable. Decision-making can be better informed by data when they have a 360 degree view and understanding of it.

How do you measure the resonance of your brand purpose? 

Building a framework, and bringing statistical rigor to a data set opens up a world of opportunities. With this level of detail, the dataset will be uniquely shaped to reflect brand concerns. 

Social data can guide these strategies and help contextualize the feedback.  As long as the stated brand purpose continues to align with the key customers, then those efforts are valuable and successful. For Brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's, finding the balance during a polarizing time is a challenge. Ben and Jerry’s is simply a frozen dessert company but have catapulted themselves into the global conversation through their efforts to bring attention to the causes affecting their consumers. Patagonia similarly is a clothing company focused on sustainability in their supply chain, but have expanded their efforts to encourage their consumers to do the same. 


Source: Ben and Jerrys, Silence is not an option


Source: Patagonia, Vote Tag

Both Ben and Jerry's and Patagonia faced backlash on social media for their statements, but have strengthened their positioning with their key consumers while staying true to their brand purpose. These brands embraced the social moment, as the values of the day ring true for both their consumers and broader corporate values. Modern problems and issues require modern and innovative solutions. As the panelists explained,  one statistical framework for all insights helps accurately benchmark and monitor brand purpose over time. 

Moving “At The Speed Of Culture”

Social data analytics can help firms triangulate their brand purpose and more. These unsolicited comments are the authentic consumer voice in an organic setting and are an invaluable resource, that up until the last decade, were hard to accurately identify. Now, using machine learning to classify language around a framework can support these efforts. With social data, firms can discover topics that were not on the radar and better position themselves and their marketing into 2021 and beyond. 

These strategies are not exclusively available to large firms, but align with organizational maturity. Whether a firm is at the descriptive analytics or prescriptive analytics stage, data structuring, and an improved framework can take decision-making capabilities to the next level. Brands like Nike, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's, and more are already embracing their core values to find their deeper brand purpose with great success. To make consumer-centricity the cornerstone of marketing strategies, leverage AI-Enabled consumer insights and better connect with key consumers.

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