young women playing soccer
PHOTO: Jeffrey F Lin

Nike’s "Never Stop Winning" commercial, which aired seconds after the United States women’s soccer team won its second consecutive World Cup, has done more than earn hundreds of thousands of likes on Twitter and nearly 5 million YouTube views. It's also vivid proof of what can happen when a business harnesses empathy to reach consumers.

Ditching the Sales Pitch in Favor of an Emotional Bond

If you somehow missed it, the 60-second commercial features a woman’s voice leading a crowd in chants of “I believe.” Elegantly composed with black-and-white photos, the ad simultaneously celebrates the team’s championship and advocates for an end to gender discrimination and pay inequity in sports and beyond. It beautifully executes what has become a state-of-the-art marketing concept in a noisy, often disgruntled world: forging a strong emotional connection with customers and speaking to them on their own deeply human terms, even if that means ditching an overt sales pitch.

This is not exactly a new idea. In 1998, consultants Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore wrote an influential article for the Harvard Business Review in which they asserted any business in any industry can create “a memorable event” for customers that exists “on an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level.”

TV watchers are familiar with the ASPCA commercials, which feature singer Sarah McLachlan, elegiac music and photos of suffering dogs and cats. The heart-rending campaign has raised $30 million within the first two years of its release.

To name another example, P&G’s "Thank you, Mom" commercials before the London Olympics in 2012, which honored the efforts of mothers raising young athletes, were lauded for the authentic, emotional bond they made with viewers.

Related Article: American Women and Nike: A Soccer Narrative

Empathy's Place in Creativity

That such advertising gives us all the feels is rooted in science. A study published last year in the journal Neuron showed that the brain patterns associated with empathy are consistent and predictable across individuals.

In another interesting study, marketing professors at the University of Connecticut and the University of Illinois asked two groups of 100 participants each: What kind of potato chip would you create, and what would you name it, if you wanted to sell the product exclusively to pregnant women? The most creative ideas came from the group who thought about how the consumer would feel.

"I think it is fascinating to see that eliciting empathy has inherent value in maximizing creativity," one of the study leaders told Science Daily. "This is one of those areas of psychology that hasn't been clearly disentangled yet for marketers: How does explicitly thinking of others' feelings affect those who are creating new work?"

Indeed, many companies still struggle with the skills to reach consumers on an emotional level. British media company Reach used an empathy scale developed by psychologists to study “how well the marketing and advertising industry understand the mainstream by assessing empathy levels and moral frameworks.” Its report, released in early July, found that less than a third of people working in marketing and advertising in that country displayed high levels of affective empathy.

When a company is able to tap into the zeitgeist and bridge the empathy gap to deliver a real gut punch to its audience, as Nike did with “Never Stop Winning,” you can practically hear marketers around the world longing to make a similar impact.

Related Article: Mastering the Art of Emotional Customer Experience

A Path to Differentiating Your Brand

To take a deeper dive into why the commercial elicited such a strong response, researchers in my company conducted a quick survey with 10 people — eight women and two men, age 22 to 55 — who were asked to watch the ad and then answer a series of questions about their perception of it.

Eight of the 10 felt the ad positively affected their opinion of Nike. Even more telling was how their perception of the Nike brand changed. Before watching the commercial, participants were asked to choose words to describe the brand. Typical responses: “athletic,” “sporty,” “stylish,” “modern.” After viewing the ad, most said they would include additional words such as “inspirational,” “inclusive,” “empowering,” “amazing” and “influential.”

“It makes me believe that our voices will be heard,” one female participant said. “That we will be treated as equal, and we will break every glass ceiling. I feel like Nike is taking a stance, and I absolutely love it.”

That the ad was less about Nike and more about a specific topic or cause — in this case, female empowerment, inclusivity and equality — reflects a growing trend. Consumers increasingly are making decisions based not just on product quality, selection and price but on what the company stands for. According to an Accenture survey of nearly 30,000 people, 62% want companies to take a stand on burning issues such as sustainability, transparency and fair employment practices.

“Companies looking to build their competitive agility need to find new ways to stand apart. Purpose provides the differentiation that many seek,” the report said.

Like the team it celebrates, the Nike commercial connected with people personally and emotionally. It was a textbook case of how brands that are able to reach into consumers’ hearts are likely themselves to “never stop winning.”