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Brand Stories Inspire Empathy

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Empathy in brand stories inspire connection whereas sympathy can result in villainy

I was talking with my young adult son about the homeless in Vancouver and what the city needs to be doing about it, at one point he says to me, “Let me understand this. My empathetic mother who understands what others go through and cries when they share their stories, doesn’t empathise with the homeless? This is what I’m hearing right now.” This felt like a punch in the gut. My response was defensive because I do care about their situation. “Mom, you’re sympathetic but you have no empathy for them.” What was the difference and why were my solutions to the homeless situation reflecting a lack of empathy?

What is in this article on empathy in brand storytelling

Sympathy is not Empathy

As my son pointed out it is important to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy to know how to elicit the right reaction in your brand storytelling.

Sympathy is feeling of pity or sorrow for other people who are experiencing a negative event in their lives. You don’t have to understand their pain to feel bad for them and wish they weren’t going through it. When you sympathise you don’t fully understand what they are going through and do not feel their pain or joy deep in your soul.

Empathy is an Understanding

Empathy is more than sympathy because you understand how another person feels and why they feel that way. When you empathise with someone else, you feel what they feel and understand what they are going through. You are able to connect because you have a shared experience, even if it was different events with similarities.

Poll: Vote

"I Know How You Feel"

  • This is Sympathy

  • This is Empathy

How to tell the Difference between Sympathy and Empathy

People mistake empathy for sympathy because they don't understand the definition between the two. John is a manager and believes he needs to be seen as a caring individual. During a meeting he received a text from someone who experienced a loss and John stopped the meeting he was in because he needed a moment to compose himself. He was feeling upset about this text. When the participants of the meeting suggested cutting the meeting short, he said, “I can call him after the meeting. I just need to process this news. I’m feeling empathy right now.”

John was sympathetic to the text and concerned about how the news was making him feel in the moment. If he’d had an empathic response, his response would have been about what the other person needed from him at that moment, not what he was feeling himself. John wanted the people in the meeting to see him as empathetic, but he wasn’t – he was sympathetic.

Sympathy comes from our logical or rational intelligence and empathy comes from our emotional intelligence and experiences. If you are laying someone off and you say something to make them feel better to placating them – it’s sympathy not empathy.

We placate other’s emotions with statements like, “When one door closes, another on opens,” or “You’re better off without him.” When we use these canned positive thinking statements, we are trying to get the other person to feel better so we can stop having an uncomfortable conversation. We want to slap a band-aid on it and move on.

That is sympathy – you feel bad for them but you really don’t want to sit with their pain. Empathy sits with them in pain until they have fully processed it.

Sympathy often involves a lot of judgement.

Empathy has none.

Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective.

Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand

Sympathy’s favourite expression is “poor you

Empathy’s favourite expression is “I can understand how it feels.”

Sympathy focuses on the surface meaning of statements

Empathy is sensitive to non-verbal cues.

Empathy isn’t always about negative situations. Empathy can be understanding positive and joyful experiences of others. It is the understanding of what other people are going through and how it makes them feel - both positive and negative.

Empathy and Storytelling

When we tell stories we create a space for people to become more empathetic because they start to understand the other side of the issue. At the same time, people need to have empathy to place themselves within the story, put themselves in the shoes of the main character. Without it, they are disconnected from the story and the plight of the characters.

To connect your brand story with your audience you need to create opportunities for them to feel empathy and identify with the person you are talking about. To do this, you need to understand who your audience is and lead them using a brand story digital funnel to guide them deeper into the story.

This isn’t easy and takes a bit of trial and error.

Take Ella, she posts to her social media profiles, writes keyword rich blog posts, has a decent following, lots of engagement, but she isn’t getting any new clients or sales.

Her posts are created to elicit an emotional response

Her best post was about losing her brother to suicide. Other posts with strong engagement were about her pets and kids. Her personal stories connected with her audience, but they didn’t tell them what she did or why they would want to go deeper into her story to connect with her professionally.

Many of the likes and comments on Emma’s posts were from people who were sympathetic to her losing her brother to suicide. Sympathy does not lead to understanding or guiding people deeper into your story because, they are more concerned with how they feel than understand what you went through. They hit like or write a comment and then move on because your story is making them feel uncomfortable by triggering their own fears.

It’s like we are superstitious, as long as we hit like or say something then the same thing won’t happen to us.

Speaker on brand storytelling and brand empathy

Sympathy does not foster connection – empathy does.

Emma’s post about the loss of her brother did have some empathetic responses from those who had experienced a similar loss. Some shared how they’d lost loved ones to suicide, some identified with Emma’s strength in time of loss because they’d lost someone in different ways, and others understood what it feels like to be on the edge of suicide. Empathetic responses triggered people to share their stories, which created conversation and connection through the sharing of stories.

Though these personal stories get lots of engagement, the people sharing their stories are not always her ideal audience. Many of the comments are from people who do not live within her community and never will. Even if someone does identify with her, they will need more positive feelings for a stronger connection as we don't want to be reminded about hurtful times in our lives. When it comes to building an emotional connection through empathy online for your brand, positive emotions will go further than negative ones.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelo

Emma is a Realtor®

As a Realtor®, having a strong personal brand story is an important part of her brand storytelling strategy because being able to connect with individuals will improve her level of success.

Her brand storytelling strategy is a balance between personal brand stories and business brand stories to ensure she connects with people by sharing stories they can relate to, while showing them that she is a Realtor® whom they can trust.

To be effective, she needs to understand whom she wants as clients and then understand what matters to them in their day to day lives. Once she understands her favourite clients, she can connect with them before they ever think of buying or selling real estate while at the same time letting them know that she is a Realtor®.

By telling her personal brand stories. and business brand stories - she is able to craft stories people empathize with and show them what she does.

When a Vulnerability Story Goes Wrong

In the summer of 2022, Braden Wallake, CEO of, HyperSocial posted a photo of him crying on LinkedIn and shared his story about how laying off 2 employees made him upset. His post went viral for all the wrong reasons.

He meant to tell a story about how leaders don’t take laying off others lightly and they feel sadness too…. The result was instant vilification, and the post went viral as people made fun of his vulnerability and tears.

Most people did not empathise with him, nor did they felt any sympathy because of how he told his story. When writing a vulnerable story - how you write it matters so keep reading to find out how you can write your story without getting vilified.

"This will be the most vulnerable thing I'll ever share. I've gone back and forth whether to post this or not. We just had to layoff a few of our employees. I've seen a lot of layoffs over the last few weeks on LinkedIn. Most of those are due to the economy, or whatever other reason. Ours? My fault. I made a decision in February and stuck with that decision for far too long. Now, I know my team will say that "we made that decision together", but I lead us into it. And because of those failings, I had to do today, the toughest thing I've ever had to do. We've always been a people first business. And we always will be. Days like today, I wish I was a business owner that was only money driven and didn't care about who he hurt along the way. But I'm not. So, I just want people to see, that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted and doesn't care when he/she have to lay people off. I'm sure there are hundreds and thousands of others like me. The ones you don't see talked about. Because they didn't lay off 50 or 500 or 5000 employees. They laid off 1 or 2 or 3. 1 or 2 or 3 that would still be here if better decisions had been made. I know it isn't professional to tell my employees that I love them. But from the bottom of my heart, I hope they know how much I do. Every single one. Every single story. Every single thing that makes them smile and every single thing that makes them cry. Their families. Their friends. Their hobbies. I've always hire people based on who they are as people. People with great hearts, and great souls. And I can't think of a lower moment than this."

Poll: Vote

Did he deserve the negative reaction?

  • Yes, this was self serving

  • Yes, it was out of touch

  • No, it was a story of his struggle

  • I don't know

When I read this post, I see a story about a leader who made a decision that resulted in having to let two people go and he is taking responsibility for it.

So, why did it get vilified?

Some people were probably triggered due to their own laid offs. Most people are not leaders and cannot identify with someone who must make these hard decisions, so they cannot empathise with him. A lot of them were jumping on the viral trend to get their own brands in front of people, thinking that’s the way to build a brand and get followers.

I think the main reason is because his story structure cast him as a victim disguised as a hero and this screams, please feel sorry for me, even if that isn’t the purpose or objective.

How to Tell a Vulnerable Story of Social Media

How could Braden Wallake structured his story to garner sympathy and empathy instead of being vilified?

CurbAPeel Realtor brand storytelling magazine

First, he needed to take the emotional out of the story by waiting until the worst of the emotions has passed. Then once written, don’t post it, give it a couple of days and then go and edit it to ensure you are not using emotional woe is me language in the story.

Second, he should have told a story of empathy for his employees not how he felt about letting them go. He needed to use the pronoun ‘I’ less and ‘them’ more.

Third, his self-importance or ego – Calling himself a CEO sounds pretentious and he offers himself up as a foil against CEOs of larger companies. By setting himself up as a CEO instead of a small business owner, the public easily transferred their anger at CEOs of large organisations to him.

Fourth, the photo of him crying was a blatant cry for sympathy, but he didn’t experience uncertain loss caused by someone else in power. He was the person who held the power. It also goes against society’s belief that leaders, especially male leaders, shouldn’t cry. We want strong leaders whom we can trust to lead us through the tough times.

Fifth, he needed to be the hero, not the victim in this story. He had to make a tough choice for the sake of his company and those who still work for him, it was a tough decision and not one he took lightly, but – THIS IS VITAL – he is not the victim of circumstance in this story. He is the one with the power over others. His failure to get clients resulted in him having to let others go… They are the victims. He is the hero in the story… and his story is not yet over.

The good news, due to his story, the two people he had to lay off got a lot of attention from companies looking to hire someone.

There is no doubt that those who make the hard decision to let others go through negative emotions in the process because they know they have negatively affected the lives of many people, but they are not the victim of circumstance.

The reason Braden Wallake was vilified on social media is because he told the story from the point of view of a victim and people were not empathetic to his situation, after all, he still had a job, a company, and those he let go were the ones with the uncertain future. Audiences identified with those who were let go because they either have been let go in the past and know how it feels or they fear being let go and can sympathise.

Now, those who created satire posts about, Braden Wallake, have shown themselves as being cruel and unsympathetic individuals who jump on trends and only care about getting follows and likes. So, in the end, those who pushed the post into the sphere of viral – became villains in the process.

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How to Tell a Brand Story to Elicit Empathy and Conversions

This is the main objective of every business and brand telling stories online – to drive sales.

Every day, business owners solve problems and struggle to overcome obstacles, which they can tap to be more vulnerable and show their ability to help customers get what they want in life. When telling a vulnerability story, do not leave yourself open by being a victim, you must be seen as the answer either as the hero of your own story or the solution to your hero customers.

how to tell a vulnerability story on social media

1. State your vulnerability:

Fear is in the pit of my stomach, and I feel isolated.

2. Explain the why of your vulnerability:

I am alone and scared I won’t be able to pay my bills

3. What will you do to solve the problem creating your vulnerability:

To fix this problem, I created two programs to help people tell their stories to the right audience, build their digital footprint, and grow their marketing funnel.

4. Add a pothole that others can identify with:

But what if they don’t show up? What if they do and they don’t want to buy?

5. Establish the Stakes, something others are fearful of too:

If I don’t succeed, will I have to buy a tent to live in?

6. Describe what you can do to help others if you succeed:

If I do succeed, I will be able to help others know their purpose, craft their stories, heal from trauma, and connect with others.

7. Catharsis – Realisation – What do you need to do to succeed?

I must embrace hope and keep doing the tasks to move towards my goals because to give into fear results in failure. I have to trust the process and not give up too soon.

8. Next step – What are you going to do or what is your Call to Action?

I’m off to advertise the webinar and discussion so people who need my help will find me.

We all have fears others can relate to

In this story, I am being vulnerable by admitting that I am scared and have a financial crunch. But I’m not looking for sympathy, I have a plan even though I have doubts it may not work and if it doesn’t there are unwanted consequences. However, if I succeed then there is a shining light where others will benefit from my success. If I want to succeed, I can’t give into my vulnerability and must take action instead, so here’s what I am going to do…

I don’t use victim language. There is no victimisation. I’m the hero who has a decision to make and a hope that things will work out so I can help others succeed.

The helping others is important because the success isn’t about me – it’s about what I can do to help others succeed.

If I fail – I’ll be living in a tent
If I succeed – I’ll be able to help others

I didn’t say I will be able to pay the bills or get a bigger place, a new car, or many other things success can bring me… Success isn’t about me… it’s about a solution for others, even though the consequence of failure is about me. I'm letting people know what I do and that I have the same fears and doubts they do, so I understand.

If you want people to have empathy, it must have details others can relate to. So, think about which details others will have experienced and include them instead of details that are only applicable to you.

Telling an emotionally charged story, be it negative or positive emotions, can create opportunities for our audiences to become empathetic to our brand and thereby creating stronger connections with them. However, if done wrong, it can have negative affects as people who have their own selfish agendas corrupt your story for their own gains. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you need to write the story when you aren’t emotional and structure the story to the benefit of others with you are either the hero, (personal brand stories) or as guide, (business brand stories).

In my conversation with my son, I admitted that my opinion of the homeless situation comes from a place of misunderstanding and sympathy. To gain empathy, I need to understand why they are there and what they want for their own lives instead of coming at the problem from an “I know better” approach to fix it based on what I’d want if I was in their shoes. The only way I will truly understand is to end up living in a tent or listen to the stories of those who are homeless. That is why stories are so important, they give us what we need to better understand what others go through and feel.

Brand Empathy Marketing

Below you will discover information on how to tell an empathetic brand story so your brand can be seen as empathetic to your market.

What is Brand Empathy in B2B?

Brand empathy is a shared journey between your brand and its audience. It involves a deeper connection and understanding on an emotional level, as well as rational and transactional ones.

B2C brands and nonprofits are experts in using empathy in their marketing and advertising, whereas, B2B brands struggle.

A brand must go beyond traditional customer personas to truly understand what the customer feels, experiences, needs, and desires. You need to put yourself in their shoes and then tell their story to them.

Brand experts know this, but a lot of brands are still doing it wrong. One must truly understand what empathy is and have it in abundance to be able to understand people they don’t know and how they connect with the story of the brand.

B2B Buyers want Empathy not Your Content

How often do you hear, “We need more content?” “Content is King.”

Truth is there is too much content out there and consumers are getting frustrated with having to dig through long posts like this just to find an answer to their problems, yet Google insists on more content to get to the top of the search.

So what is a content marketer to do?

Write less content to make it easier for people to find the answers to their questions and solutions to their problems? Then end up on page 100 because Google doesn’t think it has enough words to qualify as ‘good content’


Do you play the Google content game and write really long posts like this one where you answer a hundred questions about one topic? Google will send traffic your way, but will the stay?

When we create for the algorithm and the data, we lose empathy. We lose all humanity and the story. Stories aren’t about keywords and a formula structure and neither are people, but as content marketers that’s where we have to live so here you go… too much information in one post so you can get the answer to the first question asked.

Here is the brutal truth…

According to research done by Forrester 65% of B2B consumers say they already get too much material from marketers and most is useless.

That is one thing I never want to hear about my content because I want to inspire, teach, and get you to think about how to do something better.

If the content doesn’t demonstrate that your brand understands your audience’s needs or problems, let alone offering anything to help address those challenges, they are going to care about you as much as you care about them.

How to Craft Empathy-Driven Brand Story Content

Many marketing and sales professionals approach B2B unemotionally to be perceived as professional. Emotions and professionalism do conflict at times, however, when you are trying to sell anyone something, it is still important that they feel like you understand them, can solve their problem, and make them look good.

How can you do that?

Let’s take a look at a few ideas to add more empathy into your B2B marketing and brand storytelling.

Know the Logical and Emotional Triggers

Logically, B2B marketers and content creators have this down pact. They get it and they do a good job of listing out all those features and benefits to help people compare their product and service with their competitors.

Those feature sheets are important in the customer’s buying journey to get your product or service into the final round of decision making… but if you want to win the final prize, you must connect with them on an emotional level.

Whether it’s B2B or B2C - people who make buying decisions will buy from people they like and the rest of us will flounder in second place.

Take some time to get your sales team or if you are a one stop shop, ask yourself, to go out and talk to your customers. Ask them questions about the problems they had before they choose your solution. What did they feel, what were the symptoms they were experiencing, and when they knew they had to make a decision to work with you.

According to Forrester’s research paper there are four needs your content needs to tell stories about:

Peer examples, business cases, and ROI focused content are among the most valuable types of content for B2B buyers.

Personalised for what they need. Of those surveyed 84% said they prefer when the ROI analysis of the content is customised to their organisation.

Engage on their terms because 80% of the decision makers who responded wanted venders to provide relevant content for each stage of the buying process. They would rather have had the right personalised content instead of calls from salespeople because they want to remain anonymous until they have made a decision and are ready to buy.

As much as they say they don’t want more content, nearly 90% want the venders to be a trusted source in the industry to reflect an awareness of current market conditions.

What does all this mean?

It means that you need to map out the customer journey, after understanding it, and create content to answer the questions they have. You need to be where they are when they need you and not in their face before they need you, yet you need to be seen as a trusted industry source.

The problem with surveys is … people say what they want but what they want and how they behave are usually two different things.

If you followed Forrester’s findings and constructed your content program based on what B2B decision makers said they wanted, you would wrap yourself up in a pretzel and never understand the decision maker enough to be empathetic to their real needs, desires, emotions, and problems.

You need to meet with ideal customers ask them questions and listen to them as they answer them. Ask deeper questions to get at the core of their real buying triggers and then create content to tell their story to them using your solution as a weapon to slay their dragon.

Sales and marketing must work together to fully understand what the B2B customer wants and then take the time to write that story along their buyers journey.

Brand Storytelling free ebook

Prince Harry Went from Hero to Victim with his Brand Story

Harry cast himself as the victim in his story, which elicits sympathy, pity, and anger in audiences resulting in consternation, judgement, and conflict. By setting him and the Duchess of Sussex against Their Highnesses, Prince William and Princess Catherine, his father, His Majesty the King, and the bureaucracy that runs the day to day, Prince Harry has damaged his personal brand.

Casting himself up as the victim is a tough story for someone in his position to successfully pull off because most people cannot relate to his life resulting in a lack of empathy. Before he published his book, Spare, he was a hero who overcame a tragic loss felt by millions of people and now, he's just a whiny rich kid who got the smaller bedroom.

The Brand Story the People Loved

Up until his marriage, the story the public knew was of two brothers who had overcome the tragic loss of their mother to be a close and supportive team representing Britain on the global stage. That is the story the people love and now he has showed them a reality they didn't want to know about. People want Diana's sons to be friends, not enemies.

Why the British Media Turned on Him

The British media has turned on Harry because he cast them as the villain in his story thinking he has more sway over the British people than the Media.* This is a gamble as most British people are struggling right now and this rich kid is whining because his brother got more and pushed him one time in his life.

The people can't relate. They have bigger problems. They have real pain from ... Read the Full article

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John Rok
John Rok
Aug 25, 2022

Your post gives information about brand stories inspire empathy. The emotion of sympathy is one of pity or sorrow for other individuals who are going through a difficult time in their lives. You don't have to comprehend their suffering in order to feel sorry for them and wish it weren't happening to them. When you sympathize with someone, you are not truly understanding what they are going through and are not deeply moved by their suffering or joy.That's why I follow your post. After that I will be busy to making an assignment such as Cheap dissertation help for my education. This is a great article about empathy.

Shannon Peel
Shannon Peel
Aug 26, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for your comment. Yes, sympathy is a valuable emotional skill for us to have when talking with those we know are in pain. However, if we write our story on a digital platform and it elicits feelings of sympathy in people who read it we will receive notes of pity, sympathy, and in some cases - judgement and ridicule by the trolls out there. It comes down to the tone we use when we tell our story... is it one of victimhood or empowerment?


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