How empathetic design thinking and storytelling help build sustainable brands

Empathy is not sympathy. It is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes — to see what they see, feel what they feel and experience things as they do. We as designers or storytellers can achieve this empathic state as we put aside our own preconceived ideas about the world and choose to understand the ideas, thoughts and needs of others instead… By taking a human-first approach.

Empathetic Design Thinking

Design thinking or thinking like a designer transforms the way any organisation can develop its products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible, economically viable as well as sustainable. But is design thinking only for designers? No. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.

Design thinking is a way of seeing the world. As it matures, its history deepens and its impact evolves. Design thinking is an innovative way to solve problems through creativity.

We live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. Some of the big questions being asked by businesses, government, educational and social organisations need answers that are unconventional, out of the box. Organisations and governments need to realise – what got them here will not get them any further.

In a session at National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) I shared with the students that the designer’s mindset embraces empathy, creativity, optimism, iteration, and ambiguity. Design thinking has to be human-first, by keeping people at the center of every process. A human-first designer knows that as long as you stay focused on the people you’re designing for—and listen to them directly—you can arrive at optimal solutions that meet their needs.

As Frank Chimero rightly said: “People ignore design that ignores people”.

Empathetic Storytelling

The beauty of stories is that they open up our pre-frontal cortex and make us more receptive to what comes next. The human system is always welcoming to a good story. So storytelling has always been human-first. The stories we weave have the power of making a significant impact in decision making. In academics when we write case studies, we are basically telling stories. In corporate or in government systems when we want to talk about our brands and why they are special, stories are the most effective tools for brand custodians.

Empathy transforms stories into immersive experiences that reflect our shared humanity, making empathy not just important, but crucial to compelling storytelling… the human-first approach.

It is vital in storytelling as it forms the emotional bridge between the audience and the characters, making narratives resonate on a deeper level.

Empathetic storytelling allows audiences to connect and understand brand motivations, and become emotionally invested in their journeys.

Role of empathy in building a Sustainable Brand

The term sustainability refers to four distinct areas: human, social, economic and environmental – known as its four pillars.

What is sustainable brand and how is this different from a viable brand? The difference is in the inclusion of social and environmental impact, besides the financial impact. This is the essence of the triple bottom line measure of Profit, People and Planet.

Therefore, organisations need to integrate sustainable practices into every facet of their business operations—including supply chains, business partners, and renewable energy usage—to positively impact society and the environment in addition to turning a profit, according to Harvard Business School.

The Gen Z as a customer as well as millennials are extremely conscious and supportive towards a brand’s sustainable efforts. No wonder luxury brands like Cartier and Louis Vuitton are moving away from exotic leathers to polyurethanes or PU. So sustainability is not a charity or choice, it is a survival strategy that brands need to adopt.

Thus brands, in order to survive, have to become sustainable and therefore the ways a custodian used to talk about or rather promote brands are now obsolete.

With the environmentally and socially conscious customers every brand custodian has to take a human-first approach. Strategic branding, thus, has become more of sustainable branding as a survival strategy.

The magic ingredient for sustainable branding is human-first approach in its communication and design, which means adopting empathetic storytelling and empathetic design thinking as an integral part of brand strategy.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Mahul Brahma
Prof (Dr.) Mahul Brahma is Dean and Professor of NSHM Media School and NSHM Design School. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Business School, Bath Spa University, UK. He is former Professor, Dean of School of Media and Communications and Director of Communications at an Indian university.

Prof Brahma was Chief Editor and Head of CSR, Corporate Communications and Branding, Publishing and Conferences for a Tata Steel and SAIL JV, mjunction. He is a D.Litt in luxury and communications, and a PhD in Economics. He is a TEDx speaker on the mythic value of luxury.

He won Sahityakosh Samman in 2022 and 2023, Crisis Communications Leader of the Year Award in 2021 and several other national-level awards in communications and CSR. He is a luxury commentator and award-winning author of 10 books – 'Bharat, A Luxe Story', The Quiet Luxe, Aesthetic Leadership in Luxury, Mostly Missing: Be Silly Be Slow, The Mythic Value of Luxury, How to Communicate Strategically in Corporate World, the Luxe Trilogy (Decoding Luxe, Dark Luxe and Luxe Inferno) and Quarantined: Love in the time of Corona.

He is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management - Calcutta, St Xavier’s College, MICA, Sri Satya Sai University, and University of Cambridge Judge Business School. He is a golfer with a 7 handicap.

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