the ceo magazine, strategic planning,
Claire Brooks, President, ModelPeople Inc.

Over the last twelve years I have been consulting on strategy and innovation with organizations, from the Top 10 of the Fortune 100, to start-ups and not-for-profits. During this period I’ve seen a quiet revolution in the way that strategic planning is carried out. It used to be that leading corporations relied on rigorous annual strategic planning processes, yet in a VUCA world - one of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – markets and customers are now moving too fast for traditional models of strategy planning. In many successful organizations, forward strategic planning is being replaced by strategic learning, which is an ongoing process of shifting strategy based on the existing knowledge and new learning of stakeholders at all levels of the organization. In this new business environment, every manager, perhaps even every employee, must become a strategist.

For example, my team just worked with a giant global technology company, renowned as a category disruptor. They had launched an innovative AI-driven consumer device, which had far exceeded their market expectations. Long before the start of the annual strategy planning process, the marketing, product, insights and ad agency stakeholders realized that they needed to adapt marketing strategy fast, to leverage their success and defend their brand against upcoming competitive launches. The team made important refinements to marketing strategy in less than three weeks, using a three-step process called the Strategic Empathy® Process, to uncover deep insights about the brand’s emotional connection with consumers and rapidly activate insights into positioning and communications strategy.

The idea of Strategic Empathy was developed so that managers, employees and other stakeholders can develop empathy with consumers and customers as a form of “muscle memory” which facilitates dynamic, flexible and emergent strategy formation and action. Empathy in this case is not a soft skill: Empathy without effective strategic action is not Strategic Empathy. Entrepreneurs are Strategic Empathy natives, having typically founded their businesses based on deep insight and intuition for their customers. However, as their business grows, entrepreneurs must invest in growing managers and employees into strategists, for dynamic marketing and innovation strategy formation and growth. For this to happen requires a systematic approach to deep insights and empathy-based strategic learning about customers and consumers. We call this the Strategic Empathy Process.

Step 1 engages employees across functions in immersive, observational learning about consumers and customers, which gives them the deep understanding to transform how they approach their jobs. In Step 2, employees work with their observations, building on existing knowledge and intuition to identify key customer insights and decide how each insight must be activated to address strategic issues. In Step 3, “Strategic Story-telling”, strategic learning is socialized across the organization via internal communications media, in a way which will nurture empathy among other managers and employees.

History has shown that CEOs who lack empathy with their customers make catastrophic strategic mistakes. For example, Ron Johnson who, despite having run the hugely successful Apple stores for a decade, was ousted as CEO of the mid-tier department store JC Penney after only seventeen months, and dubbed one of the most unsuccessful CEOs of the decade. One of his key mistakes was attempting to wean his new customers, middle-American moms, off coupons and rewards. While his strategy was a brave attempt to boost profitability, Johnson failed to empathize with his customers, moms juggling family budgets, to whom coupons gave permission to spend on a new outfit for herself once family needs were met: A very different shopper from the affluent, single image-driven Millennials who frequented Apple stores. After Johnson’s departure, JC Penney ran an extraordinarily humble ad in which it apologized to its customers saying: “We learned a very simple thing, to listen to you…” Leading corporations are becoming strategic learning organizations, because they know that the key to success and meaningful brand differentiation is depth of consumer understanding or empathy. A leading European Corporation specifies that its products and marketing programs must evoke this response from the consumer: “You obviously understand me”. Strategic Empathy, empathy-based strategic action, leads to the development of products and programs which meet the consumer’s functional needs and emotional and non-conscious desires. Empathy must be patiently developed with the guidance of Deep Insights specialists, using multi-disciplinary theoretical frameworks. This means that Insights & Strategy must have a voice in the C-Suite and must be concerned not only with customer analytics but also with empathy-based learning about customer motivation and behavior, rational and emotional.

About the Author

Claire Brooks is President of ModelPeople Inc., a global brand insights & strategy consultancy to global Fortune 500 corporations and SMEs, and author of the new book MARKETING WITH STRATEGIC EMPATHY:  Inspiring Strategy With Deeper Consumer Insight. Claire has 30 years' experience in brand management, brand planning and deep insights research with Fortune 500 companies and advertising agencies in both Europe and the US, and was also a graduate professor, designing and teaching marketing MBA programs. She was brought up in Africa, India and the UK and holds an MA in social sciences from Cambridge University and an MBA from Durham University Business School. Claire has led Strategic Empathy® projects all over India with stakeholder teams of Indian and US executives, wanting to gain deeper understanding of Indian consumers.  For more information, visit


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