For the first time in most of our living memories, we – as a human race – experienced a degree of ambiguity and crisis like no other we’d ever known. What emerged as the critical skill needed was that of emotional intelligence: the ability to be compassionate, empathetic, resilient, and focused. Increasingly, people now seek connection with their world through a deeper, ‘values’ lens: holding each other, and companies and brands much more accountable.

This places tremendous pressure on marketers – the guardians of the brand, in every company – to quickly expand their repertoire of skills to be more emotionally intelligent, and meet their customers where they are at.

Marketing is perhaps one of the most people-facing disciplines of all. It involves trying to influence people’s buying decisions. People—and particularly their emotions—are messy. We all make decisions that are not completely logical, all the time. This is challenging on an individual level, but it is hugely challenging on a broader basis, as in marketing.

From understanding to execution

It is, therefore, clear that emotional intelligence is a key skill for marketers. Punita Gandhi and Ann Petry are both experts in emotional intelligence. They set up Owlish Labs to focus on providing organisational insights with emotional intelligence. They recently came to one of our roundtables to discuss using emotional intelligence in marketing. They suggests that the starting point is to understand the basis of emotions.

“You have to understand that emotions come from our observations and the stories we tell ourselves about what we are seeing, and are filtered by our own experience. This means that people’s reactions are complex and very diverse, and values therefore play a critical role in emotional intelligence. We can use our emotional intelligence for manipulative purposes or for positive altruistic purposes. Being aligned with values that are meaningful and purposeful for us, and our audience, is critical in how we talk about and see the world.”

The pandemic has meant that how we work has changed hugely, and we are still all making sense of a new reality. They highlights the fundamental challenges of this in marketing.

“Is there really just one reality? Marketers are being asked to develop new frameworks, new models, and new paradigms—and at speed. That’s exceedingly challenging in a context where the largest variable is driven by human emotion. We’ve traditionally used automated models and artificial intelligence to support some decisions. However, as decisions get more complex, we need to use our human capabilities more.” 

Focus on values

They suggest that there has been a step-change in the importance of values in the last few years. 

“There’s been a huge values shift, and not just driven by the pandemic. Customers are starting to care about who they are engaging with, even at a transactional level. How we reward customer loyalty has become less important than the company’s image. Values have started to become key, along with how the company positions itself. This is a very important part of branding, and these are sensitive subjects because people have very polarised views on these things.”

At the same time, there has also been increased complexity from other sources.

“We are seeing organisations starting to collaborate more across functions. This is good, but it means that more people are involved—and that means decisions become more complex. This means that buying decisions may get ‘stuck’, and we need to use our empathy as marketers to help customers to navigate through that complexity. Looking at behaviour is not really enough. You also need to look at what lies underneath that, at the barriers or issues. This is hard, because you can’t see the whole customer organisation as a marketer, but you have to help buyers through that emotional complexity.” 

A new paradigm for emotional intelligence in marketing

Owlish Labs has developed a new framework for emotional intelligence in marketing. In this approach, three key competencies (market orientation, entrepreneurial orientation and learning orientation) lead to the desired behaviour, empathetic innovativeness, and then to improved marketing performance. Market orientation is having empathy for the market: being in tune with what customers want in terms of values, and understanding their experience. Entrepreneurial orientation covers adaptability, resilience, and a positive approach. Finally, learning orientation describes a willingness to learn and adapt. They suggest that one crucial skill underlies all this.

“Empathy is the single most critical emotional intelligence skill. This means compassion and understanding, not just at a cognitive level, but at an emotional level. Studies on young children show that empathy is the single leading indicator of a child’s likelihood of future success. I think that this is because empathy creates a degree of openness and the ability to connect—and I believe that’s why it matters so much in marketing.”

The bottom line

Marketing is not about slick communications, it is about meeting customer needs. This does not mean simply responding to customers. Instead, it is about a deep understanding of your customers: their expectations, their pain points, and their challenges. Great marketers engage on an emotional level, and not merely an intellectual one. This allows them to anticipate customer needs, often before they have articulated that need themselves. 

You cannot do that unless you understand both your customers and yourself, and can recognise and manage your and their emotions. In other words, emotional intelligence is only going to become more important for marketers.