Applied Empathy

(Image Credit: Ruvan Wijesooriya)

Does Your Company Need to Incorporate the Empathy Principle?

April 24, 2018 - 3:39 pm

This excerpt is from Michael Ventura's book, “Applied Empathy,” published by Simon & Schuster.


Empathy is a squishy word. Sometimes it’s confused with sympathy or misinterpreted as “being nice.” That isn’t empathy. Empathy is about understanding. When we create and embrace rituals in our organizations or teams and practice them with dedication and commitment, we can bring new realities into being. This was brought home for me and my team during our work with Pantone. Those of you not in the design world may not be as familiar with the company, but Pantone colors are a fixture in any studio. For more than fifty years, Pantone has built a reputation as the leading color authority.

Any big multinational company that produces marketing and promotion pieces and even, in some cases, products, depend on Pantone to be sure its brand’s specific colors will be accurately printed and represented. Imagine if that iconic Coca-Cola red were printed with a lighter or darker color. A consumer holding a can with an off color might wonder if product quality had fallen off as well and if the drink inside were not as good as it had always been; is the off color a reflection of the company cutting corners? Consistency is key, and when it comes to color matching, Pantone provides its customers with confidence. 

Applied Empathy
(Applied Empathy)

As a fan of Pantone, I was excited when, in 2014, its executive team invited us to discuss working together. A few days later, we were in a conference room with a group of company executives, and we soon figured out that they were experiencing something of a crisis of confidence. I started the meeting with a straightforward question: “How do you describe what Pantone is?”

Around the conference table every executive gave a version of the same answer: “We’re an ink-and-chemical company.”

Several of my colleagues from our design department were with us. We were all big fans of the company, and we were excited to get to know it better. But every time we heard “ink-and-chemical company,” a little part of us died inside. We began sneaking quick “WTF?” looks at each other.

You see, to us Pantone is so much more than just ink and chemicals. It represents the integrity of design, the inspiration that comes from color, the universe of possibilities that creators can play with when developing a new campaign or product or brand. We could see immediately that the brand had lost the spirit of what it really represented. They needed a new perspective from which they could see the company with fresh eyes. And empathy would help us get there together.

The Pantone Color of the Year is a pretty big deal. In the year we were working with them, 2013, Pantone was halfway through the year of “Emerald.” The Color Institute had determined, through research and conversation, that that year would be a big year for emerald green. We were also happy to discover that the announcement of the Color of the Year was a huge media moment for the brand. But it didn’t have a clear “owner” at the company because it ran throughout the whole company, with many departments contributing bits and pieces. It seemed odd to us that the most press worthy part of the company occupied such a relatively small part of its mind share.

Our close look at the Color of the Year revealed Pantone’s savant gift. It was hiding right there in plain sight. The world saw it, but the company had become so locked into the day-to-day of its business that it hadn’t been able to see it. That was our way in. The Color of the Year is Applied Empathy in action. Pantone gathers its understanding of the world around it from its customers and its own internal knowledge and uses that to present a fresh perspective on the core of its business: color. It just didn’t realize it was doing that. We worked together to make the color intelligence side of the business a new year-round color intelligence business that bolstered the color matching services the company already offered. It was now monetizing these valuable data by using them to advise other companies that wanted to make better, more informed color choices.

Every company has something special and powerful that makes it tick. Not all businesses are sitting on something as prominent as the Color of the Year, but there’s always something you can latch onto and develop. When you find it, treasure it. Make it a meaningful part of your business. Ritualize it by practicing it and celebrating it. Find ways to promote it in your marketing and communications. Bring it to the center of your business, and let it be your North Star.


Michael Ventura is the CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design firm that has worked with some of the world’s largest and most important brands, organizations, and startups: from Johnson & Johnson, Pantone, and Adobe to The TED Conference, Delta Airlines, and The Daily Show. Additionally, Michael has served as a board member and advisor to a variety of organizations including Behance, The Burning Man Project, The Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and Tribal Link Foundation. He is also a visiting lecturer at institutions such as Princeton University and the United States Military Academy at West Point. In addition to these pursuits, Michael leads a thriving indigenous medicine practice where he works with patients to help them address illness and injury of all types, on the road to better well-being. A passionate entrepreneur, he also owns and operates a globally recognized design store in New York’s West Village with his wife Caroline. Applied Empathy is his first book.