Studies show ad execs are Britain’s least trusted profession. Just 13% said they trusted ad execs, down from 17% in 2019. And why is that? Increased concerns on data usage don’t help, but neither does excessive frequency and bombardment. In fact, the thing people don’t trust isn’t really good advertising – it’s sales.

Gone are the days where shouty ‘BOGOF’ TV commercials showing a shiny product in a rotating star are commonplace. But that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of direct response (or even lazy infomercials). Whether offline or online, if an advert feels like an advert – intrusive, irrelevant, or annoying – then we’re not doing it right.

Put plainly, your audience wants to be helped, not sold to.

When it comes to content, brands need to offer audiences something remarkable. In a world where time – and more specifically, attention – comes at an increased premium, the importance of a worthwhile value exchange has never been greater. 

Who we’re talking to

The consumer journey has changed. Today’s buyers are self-educating and less receptive to traditional marketing.

So now that buyers are in control of their own research, the way to succeed in making more sales isn’t always about peddling product-heavy creative (your product information should be readily available online anyway). It’s about igniting meaningful conversations amongst our audience and putting our brands in the thick of it.

Rather than chasing lowest CPAs towards the end of the customer journey, marketers need to engage with these buyers earlier on, creating helpful content and building brand affinity. We want dazzling creativity and valued social contributions that give back to the consumer or the things they care about. 

The goal is to solve your customers’ problems, building brand trust and authority along the way. In a word, we need to be more empathetic.

Empathetic marketing

Lots of companies fall at the first hurdle with marketing: not understanding your audience.  You should be spending time working out what’s important to them. Empathetic marketing is solving your audiences’ challenges in a format that makes most sense, on a platform where they’re likely to find it. This concept, used in content marketing for years, has never been  more important.

The more you want to help your audience, the more they will want to engage with you. You’re fostering a positive relationship with the brand and you’re increasing the chances of making a sale. Not only that, but you’re also more likely to create a loyal customer with a higher lifetime value.

Many people think that TV is the only true emotional medium and the web should be saved for rational, informational content. Wrong. If your content isn’t eliciting some sort of emotional reaction it will not get traction. Do not expect engagement, do not expect reach, and do not – especially in this climate – even think of the word ‘viral’. (How dare you?)

Understanding our audience

Commissioning surveys and creating personas are common ways of getting in your audience’s heads. The latter especially though is contaminated with personal bias, particularly due to the problematic lack of diversity in the ad industry.

One of the best methods, in my view, is keyword research: with over 3.5 billion searches every day, the scale is certainly there, but it’s the candid nature of search that really makes this source so invaluable. There’s many-a-secret kept between a person and their search bar. All these things make it a treasure trove for those who want to help their audience. For instance, each year, 235,000 people ask Google if they’re going to be a good father – something people are unlikely to admit to in a survey (if we even thought to ask for it).

Some brands are great at thinking beyond their immediate ‘space to play’. Ben and Jerry’s efforts to drive systemic, progressive change, tackling the climate crisis and social inequity issues, is a large scale example. With 59% of US and UK consumers saying that they feel it’s important for brands to take a stance, it makes it a commercially astute move as well as a philanthropic one. 

One example closer to home is NatWest, who honed in on what prospective students (an audience key to growth) care about. Rather than investing in a cash incentive to open a current account, we worked with them to focus on their audience’s most pressing problems: what’s the most cost-effective university city to live in, how is each university handling the pandemic and what are they doing to make campuses more sustainable? The report is now one of their flagship annual campaigns at the heart of their media plan.  


This isn’t something that you can switch on overnight. One of the biggest challenges thrown up by this way of thinking is always going to be measurement. You will always, always come across someone who asks, “But how is this getting us more sales?”

The fiercely competitive battle for last-click CPAs can only get businesses so far. It favours a short-term sale that may well have happened anyway, and it normally comes at the expense of building your brand. That doesn’t mean direct response should be abandoned of course, but we need to plan for tomorrow’s sales as well as today’s.

The marketing activity that builds your brand longer-term means a different approach to measurement. It’s a big mindset shift, but before having to worry about conversion or brand lift studies, look at small KPI changes: a great place to start is using on-site analytics to look at non-last click conversation, propensity to return or even average order value of users who’ve spent more time with the brand.


Of course, it’s counter-intuitive to think you can sell more stuff without talking about the things you sell. But as marketers we’re all too quick to forget how we like to be spoken to ourselves.

So, the three takeaways for businesses?

Focus on connection rather than conversion.

Do ample research and be wary of personal bias and assumption-making.

Remember to be empathetic, and – dare I say it? – human.