Martin Lindstrom: Branding, Tribes and the Dissolution of Empathy

Martin Lindstrom

ID3 TMSGAR504 Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom is the world's leader in branding and marketing. Having started when he was a child presenting a marketing plan to Lego, developing a legion of fans through his books Buyology and Small Data, we're speaking about his customer service insights in his newest book, The Ministry of Common Sense. 

 

Bob: So, Martin, we are recording this shortly after the U.S. has witnessed something we never thought we would ever see, which is our Capitol being stormed. And what struck me so incredulous was how many had T-shirts made up. People had things that said “civil war” with the date, and you’re the branding guy. I mean, what does that say about people and identifying with brands, just in general?

Martin: Well, this comes down to a simple premise about you want to have a sense of belonging activated here. Now, when people feel lost, when you don’t have necessarily a purpose in life, you congregate in tribes. And a tribe is where you find like-minded souls next to you, and you define who you are, and most important who you are not. And the issue we’re talking about here is that because people not only have been through a very difficult financial time but also because of the issues we’re seeing with Covid-19, it’s very clear right now that people are desperate for a purpose in life.

Now, finally, someone shows up, and they can give you a direction and leadership, and say, “This is where we want to go.” And even though the methods may be extraordinary extreme, and definitely not something I acknowledge or recognize or can relate to, the fact is, it gives people some hope of being together with other like-minded people because they feel alone. And you feel alone, in particular, when you feel there’s a threat coming from outside: Mexicans coming over, taking over the country type of scenario, my job’s disappearing, I can’t even afford to put food on the table.

All of that means that people, when they stick together, feel strong. And what do you do in order to create an even stronger sense of belonging? Well, you put on T-shirts, you brand it, because a brand is all about showing to the world who we are, what we stand for, and where we’re going. So, in reality, in 2021, this is just a very commercialized version of creating a movement and a movement which quite often represents a replacement of religion.

Bob: Yes, well, I would agree with that, and then there’s the authoritarian doctrine, I think as well, which is, “I have this need to be led, you’re willing to lead me and I’ll go, and I’ll own that I’m an outsider.” And that gives me power because at some point, that’s what it’s about. I know, as you’re talking about tribes, I’m reading The WEIRDest People in the World and how Western civilization believes that we have been so unique, and we’re what the world is, we’re the best of the world.

But if you look at tribes and how societies organically came about, it really was this interconnected of it’s a we not an I. And it seems in 2021 it’s reveling in the I and not hearing anything. But America is still in shock and I would have to believe the rest of the world is as well, the power of this minor tribe to wreak havoc.

Martin: Well, the world is in shock because you have to remember the number one piece of export from the United States is democracy, and it has been part of the narrative for a lot of years now. When you suddenly see the country promoting and pushing concepts like freedom, freedom of speech, sticking together and democracy, certainly, it’s questioning one of its core, you, of course, are not only damaging the brand of United States.

You also, I think, at the same time, will have to question what is going on as a domino effect of all this, because as you know, when U.S. is sneezing, the rest of the world gets a cold. Well, why is this happening? And in my opinion, this is happening because of an essential thing, which is lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person and see and feel the world through that person’s eyes and ears.

Now, empathy has disappeared or is disappearing right now because of the bubbles, the social media bubbles, which are self-fulfilling, and reinforcing the views you have. And on top of that, for a lot of the research I’ve written about and done as part of my new book, what we realized is that empathy levels are not just fading away, they have basically been reduced by 50 percent over the last decade alone according to recent studies.

So why is that happening? Well, three reasons why. Social media is certainly one. The second thing is that we have no attention span at all. We are the instant gratification generation. So, what do we do? We send out a 280-character tweet, but it’s kind of black and white. It’s not like we had time and attention span to understand the nuances in that particular method.

The third reason why empathy is disappearing is because of odd phenomenon. One of them is Botox. Then you say, “Well, what is this guy talking about now? Is he on drugs here?” But I’ll explain why. There’s an experiment done with women and their babies, newborn babies, two years ago and a clinical experiment. Babies were put in front of the mom and mom was asked not to do any facial movements, any facial expressions, just a cold stare at the baby. Within 30 seconds, the babies threw a tantrum. They could just not recognize the mom.

What we know today is that facial expressions is the way for us to connect and bond with other people. And because we're all sitting behind a screen, those facial expressions are slowly disappearing. But all sorts of clinical studies show that the more Botox you take, the fewer facial expressions you have, the less empathy you have.

It’s kind of ironic when we look at each other right now, we are more obsessed with a little size-stamped photo of ourselves on the screen when we evaluate how we look - by the way, explaining the reason why the number of plastic surgeries or operations has gone up 300 percent in the U.S. the last nine months - because we are more obsessed with ourselves. I’m more obsessed about how I come across on my Facebook profile. We almost treat ourselves as individual brands forgetting that empathy is all about seeing things from a different point of view.

So, what we’re seeing happening right now is that social media in particular and other supporting phenomena have really penetrated into the core of what human beings are all about, what is to survive through empathy. And the reason why I’m saying this in such a dramatic term is because studies have shown throughout history that the reason why we as a species have survived is because we were the only species, the only species, with empathy.

And that meant we had the ability to put ourselves in a polar bear’s point of view, and kind of predict what the polar bear would do. That’s the reason why we survived. But remember, for the first time in memory now, we actually are decreasing our degree of empathy, and our brain is restructuring. Of course, this is not happening for a year or two, I need to tell you. This has been a phenomenon we’ve seen over the last 30 years, and social media has just amplified it.

Bob: But the thing is, Martin, you do the brain scans and everything but I’m just going by what I hear. But when I saw that Netflix documentary on social dilemma, it said that social media is actually rewiring the brain so that fundamentally it craves this bubble, it wants this bubble, it gives us a security. Thirty years ago, I’d buy a Louis Vuitton bag. Maybe that gave me identity. And so therefore, I knew my tribe because I saw the logo, and logos are just as important with identity.

But now that anger, that owning the isolation and not wanting to belong, it’s almost like you want to be - well, not you and not me - but maybe is it that we want to be that caveman who runs into the cave, grabs the meat that we got, and then we only share it with ourselves and let everyone else go to hell in a handbag, as my dad used to say.

Martin: Well, I figured there’s something to what you’re saying right now. First of all, a lot of the studies we’ve done over the last two decades shows that there’s a direct correlation between your degree of self-esteem and your dependency on brands. The less self-esteem you have, the more you’re dependent on brands, the more you display a logo or walk around with a Louis Vuitton bag with a logo displayed to the world.

Now you’re right, those type of mechanisms are slowly fading out, replaced by this self-fulfilling bubble where we see and hear ourselves. And you’re also right in claiming that right now we’ve become addicted to it. So why do we become addicted to it? Well, we become addicted to this because it gives us a sense of recognition. And in a world where I’m probably not that recognized, where the government certainly is not treating me the way I want to be treated, or I don’t get the attention at work I wanted to have.

And by the way, with 7.5 billion people on planet earth, and I can compare myself with everyone else, it’s pretty clear that I’m no one. And it comes back to a very interesting theory of mine, which I wrote about some time ago that the biggest enemy for all this stuff is actually transparency. The more we have transparency in our society, the more I’m able to see what other people have.

Now, if you go back in time and you look at China, 10 years ago, people actually were more happy in China than they are today according to happiness index. Why are they less today? Well, they’re less today because they can see that their American counterparts have 2.5 televisions per household and they only have 1.9 television. And when you compare with a neighbor and you suddenly know they get 5 percent more on salary, you feel it’s unfair. And by the way, you can also compare yourself that you only have 236 likes and I only have 150.

So suddenly, what’s happening is that we compare ourselves with everyone else. And that is sort of a distraction for who I am. It’s almost like suddenly, I’m competing in terms of 7.5 billion people. So, what happens is I retract back to my roots, I go back to my core tribe, because I feel safe. And what we know today is that these tribes share a lot of things.

One, they share a language which I can recognize and relate to. That’s a reason why today when you analyze the Facebook groups, they are actually getting smaller and smaller, they’re not getting bigger and bigger because people want to be among like-minded. They want to hear what they would like to hear themselves. They don’t want to have resistance in any way.

The second thing we’re seeing happening with our language is that the language is evolving much quicker than we’ve seen before. But it does it in bubbles because each of these tribes develop their own proprietary language, which is like the way they feel safe.

And the third thing we’re seeing happening is that people want to build walls. They want to build walls because they want to retract back to be safe. So that comes back to your cave analysis. And it also comes back to the very fact that we’ve lost purpose in our life. I mean, religion is not what it once was. In the United States we did not have religion until recently. It was replaced by celebrities and Kardashians. In Europe, it was royal families. They’re not working either. So suddenly, we’re searching desperately for something else. And that’s where we see what we’re seeing right now going on, on television.

Bob: Wow. That’s a master class in identity and politics and religion and everything, Martin. I love speaking with you about these things. I’m reminded of and I’m dating myself, so know that, but when I grew up, I was watching “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And what did Dick do as he walked in the door to Mary Tyler Moore? “I’m home, honey.” And that feeling of I’m home. That’s what you’re getting on social media.

Martin: It is.

Bob: Like, “Here I am.” And we all are like welcoming, like, “Oh, yes. What are they up to?”

Martin: It is amazing stuff. No, I’ll tell you an insight here, which was very striking in building on what you’re seeing. One of our clients is a large food distribution company called MDI. They are responsible for the majority of independent grocery stores across the country. And I spoke to the various teams in there recently about how are people buying stuff now? What are they buying and what’s different?

And they told me that people today are shopping like how you would do back in 1952. 1952. So what is it which are different? People are today buying brands, which existed back in 1952. They’re trying to look for those the products we all know, back from the good old days. They’re baking at home now. They’re cooking at home. They’re now trying to get chickens. People are increasingly buying animals and pets. Pet sales are up 300 percent. What we’re doing is retracting back to a comfort zone to where we feel safe because obviously we feel threatened subconsciously.

Bob: Well, we’re on our own. And I think that’s certainly what it’s felt like for me watching certainly what’s been going on in the last few days in particular, but certainly since the election, that there’s a world out there that I don’t understand. There’s an anger level that I don’t understand. There is an open wantonness to destroy wholesale. I always thought we’d be going to a Star Trek world where everything is great. But Brexit also showed up, right, which was, “Oh, it must be those damn Europeans telling Britain what to do.” And a lot of the country, I would love to say, well, they were duped. And I think London is going to be diminished by it, certainly with finances it’s going to be a risk, and also this idea that alliances, right, are breaking apart, that we are alone.

People are saying, “Well, what’s 2021 going to be like?” And I just say, “It’s really back to the ’50s where...” So, the fact that you say that about grocery that we are going down the aisle again. You and I could have had a conversation five years ago that no one’s going down in the middle of the darn grocery stores anymore. What are we going to do with all those products that no one gives a damn about? And to your point, we’re going back to those comfort brands that were seminal to us. And I asked myself, is it just fear of missing out? Or is it something bigger? When we survive without empathy, are we... Well, I think we are struggling as a democracy in America. Is it a matter of regulating speech? They’ve turned off Twitter for Trump.

But make no mistake, the biggest beneficiary of Trump was Twitter, where people gave a damn. It was a failing social media platform, wasn’t it? So, there is this yin and yang - we want it, we need it. But what’s worse, the hope in social media to get us away from this bubble? Because, to your point, if Facebook groups are getting smaller and smaller and the bubbles are getting smaller, aren’t the chances of more of what we saw this week greater than ever before, and certainly not just with us, but with Germany and a lot of other countries?

Martin: Well, it’s a very good question. And I think the best answer I have is education. And right now, in schools across North and South Carolina, I know that kids at the age of 12 to 15 are taught how to evaluate if a source is fake or real. They’re given a piece of news and they now have to assess if this is real or not, go back to the source trail and determine can we trust them or not? This is a new skill, which you and I were never taught, understanding because we had a...you could say this in inverted commas, but we had a semi-objective neutral media channel back in the days where we kind of trusted what we saw on CBS or NBC ABC.

And then something happened. And what happened was that that media quality assurance machine was derailed because of all sorts of different factors. One of them were, of course, that the Silicon Valleys were utilizing or tapping into the free production of media content coming out of the conventional media houses and monetizing on something which they really hadn’t paid for, but they got it for free of charge anyway.

So, I think what I’m seeing here is two things. One is, first of all, we need to build it into the education system. If you build this into the education system, you actually will see a new generation which will get it, and I’m pretty sure they are getting it right now because they’re very media savvy. Sort of the same as a person saying to me, 20 years ago, “Martin isn’t advertising in brands dangerous? Should we ban it for everyone who is under the age of 18?”

And I remember I said to this person, “Listen, if I was to ban everything until you’re 18 and the day we opened these doors to this brave new world of brand, you’d be not only very confused, you probably would be completely raped by brands and going bankrupt because it would be so tempting. But if you’re born and raised with it, you build up a very advanced filter, enabling you to navigate that universe.” Now, we have not been through that, because it’s happened so fast. It’s happened basically over 10 years. So, the education system hasn’t followed. So, what I would do if I was a government is to build this into the education system from ground up.

And I think the second thing is that you need to have certain type of mechanisms built into the system now which can give you a sort of an emergency brake. One of the things which were developed in Europe, which I still love Europe for was after 1945, the Second World War, Germany established the most prominent privacy law in the world, which basically means that you cannot merge databases at all. Now in the U.S., I don’t need to tell you, you could completely merge every database and that means...

Bob: That’s where the money is, Martin.

Martin: That’s where the money is. But in Europe, you can’t do it. Right. And it means that you actually can have a life even though you messed it up for a while, which is not bad, I have to say, but also means that you’re not going to be completely abused. What is really important is Germany learned from 1945 and Denmark did the same, Sweden, Norway. Finland learned the same, they have similar rules and that toppled into the rule system.

We should learn from the crisis we saw just a couple of days ago in D.C., and ask ourselves how do we now regulate social media in a way where it’s not going to harm our democracy? If we do not make that fundamental step, as a consequence of what we experienced, we do not get the message. And if we didn’t get the message, this is going to be much worse. But if you get it and it’s built into the education system, this is just going to make us stronger.

Bob: That’s great to hear because I can tell you as an American, I flashed on it wouldn’t have taken much for them to have just opened fire in the rotunda and killed off our senators and House of Representatives and the world crashes. At that point, the world crashes and we got that close. I mean, I think there’s people out there that are saying like, “Oh, you’re overreacting.” It’s like I don’t think anyone who’s paying attention thinks that we are overreacting.

I want to go back to one thing you talked about. If we opened the gates at 18 and suddenly it would be they’d be raped by brands, what’s going on with Robin Hood? Isn’t that kind of what’s happened with Robin Hood that people who don’t know investing are suddenly supporting this and you don’t have the skills of financial wizards to really take it because there’s this idea that they don’t know better than you do? Isn’t that kind of that same idea that the tribe of not knowing becomes the tribe of empowerment somehow?

Martin: It does, but the tribe of not knowing is not that strong at the end of the day because remember, it’s not one uniformed tribe. I’m pretty sure if I took the rebellious people trying to conquer D.C. recently, if you were to talk to them one on one, they have multiple views which are not aligned.

They have “a leader” who was giving them instructions. But I don’t think they’re aligned. I think they are aligned around very few issues, which are, “We are mistreated. We’re not heard. People don’t care about this.” There certain conspiracy theories support and certain aspect, but they’re not aligned. And its alignment which are making Robin Hood happen. It is a fundamental view about that you take from the rich and give to the poor. But that’s not the case here. It is not that fundamental, uniform type of message. It’s much more diverse.

So, I do think people are intrigued by, “My God, someone is listening to me,” but I think they’re turning the blind ear to the fact that, in fact, you are not that much in agreement with everyone else around you storming that house right now. You think you are but when you look at them at the how they look like and how they behave, they are really, really different those folks, right?

Bob: But if you were able to get enough of them aligned...

Martin: Then it’s a different story. And I could go into to...Yes, definitely. And then, of course, that’s where it starts to be dangerous. And as you also know with all sorts of different reports coming out of why Brexit happens and UK was leaving the whole thing, well, it came back to algorithms in the end of the day. It came back to, “No, I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal studies on it.” And you can go to Manchester or Birmingham in the UK, and when you went out on the street and asked people, “What do you think about EU? What did it do?” And they will say, “Nothing. It’s painful. It’s horrible.”

And you would go into those cities and see that the biggest stadium, the biggest schools, the most prominent hospitals, the entire health sector was supported by EU. They had no idea. It was complete miscommunication going on. So, what we’re talking about here is this disinformation when no one trusts anyone, and we need to reestablish that. And I tell you, this is hard. And that’s the reason why you can do it from a regulatory point of view, and there has to be regulatory issues coming in here. You can do it from education. And you can also do it from basically treating your children and raise them so these values United States of America once stood for are reestablished and re-celebrated.

And I think that’s a reason why people are going back to the ’50s. Because guess what? That was a period in time, which we were most successful in the country. And it also, by the way, was the period, which Main Street USA in Walt Disney in Disneyland was replicating because it was a happy time with very few wars and with very little crime and unemployment rate was not that bad. So that’s a reason why we’re seeing this reaction right now.

Bob: Well, that’s amazing. I know that a friend of mine is the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and she taught, had roundtables for, I don’t know, months and trying to get people say, “Well, what do you like most about government?” And they’re like, “I hate government.” And she goes, “Well, government, do you like the mail?” “Well, yes.” “Do you like the fact that your food’s safe? Well, that’s government.” And she went through all these things. She said, “Okay, well, there’s only so much money to go around the mayor’s budget or in the federal government. So, what should we take out?” She goes, “No one wants to take anything out.”

Once you explain to them this is what the government is, kind of like the EU, what you’re saying, is once you realize that, “Oh, this is something I’m benefiting from that matters.” Well, listen, you’ve been great with your time. I do want to mention your new book, your funny new book, “The Ministry of Common Sense”. And what led you to write this book? It is such a departure to me. Maybe it isn’t. But it seems like such a departure for you. What got you there? And what is the book about?

Martin: Well, listen, it’s so ironic because we actually have talked about “The Ministry of Common Sense” for literally half an hour because here’s what we learned. Common sense and empathy are directly correlated. Common sense is all about seeing the world from multiple point of views and establish a common ground. Empathy, as we talked about, is all about seeing and feeling another person’s point of view.

And the reason why I decided to write the book was because I do feel in corporations and in our own lives, we completely are missing common sense these days. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was jumping on a flight. And as I was sitting there in my seat, this announcement happened on the speakers, it said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard on this flight. And I regret to inform you that all cabin service has been completely suspended on the entire flight. And by the way, you’re not allowed to use the lavatories in the front of the cabin. They are exclusively reserved for the cabin crew. You can however use the lavatory in the back of the cabin.” So here we were 172 passengers having to pass by every single row, go down in the end of the plane where we could infuse this freshly brewed aroma of toilet mixed up with COVID, right?

And not only that, then you have contact tracing forms spread around this plane just to be sure we’re not polluting anyone. The first question, listen to this. This is crazy, Bob. The first question is, “Have you been in close proximity with anyone over the last 12 hours?” Now, the only thing you have to answer is, “Look to your right. There is a passenger sitting less than one inch away from you.” And the second question is, “Have you touched anything anyone else has touched over the last 12 hours?” Now no one has a pen because everyone has an iPad or whatever. So, a bright passenger in the front of the cabin is saying, “Can I borrow your pen?” Saying that to the stewardess. She’s really nice. She hands it over. The entire pen now walks through the entire plane. So, when I pick up this pen in my hand, 131 passengers have clicked it or touch and I click the box, “Yes, I have touched another thing.” This is common sense when it’s completely derailed or what I call nonsense. And nonsense is happening everywhere and COVID-19 is certainly used as a blanket excuse to further amplify that problem.

Bob: Yes. Well, and you made a I think in one of yours was about the gales ministry was looking for this box that changed every week or something. And somebody’s been trying four years to fix it, but we got it down to six weeks, like nothing to brag about.

Martin: Exactly, exactly. We work with some of the largest banks in the world and I interviewed this lovely lady and I asked her, “What are you responsible for?” And she was working in compliance. She was very proud. She was responsible for building laws and rules inside this bank. Now she showed me one of the 10 volumes she’s had of rules that literally had more than 50,000 rules in this bank.

Now, I don’t need to tell you, you literally have an index for an index for a sort of a whole master kit of laws. So, I said to her, “How many laws and rules have you created in this bank?” She said, “Listen, I created more than 1,000.” I said, “Fantastic. How many of you killed?” She looked at me like a deer in the headlight, “Killed?” she says. “Yes, I mean, one of them.” And I flip though this page. This is a true story.

I flip through this volume. It had more than 700 pages of laws and rules in it. So, I stopped at page 262, and I looked at it and I read it off for her. It said, “Whenever you have a contract, the contract has to be faxed and emailed to the person to ensure the recipient is receiving it on time.” I said, ‘How many faxes are you sending? Who has a fax machine?” And she looked at me and she said, “No one.” I said, “So why haven’t you killed the rule?” She said, “I’m not paid to kill rules. I’m paid to develop rules.” And this is where the ministry of common sense comes in. Every day you and I are suffering from corporate BS and red tape and bureaucracy, and it happens because of lack of empathy.

I don’t care about what you’re thinking. My KPIs are showing that I have to deliver that. And by the way, I’m hammering off 800 emails today because I don’t want to walk the offices. And even worse, I’m sitting on Zoom calls eight hours a day back to back. Every Zoom call is exactly 60 minutes, even though 32 minutes into this call, we’re kind of done. But let’s hang around for another 28 minutes just to be sure that we can go around in circles another 15 times and talk about Donald Trump, the weather, and COVID-19.

And then when we get to the top of the hour, where I want to go to the bathroom, well, that doesn’t exist anymore. We cut away the toilet break. There is no toilet breaks anymore because have you ever seen anyone raising their hand saying, “Hey, guys, I need to go to the bathroom?” No, no, no, no. That was back in the good old days you were going to a toilet. So, you put on your stamp-sized holding photo, right? You sneak out to the bathroom for seven minutes, you come back in again, you pretend like you have never left this screen, and then you ask the question which were asked exactly six minutes ago and answered and covered, and we’ve moved on and then we can take another round. This is nonsense.

And the problem is I fundamentally believe that we are not going back to work when COVID-19 is gone. We’re going forward to work.

This is the moment for us to redefine how we work and how we live, bringing common sense back by using the idea of empathy, seeing the world from multiple point of views.

Bob: Wow, that’s amazing. Well, I was just reminded of your rant there a bit when I walked to CVS the other day to pick up a prescription. They had 19 signs across the front where the line started. There were six just for where the line started and what you had to do and how you had to do it. And I sat there and I remember when I started working with libraries, they love putting up signs too. And I just said, “Where does this come from? Like, you’ll listen to me and we’re like, “No, I really won’t.” And that kind of brings us back to making us I think continue to say, ‘I’m alone here.”

And what I’m hearing from...my take away from you, Martin, is that the key of all of this is we better realize a way to find empathy. And we probably have to learn it again, right? There’s no grandmother telling you how you hurt someone’s feelings or how that might have been. But it also can go too far with and therefore you can’t say anything. I know I have seen examples of that as well with comedians in particular. I was offended. Well, why the hell do you go to a comedy show? But still, it’s going to come down to this empathy which you honed in from the start. So, what would you think? Where is that hope? You say, talking with education and with parents, but also just on social media, do we just challenge someone? Do we just unfriend them? Any thoughts to get out of that bubble? I’m not going to follow Fox News. I’m just saying.

Martin: I’ll tell you a story here. It’s one of these shockers, right? So, a couple of years ago, I was in the fortunate position to be asked by the Royal Court in Saudi Arabia to help the government to understand how to transform this kingdom.

And as you know, they’ve been through an extreme crisis and rightly so about certain journalist’s misuse. One of the things I said to the guys over there were women should be allowed to drive. Now, if you and I this is a pretty ridiculous comment because women are driving but they’re not driving in KSA, in Saudi Arabia. So that became sort of a sort of a mantra I wanted to push through.

And one of the things I did in order to understand what are the ramifications of driving or not driving was, I dressed up as a woman. I put on a burqa, and I lived and acted as a woman for a week driving around to understand how they were harrassed. Because what we realized was once women were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, that no women were picking it up. As I was a woman for a second, feeling the stares, feeling the harassment, I realized this is much more han just giving permission. It’s also about creating a sense of belonging.

And this is the essence of my work and what I believe we have to do. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. I think from a commercial point of view, the best way of me illustrating that is some of our work with pharma companies. We have a large client, which is the largest player in the respiratory field, so asthma. And they came to me last year and they said, “Hey, we want to get closer to our patients.” So, I said to them, “Hey, fantastic. I love it. When did you last speak to the patients?”

Now this company has been around for 100 years. “Never.” I said, “Never?” They said, “Never.” I said, “Why?” “Compliance. It’s Compliance. Compliance don’t want to do it.” I said, “Bullshit. Of course they will do it.” So, I knocked on the door with Compliance. I had a conversation with them and they accepted it.

So, we started to go out to homes of consumers and I end up in a home of a 28-year-old lady, and she has asthma. And I asked her, “How did it feel to have asthma when you’re young?” And she got tears in her eyes and explained to me she was teased in school. She was locked into a cupboard. She was not invited to any of the parties. She was an embarrassment according to her friends. So I said, “You look really nice now. You look like you’re happy. What has changed?” And she said, “I’ll show you.”

So, she grabs her bag and she pulls out a straw from her bag. And she says, “I gave this to all my friends. And I asked them to hold themselves for the nose and breathe through a straw for one minute. And after they did that, they knew how it felt like to have asthma. That created empathy.” So, I stole the idea. I gave it to senior management. And I did exactly the same exercise. I shut down the light in a boardroom. I played the sound of a person with heavy breathing like this...while I showed the feature of putting a straw into the mouth and holding the nose.

After exactly 30 seconds, half of the room spit out the straw and I switched on the light. And they said to me, “This is ridiculous. Who on earth would do this?” And I said to them, “This is how your patients feel every minute of every day of their lives. This is who is paying your salary.”

And at that moment, it was like a penny dropped. It was almost like you could hear how suddenly they realized that they had misunderstood the core audience, their patients. So, from that on suddenly HR was employing people with empathy. R&D was designing things around how you can create lives, better lives. The healthcare professional in communication, it was all about how patients feel. And the company has been immensely successful since. But it’s a story about how you infuse empathy into every corner. And my experience here is to put yourself in the shoes of another person. That’s where common sense becomes common and it’s where empathy starts to thrive.

Bob: Well, Martin, that sounds like a great place for us to end. It’s an amazing journey with you, my friend. I always learn so much and I appreciate your willingness to share with us. I think it does all come down to empathy and figuring that out isn’t easy, right? It’s not going to be something you’re going to read, “Seven tips: How to be more compelling.” “Oh, I’ve done it.” We’re going to pick that straw up and see what it feels like and realize this isn’t just a game. This is really where our work begins.

So, thank you for your time today, Martin, and best of luck with “The Ministry of Common Sense” available now.

Martin: Thank you, Bob.

You can listen to Martin's earlier podcast here

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