Building brands...in the trenches

Posted on Jan 9, 2023

Episode: S03E02

Podcast Guest: Yaara Cohen
Role: VP Marketing
Company: Empathy

Follow on Apple | Spotify | Google | Anchor | Pocketcasts


Death comes for everyone.

Empathy is there to help. And it’s touting a sack full of awards, including some from Apple and Google.

But seriously, building a globally recognized brand around such a sensitive subject is no easy feat. So in this episode, we chat with Ya’ara Cohen about how she runs marketing at Empathy. We cover a lot in just 23 minutes but the key topics are:

  • How nothing good comes without effort…and how that shaped Empathy’s upfront investment in brand
  • A playbook for how off-the-beaten-track businesses can still get inspiration for marketing
  • Lessons learned on partner marketing, especially with enterprise partners
  • How Ya’ara hires
  • Some freight references…cause why not?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Today, we’re going to talk about death. We’re also going to talk about branding, apple awards and channel marketing. But first I’m going to make you listen to me. Talk about the Panama canal. Yes seriously. The Panama canal connects me Atlantic and Pacific ocean with a 50 mile artificial river. It took 33 years and 75,000 workers to build over 300 million cubic yards of soil and rock needed to be moved, to build three locks and an artificial lake. And I don’t even know what a cubic yard of soil looks like, but I do know dollars and it cost about $11 billion in today’s money. But it paid off. The canal today is a major shipping route and an engineer and feet, 5% of global trade goes through it and it checks out financially. Over 100 years after it was built, it is worth about $30 billion to the global economy. So, why am I telling you this? [00:01:00] Because freight is kind of my jam, but also because it is a great analogy that in order to gain, you need to plan and you need to invest. The Panama canal was not built in a day. And neither is a successful brand. You’re listening to marketers and capes. I’m your host? Eight, 10 black men. And today. We’re talking to Yarra Cohen the head of marketing at empathy. Uh, startup geared towards dealing with loss. Death, to be specific. Empathy has built an incredible brand while dealing with incredibly difficult subject. Today, we talk how they built it, how they maintain it and how it helped them win an apple design award. And if you’re lucky, I won’t mention the Panama canal again.

[00:01:42] But first meet Yara.

[00:01:45] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: I’m Yara. I’m head of Marketing and Empathy. I’ve been there basically from the start, which is coming up for two years. Um, previously I have sort of a mixed background of tech marketing and social activism. [00:02:00] Um, and empathy kind of marries those things together of dealing with complicated emotional subjects while facing it with the traditional tools that tech has to offer. Um, so it’s been a really interesting journey of, of telling this interesting story at empathy.

[00:02:15] Eytan Buchman: Is it telling I needed someone to explain what empathy is to me, jokes I’m joking. But since it is core to the rest of the story, here’s the explanation about what empathy actually does.

[00:02:26] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Empathy with a capital e and empathy.com is the first, um, holistic support system for families coping with a loss. We support families both with all of the emotional aspects, which are incredibly hard and they’re made even harder by all of the logistics and bureaucratic stuff that families inevitably have to deal with for the first time in the worst time in their lives hundreds and hundreds of hours of paperwork of trying to get the right person on the phone to cancel subscription or close a bank account or figure out why [00:03:00] your account is frozen, but the mortgage payment keeps paying. Um, all the while your family has just been through a lot and you’re still figuring out and getting your footing.

[00:03:07] Eytan Buchman: Just starting to think about marketing. That is something that is so sensitive is harrowing. But when getting started and, but these team did not hold the punches. They dived in deep to get a RAR read on what their users were feeling.

[00:03:20] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: We had interview calls with families through a market research platform. We connected with over a hundred families who had recently dealt with, um, a family member passing away. And we had everyday Americans telling us these heartbreaking, albeit sometimes quite technical stories. Just ridiculous logistics and bureaucratic nightmares that I think everyone can identify with, but then exacerbated by really difficult circumstances. And it was quite the onboarding experience to come to a company and in my very first, um, couple [00:04:00] of weeks to meet my coworkers as we we’re conducting these interviews together, crying.

[00:04:05] Crying with the families that are telling us these heartbreaking stories and, and really coming to understand what is such a huge part of so many people’s lives. , and that’s where empathy comes in to really kind of grease the wheels and make all of this a lot more manageable.

[00:04:24] Eytan Buchman: This concentrated exposure to users fascinated me. Here’s how it went down.

[00:04:28] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: I can tell you in general how it worked. This was already almost two years ago. , You just set some criteria and you ask a couple of questions and then you meet people for interviews. So it’s really, it’s not, it’s not user testing and it’s not surveys that are anonymous.

[00:04:43] You’re meeting real people for a whole hour on Zoom. And we did this every single day. Um, I’ve, I’ve not experienced anything like it as like, you know, first couple weeks at a company every single day we would have these interviews and then, you know, [00:05:00] discuss what came up.

[00:05:02] I think this is a constant in all of our marketing materials, and definitely a privilege in doing marketing on this kind of topic, that people are just, you know, amazed above and beyond.

[00:05:13] And they wanna keep in touch and they wanna hear updates

[00:05:16] Eytan Buchman: I start here because I think this is where empathy’s brand starts. With 100 tier Gerkin interviews, it helped them build a brand and a product that their users, their people connect to. So, no, you are probably not building a product about death. But still here’s the takeaway for you?

[00:05:34] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Storytelling really is a big part of sort of what happens when you come into something that is both very emotional but also just a new category. And these stories aren’t really being told. And so many people want to connect with this story and feel like they’re seen and heard and not be hiding in the shadows with this. Everything we do, we need to have a really strong brand [00:06:00] backbone and a really strong sense of who we are and what our goals are. It’s quite difficult to draw parallels from the work that we do at empathy to sort of giving general tips to people in marketing. But I think that one thing does resonate more broadly, and that’s sort of what is your compass, and in our case, who is your audience and who do you care about? And even as the business, you know, right now we’re focusing on employers and life insurance companies because we’re able to provide them with added value. However, Our core focus in our storytelling, in our marketing, but also in the value proposition, in the product value and in how we do business is supporting families. And that’s something where the brand is leaving the company and the company is shaping the brand and it’s sort of this reciprocal relationship.

[00:06:50] So sure, we’re optimizing in the margins, but the main thing is this really strong north star where you ask yourself about a line of coffee or about a new channel [00:07:00] that we’re looking. Is this good for families? Does this serve families? Is this still true to the brand that we’re looking to build?

[00:07:06] Eytan Buchman: By the way, this isn’t just the era. What I keep hearing about from leading brands again, and again, is a very simple, a very basic, but still very elusive know your audience, inside and out. But so you do know that well, how do you build a brand for them? Because according to Yara, that is a goalpost that has moved significantly.

[00:07:28] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Um, I remember when I had my first startup in. 2014, um, you had an MVP and you built, you know, a super scrappy version of whatever it was, because anything you built would fulfill that promise of 10 x of whatever experience that people have now. But that hasn’t been true for a very long time. I think that our standards have gotten much higher and every company that enters the market is either in a already competitive space, and that’s just sort of the table [00:08:00] stakes for them.

[00:08:00] But even like in the situation of empathy, when we’re not in a competitive space and arguably there aren’t proper comparables, um, who are, you know, directly offering what we offer. We’re still competing with the user experience that you are accustomed to. You’re still going to expect, when we say canceling accounts, you’re still going to expect a toggle.

[00:08:25] This goes well beyond UI.

[00:08:27] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Our V1 was a fully baked product that supported the full journey of loss. We could have done something just for the funeral. We could have done something just for dealing with the estate and probate and the will. But none of those things would’ve really solved the problem that we set out to solve.

[00:08:46] So I think that on the one hand, Just where the industry’s at. It’s no longer the first generations of startups where you can just write a line of code and wrap it with some meet UI and, you know, prepare for your exit. That’s no longer [00:09:00] how, um, we expect companies and products to work. But on the flip side, I think coming into a category where there was nothing at all, where there is so much risk, where there is so much suspicion both from families who are absolutely not in a product consideration mindset. And from business partners where we’re convincing them to go into a new domain of support that they’ve never considered before. And I think for all of those things, you really need to come with so much more guarantee that we are gonna be an upside

[00:09:36] Eytan Buchman: You need a fully baked product when launching, so it shouldn’t surprise you that you need a fully baked brand too. And if you need an awesome developer, an awesome product team to build that fully baked product. Of course the empathy way calls for the same on the brand side.

[00:09:50] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: The empathy playbook was to hire a really great head of content and a really great head of design from day one, and to allocate budgets to both of [00:10:00] those things. Um, for external consultants, we had a branding agency, um, that helped us figure out our initial visual identity, which is very much evolved since then but sort of starting from a blank canvas and figuring out how to. Both sort of supportive and to provide administrative help, but at the same time, compassionate and really communicating that very instinctively, which is sort of the goal of a, of a visual brand. And the same thing in terms of our content, which has a very, very clear voice of, of reason and of knowledge. And of compassion, but not really of sympathy. We’re not feeling bad for you. We’re right there with you in the trenches. We’re not assuming what you’re feeling, but we’re giving you what you need to make progress

[00:10:54] Eytan Buchman: If it sounds complicated to strike the balance, you’re hearing it right. And that means that you can’t have just [00:11:00] anyone do it.

[00:11:01] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: so we had a lot of balances to, to strike and. Prioritizing that at the very beginning. Um, everyone sitting down and doing a lot of research, but also really hiring, um, a very serious caliber of people to focus on that. From the very beginning way before we started thinking about, um, the product and the business models, we had a very, very meticulous, um, brand effort and a very, very meticulous user journey, like what does the journey of loss look like? We all read all the books about it and could all help you with your estate. Um, but yeah, there was, there’s a lot that goes into it and I really think that it’s a new generation of startups of we’re not just solving, we’re not creating features.

[00:11:47] We’re really solving something. Much deeper, and we’re not competing with other apps or lack of apps. We’re competing with, you know, 13 months [00:12:00] of winding down affairs. Like how do you even begin to tackle that in the Lean Startup?

[00:12:05] Eytan Buchman: This needs to be a conscious decision because it has real costs.

[00:12:09] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: We’re also, A pretty established company, even from day one, where we have very meticulous review processes. Um, content team is always supporting content both in the product and in the marketing team. Um, we’re very hands on with all of our review process. Um, yeah, it definitely slows us down, but we, we have a much higher bar that we.

[00:12:37] Eytan Buchman: Despite being in such a unique space, the arrest still manages to find inspiration in other companies, too. And it’s because she’s looking at the underlying emotions and their storytelling. Here’s a great example.

[00:12:47] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Something that definitely inspires me personally is all of the personal finance apps that are out there and how they’re taking something that is traditionally considered. [00:13:00] Boring and making it approachable. And how You can see at this point, there are already so many personal finance apps or or content creators out there.

[00:13:10] And you have personal finance directed at millennial women, and you have personal finance directed at Tech Bros. And you have personal finance directed at super frugal people who think the world might end and you need to retire really early. And it’s the same content. Spin is really different and how you communicate well, why is this important and why is that important? And why, and why and why. And to really get to sort of a higher order of how you tell this story beyond the tactical. When I was recently hiring a social media manager, um, and in general when I have marketing, I tell people to write, um, a Twitter post about. Um, probate, which is a very boring, um, legal process that you need to do to validate the will. It is different in every state. It is [00:14:00] unnecessarily complicated and it’s really not what people wanna read about on social media, but if. You’re able to make that interesting. You can figure out how to work at empathy because on the one hand, it’s about being compassionate and about meeting people where they are.

[00:14:15] But on the other hand, they also have a lot of things that they need to do and we need to make that meaningful and approachable. And I think that personal finance content creators have really, you know, provided a lot of value there.

[00:14:26] Eytan Buchman: So you have the brand, you have the storytelling. How do you hire for this? Well, yarrow looks at two separate disciplines

[00:14:34] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: When I’m hiring, my preference is to hire for a job that I already know how to do myself. If there’s a new business focus that we need to look at, for example, conferences, I’ve been doing it for the last six months now after I’ve been doing it for the last six months, I’m ready to hire someone because I know exactly what their job is going. However, obviously, and conferences is a great example for that. Maybe it’s not gonna be a core [00:15:00] part of my marketing strategy and I do need to consider, um, whoever I’m hiring needs to be a well-rounded individual. And to me, the basic skillsets in marketing are either sort of that technical skill, which is being able to see the logic of the campaign and the complicated flow chart and who needs to be receiving each and technical skill set you have is going to complement that sort of. Quantitative way of looking at things, um, which is actually my background in, in economics and sort of looking at a campaign flow. Even if you’re coming from a paid ads background, you’re still gonna be able to figure out a complicated email campaign because that’s how you break things down.

[00:15:44] So that to me is one discipline, and the other discipline is the storytelling one, and really doing so with words. And I love to hire content writers and then make marketing generalists because I think that marketing is really something that [00:16:00] you can learn, but telling a good story and writing well is not something that I personally can teach.

[00:16:06] And that’s kind of what I look for in when I’m hiring. Um, with that said, we do have wonderful content team and I do like to, you know, use their expertise to, to level up my own team.

[00:16:18] Eytan Buchman: One of the empathy’s core channels is partner marketing. But that ends up being fairly challenging for such a brand oriented company, because after all, in many partnerships, your brand gets eclipsed. So how does their playbook work for rolling out partners? They start by lining on the ultimate goal.

[00:16:35] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: So let me first explain what that looks like for empathy. Our partnerships are for different businesses, primarily employers and life insurance companies that care about families coping with loss, so, Starting out, we both have the same goal in mind.

[00:16:52] We want families to be aware of this service, and we want families to be supported by this service. So creating that [00:17:00] alignment, and that’s something that we do in the sales process, is very important for what happens after that. Now, obviously, depending on the focus of the organization that we’re partnering with, and the type of relationship and channels that they have with, um, the families, so whether that’s life insurance beneficiaries or it’s, you know, an HR department with employees, it’s a different relationship. It’s different terminology. And they might have different preferences in terms of how distinct empathy should be and how much it should be co-branded. Um, however, they do typically, um, feel comfortable offloading to empathy and saying empathy is gonna be supporting you because none of these organizations assume that their recipients, the families that they work with, want to receive grief support from their employer or from their life insurance company. Administrative support maybe. But I think that creating that separation, I was both parties

[00:17:58] Eytan Buchman: First, they figure [00:18:00] out where they can have voice.

[00:18:01] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: the more interesting part is sort of the discovery where we’re figuring out what kind of channels they have, what kind of relationships they have. And typically, some of these are gonna be very offline. There really is, I think, Um, a feeling of a she challenge here that for them it’s, it’s a pain point as well, that they build their primary relationship with policyholders or with employers as well. They build their primary relationship when the employees that work, when the employee is productive and we’re kind of supporting them in. It’s not really an edge case, it’s just not what they focus their energy on and we’re helping them figure that out.

[00:18:39] Eytan Buchman: Once they figured out where they should be talking, it comes down to mapping out the communication. And that’s something that they’ve learned should come early in the process when the execs are in the room.

[00:18:50] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Um, so there’s definitely a lot of work that goes into the details and I think over time it’s improved a lot as we’ve come more and more prepared for these meetings. And when we’ve presented this [00:19:00] earlier and earlier in the sales process where you typically have more senior executives involved and for those senior executives to set the tone for the employees who are gonna be implementing. Is very helpful when we’ve already shown them. When we say co-branding, what does that mean When we say channel partnership, what does that mean?

[00:19:18] Here’s how we’re gonna be reaching your beneficiaries. Here’s the super complicated flow chart of how we do that. Here’s how you insert us into your emails, into your call scripts. Here’s how our care team is gonna be reaching out to your beneficiaries once they’ve provided consent. So really giving. A lot of clarity into what that looks like, but from the very beginning, just sort of agreeing on on why this matters and, and having KPIs that we agree on together.

[00:19:42] Eytan Buchman: As a total side note, I really appreciate the effort that goes into this communication. It’s one thing to map out your own customer communication mapping out your partner’s communication from script to email shows just how meticulous empathy’s brand is. But while channel marketing is sexy, it doesn’t [00:20:00] hold a candle to Apple’s design awards.

[00:20:02] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: Apple Design Awards is pretty cool. Um, we had a secret Slack channel because, and we were made to sign NDAs and we were featured in Apple’s, um, WWD conference as one of the examples of like, look what people can do with the App store, um, and the kind of apps that people can create, which is definitely one of my favorite narratives around empathy of sort of, you know, the best brains in the world are creating pizza delivery.

[00:20:32] Doing good by doing great, um, is, is important as well. And definitely being showcased by Apple was a great example of that. And it was also just a fun kind of internal moment of secretly shooting, uh, the q and a for them and not entirely knowing until it went live.

[00:20:49] You know, we’ve been running for a while, so we’re not really used to having those, um, secret, exciting moments as much as we did when we sort of pressed go live at everything at the beginning. [00:21:00] Um, but it’s nice to sort of continue to have those exciting moments as a team.

[00:21:04] Eytan Buchman: I challenged her. How would she try to replicate the empathy, playbook and win an apple design award at another startup? And the answer is exactly what you think it would be. Investing seriously in brand.

[00:21:16] Yaara Cohen, Empathy: It all comes back to the same things. I think that it’s just about going big or going home, and that’s kind of how we made it to all of these awards. You win one award, then that puts you on the radar of the next people making the list and.

[00:21:30] You hire a brand agency from day one and you hire a PR agency from day one, and you get the best content person and you get the best head of design. Um, and you build an incredible, super intentional, all hands on deck brand. Um, and the product is the same. And then, you know, the lagging indicator is having won all of these awards, I don’t think you can reverse engineer a particular award.

[00:21:55] Eytan Buchman: You may remember this from my interview with superhumans founder, as much as we [00:22:00] would love to believe it, brands don’t just happen. They are carefully crafted brick after brick. It requires a thorough understanding of users, financial investment skill, and an incredible amount of discipline to make sure that it permeates everything you do.

[00:22:15] But when it works brand echo for years, Kind of like the Panama canal, but without a super cool palindrome. You can learn more about empathy@empathy.com and you can send me requests for more information about important canals, fun palindromes involved in the Panama canal or your favorite brands at Bachman dot.

[00:22:35] I weighed them with bated breath until then I made 10 Bachman. You’ve been listening to a shockingly fun episode about branding death with marketers and capes and well, for the last time, I will say it. Panama canal.