How Consumer Empathy Drives Platform Success

Markus Giesler, Ela Veresiu, and Ashlee Humphreys , 2019, 19-100-01

The so-called “platform revolution” has created a new type of market in which companies mediate between two or more distinct groups of consumers such as riders and drivers, in the case of Uber, or guests and hosts, in the case of Airbnb. In these markets, considerable physical, social, and financial risks are shifted from companies to individual consumers, and platform companies frequently face significant challenges of legitimation.

Uber, for example, has come under intense public scrutiny, with highly emotional media stories disparaging its platform as a source of deadly accidents, sexual violence, economic exploitation, or racial discrimination. The idea that platform consumers fundamentally risk their own and other parties’ wellbeing has also been an issue for Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and many other platform businesses. However, by influencing how consumers relate to each other emotionally on their platforms, these and other platform companies have successfully combatted these risk perceptions and achieved market success.

The question is: How do empathetic consumer narratives promoted by a platform company compete with the emotional risk narratives promoted by others – competitors, frustrated consumers, or the new media - in order to influence the legitimacy of a platform market?

While considerable marketing scholarship has examined market creation as a social process of legitimation, little research addresses the question of how competing narratives influence the legitimacy of a given platform market. Markus Giesler, Ela Veresiu, and Ashlee Humphreys develop new theory that helps address this gap.

They bring recent advances in the sociology of emotions to bear on an ethnography of Uber’s ride-hailing market. They identify a mythology of empathetic platforms that ideologically contains consumer anxieties inherent to platform markets by promulgating powerful mythic contrasts between a regular market’s apathetic consumers and platform consumers’ ability to compassionately relate to another market actor’s situation. They also show how Uber’s marketing team has leveraged this mythology over time to contain three types of consumer risks (physical, financial, and social) and legitimize its ride-hailing market.

Their proposed theorization has the potential to change both the thinking and behavior of several marketing stakeholders including platform companies, competitors of platform companies that operate in traditional market systems, regular and platform consumers, and policy makers seeking to design effective regulation around platform markets. Whereas these stakeholders have traditionally approached platform creation as a purely economic process, their sociological theorization of platform creation reveals that platform success also requires managers, consumers, and other market actors to cultivate very specific emotional consumer mindsets and behaviors.

Put into Practice

The authors develop a four-step platform consumer empathization process:

  1.  Apathization: Formulate contrast between apathetic and empathetic consumer risk mindsets.
  2. Verification: Recruit experts to qualify empathetic mindsets and disqualify apathetic mindsets.
  3. Prototyping: Design infrastructure that supports empathetic risk management.
  4. Naturalizing: Remind consumers to enact empathetic mindsets in everyday situations.

This process can be used by managers seeking to instill consumer trust in their platform business or by managers seeking to undermine consumer trust in a competing platform offering.

Markus Giesler is Associate Professor of Marketing and Ela Veresiu is Assistant Professor of Marketing, both at Schulich School of Business, York University. Ashlee Humphreys is Associate Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.



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