During COVID-19, the Unknown Unknown Can Be Powerful

unknow unknown may 4 2000

I had a therapist tell me once to “replace the fear of the unknown with curiosity”. It took me a while to get it, but I did and over the past 15 years it worked. Until now. Because there is the unknown and then there is the unknown unknown.

The “unknown” is the lack of knowledge about the immediate and/or long-term future but within a known social, cultural construct.

The unknown unknown is lack of knowledge about the future, without the safety net of the known social and cultural construct. We don’t know what the world, our world, will look like in a month, in 6-months or a year, so how, as more than one interviewee asked in all of the interviews I did, how do we move forward when we can’t see the steps?

And not seeing the steps is going to be the hardest thing for us to cope with. Or, as writer and editor Molly Jong-Fast said,  “…this is gonna f#ck us up”—individually and collectively.  All of us, no matter how well we all deal, are and are going to be affected by this and will experience both trauma and grief.

Yes, grief. We are, as David Kessler puts it in an HBR interview about COVID-19 , “…feeling a lot of different griefs… grieving the loss of normalcy, the loss of connection…” and the heavy burden of a “collective grief in the air”. This ‘collective grief” is relatively new to us—not since the Vietnam War have we all experienced the same thing at the same time.

Kessler, an expert on grief, co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

Searching for Meaning

And this is what I want to talk about, meaning—specifically, finding meaning in the unknown unknown. Because “closure” is static and inactive. Because, we cannot afford for this to be ‘just’ a comeback. Because moving on doesn’t allow for a reset—nor does it recognize and reflect what we’ve been through because in the face of the unknown unknown, is there anything more important to explore, find and cling to than the meaning in our lives?

Over the past week we spoke to Americans 16 to 55 around the country, wanting to understand how they are making sense of the pandemic on both an emotional and physical front. Not surprisingly, their focus was pretty Maslow-vian in nature. The overarching question of: Am I going to be able to adequately care for myself and the others I am responsible for? And, a large part of how they defined ‘care’ was their ability to make this moment in time mean something—even if that was simply the ability to have every meal together.

And this desire for meaning crossed all age, race and economics. And, this wasn’t about writing a book or learning a new language. This was “…will I be proud of the person I am/was/became during this time?” In a time when personal/interpersonal dynamics are shifting and being shifted by necessity—this was taking up an equal amount of energy as food, shelter, health, and safety because we are all looking to both understand and enact the shifts in the meaning that comes with all of this.

Re-examining our roles

One of the main ways people are finding meaning is re-examining or recommitting to the roles we play—within our core family unit, in the larger family unit, within our work, our community, our world. I spoke to a ‘fixer’, a ‘joker’, a ‘peacemaker’ and more—each feeling as if recommitting to their old identity was their way to contribute.

“We’ve always joked in the family that no matter what was wrong, I could fix it. I can’t fix the reason we are all together right now, “one person told me, “but I can make sure that we are all ready to face whatever comes our way.”

Another reason for the roles was safety. Feeling safe gives us room to breathe, to think, to grieve. To make sense and then to move forward. In taking their roles back there was an immediacy and depth to it that they felt safe in—they knew who they were, and it felt solid. But because everything wasn’t like it was when these roles were created, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. They would find themselves reevaluating their role and actions, learn from them, and press ahead.

This seemed to happen over and over again until they got comfortable making sense of new news within this unknown unknown context. Right about week 4, they were able to, as one person put it, ‘find their grace’—a place where we have comfortable mix of safety and action. And back to Kessler and ‘meaning’—meaning is what allows us to, as he puts it, transform grief into something peaceful and hopeful, or as our co-citizen put it, “finding their grace”.

Applying this to your business

Without known familial, social, cultural structure to guide us, this is our way of creating a new type of meaning, seemingly built for the unknown unknown that lays before us all. It’s porous, malleable, flexible and has rudimentary guard rails—but it is grounded in who we are/who we are becoming or could become as new habits form, as inconsistency and change become the new norm, as we wait to see what the collective ‘we’ will become as we make a way through this.

How do we apply this thinking to our work—marketing research, and just marketing in general? Because meaning is just as important for a company to define as it is for the rest of us. This is because we humans value meaning. So, as a company, ask yourself if what you mean to consumers has changed? If you’ve said no, think again. Our (consumers) entire context for evaluating your brand has changed, why wouldn’t the meaning change as well?

Emotion and behavior go hand in hand—that is something we know well here at Maru/Matchbox—in fact, all of our work is based on understanding fast and slow thinking and how emotion drives behavior . Which is why we think it is so important for you to explore the changed and changing emotions, the changed and changing meaning so you can understand new behavior.

How as usage change of your brand/product? What is behind these changes? Access, trust, safety?

Are consumers using your brand differently? Again, what is behind these changes? Do they trust you so much in one area that it is translating to another? Does this represent a new opportunity for your business?

The answers to these questions are not only hugely important now, but possibly more so in a future defined by the unknown unknown. In order to pivot quickly, in order to be flexible and malleable and porous, in order to ensure you have meaning at the heart of your relationship with your consumer, you must ask yourself—and your consumers—these questions. We can help.

Also read

Life with coronavirus isn’t normal, why should your business be any different?

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