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Creating Brand Empathy

June 29, 2013

I’ve been thinking for some time about revisiting a post that I wrote in 2010 about the power of creating brand empathy. What especially makes the post worth sharing again is the Cannes award-winning short film that I shared with permission from the director, Alonso Alvarez Barreda.

If you have not seen Historia de un Letrero (History of a Sign), I encourage you to take a few minutes to view it now. And if you have a few more moments, in this post I share about how the video should remind us of the power we have as marketing and communications professionals, and challenge us to seek to create content–print, web, and social–that makes an emotional connection, fostering brand empathy.


A Parable for the Power of Brand Empathy
January 26, 2010

Historia de un Letrero (History of a Sign)
Wama Films

Directed by Alonso Alvarez Barreda
Winner of the Short Film online competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

A stranger transforms the afternoon for another man with the stroke of the pen.

In December, I was on a United Airlines flight eventually headed to a university campus where I would be doing a presentation to faculty on marketing higher education and the relationship of an institution’s brand to its mission. During the flight, while I was reviewing my notes and paying little attention to the videos being shown, a short film began playing that caught my attention.

The film, Historia de un Letrero, caught my attention because of the way director Alonso Alvarez Barreda engaged my right brain as he visually unfolded the story. It didn’t matter that it was Spanish-speaking with subtitles. It needed few words to connect with both my head and my heart.

If you haven’t viewed the short film already, please take a look. You’ll enjoy it.

Historia de un Letrero, as one reviewer put it, is “a beautiful and compelling story that invites us to be human again.” The story has a wonderful message.

But the film is beautiful and compelling–and it works–because the director tells the story using purely visual means, until brief dialogue at the end. In so doing, he engages us in the sights and sounds of the scene, putting us in the middle of the park, people-watching and taking it all in. In so doing, he “invites us to be human again” rather than preaching the message at us through dialogue or narration.

As I viewed Historia de un Letrero on the flight, it jumped out at me as a parable with lessons for branding organizations, including colleges and universities. I worked the story into my presentation as a way to show the power of branding.

Indeed, by a stroke of a pen, the good Samaritan changed the perceptions of those who would walk by the old man. In essence, he rebranded him.

A sign that begged for sympathy was transformed to create empathy.

No longer would those walking by view the old man as a beggar, a homeless man without dignity whom they could ignore. Now, he was a human being–just like them. Only less fortunate. The good Samaritan humanized him and in so doing emotionally connected him to others.

Well-crafted branding does that. It connects emotionally with your audience. It creates brand empathy.

How are your branding messages? Are you emotionally connecting with your audience by connecting your institution’s story with the heart of your audience? Or, are your communications solely institution-focused, full of academic-ese, simply structured to list all of your programs?

Do your branding communications invite us into the wonderful collegiate experience you offer? Do they remind us of the life-changing experience we had as alumni on your campus? Do they create empathy allowing us to envision enrolling in or donating to your institution? Or, do you simply preach at us using a narrative voice that lists your benefits without connecting emotionally?

Historia de un Letrero carefully crafts a story that draws us in and connects with us emotionally, inspiring us and motivating us to action. Branding should do the same.


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