Good dancers are amazing to watch. A great dancer embraces each of the points of the dance, combining them into a harmonious whole and sending a message that creates feelings in the hearts of those watching. A powerful orchestration indeed.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, marketing requires precision in our steps. An awareness of the atmosphere and moving in time to a new beat. Some of us have lost our jobs, many are wondering whether we will lose our businesses. When the lockdown is lifted, will people still want what we’ve been selling? Will our customers spend? What will the new normal look like? While events like the COVID-19 pandemic wreak havoc on the economy, they also cause emotional contagion – fear, panic, stress, worry – that cause seismic shifts in consumer behaviour. By learning to dance with this uncertainty, we can discover new creative ways of marketing our brands.

Sailing into the storm

One of my favourite YouTube channels is that of Norwegian sailor Erik Aanderaa. Erik deliberately sails into dangerous, stormy conditions in the North Atlantic. Rather than choosing calm waters, Erik chooses the uncertainty of storms and risk of Force 10 gales. He chooses the unknown.

It may not seem like it, but we do have a choice. We can embrace uncertainty and, like Erik Aanderaa, sail bravely into the storm. We can learn to move in harmony with it. Alternatively, we can let the fear of uncertainty paralyse us, causing us to become indecisive, inactive, frozen in place. We can dance with uncertainty.

We can orchestrate the dance, or we can sit idly by pretending it isn’t happening. I’d like to believe that choosing to dance with uncertainty will transform our thinking, sharpen our skills and make us better marketers.

The dance with uncertainty 

To start, we must first familiarise ourselves with the steps involved. Following that, practice makes perfect. Let’s get to it.

Step 1: Taking Risks

Dancing with uncertainty requires a willingness to take a risk. Life as we know it has crashed around us. We are witnesses to suffering both in our communities and on an international level and our safe, comfortable ways of thinking have been shattered. What else have we got to lose? Now is the time to take a risk, to go where we’ve never imagined going before.

Our reliance on marketing data, analysis and models in recent years has made us a bit lazy, relying on numbers to guide us. Now we are being forced out of our safe zones. We’re learning to freestyle, to improvise our moves. Take a leap and dive into the unknown with enthusiasm.

Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, Slack and WhatsApp are just a handful of businesses that launched out of the 2008-2010 recession. The current COVID-19 crisis is sure to launch some amazing businesses that will be world leaders in the years to come. Will yours be one of them?

Step 2: Fostering Creativity  

Out of chaos and uncertainty comes creativity. Too often we approach matters with a preconceived idea of what we want the outcome to be and force our imaginations to fit our expectations. If we are willing to embrace the fact that we have no idea what the outcome will be, we give our imagination room to surprise us. Think of musicians collaborating on a new song – they don’t go into it knowing what it’s going to sound like when it’s finished. They step into the unknown and make something brand new that didn’t exist before.

In his book Uncertainty: Turning fear and doubt into fuel for brilliance, Jonathan Fields encourages embracing uncertainty by “living in the question.” By admitting that we don’t have the answer, and learning to function within that uncertainty, we can develop better ideas, solutions, and alternate paths that hadn’t occurred to us before. Living in the question means we get comfortable and lean into the unknown. The result may be novel answers we hadn’t come up with before – because we didn’t have to.

Step 3: Inspiring Empathy

There’s a Native American proverb that says you don’t really understand someone until you’ve walked in their moccasins for at least 3 moons. In a way, we are all walking in each other’s shoes. We imagine how horrible it would be in places in Europe at the moment where people are dying without loved ones nearby. We know the pain of not being able to visit grandparents who may be ill or lonely. In these times, we feel a greater sense of connection and community in consideration of our fellow man. Empathy is arising out of uncertainty.

The culture is changing from one of radical individualism to one of a cooperative community. In response, the marketing movement is also shifting focus from “I” to “we.” For example, McDonald’s swapped out their “I’m lovin’ it” slogan for “Separated for a moment so that we are always together.” Guinness released a brilliant St Patrick’s Day ad, acknowledging the absence of traditional celebrations – no gathering at the pub, no parades  – with a message of unity and resilience. “We’ll march again,” the Irish voiceover says. In the meantime, “we’re not going anywhere.” And finally, “When you raise a pint of Guinness, also remember to raise each other up.”

As marketers our skills right now are more valuable than ever in communicating empathy, helping our communities, and reminding us that we are all human. What can we do? Focus on the good. Tell positive stories. Spread hope, not fear. Be aware of the current atmosphere and respond to it with optimism. Walk in other’s shoes and reflect that in your messaging.

Step 4: Returning to Basic Human Needs

Critical to learning a new move is mastering the basics.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory of human motivation, often depicted in a pyramid illustration. At the bottom of the pyramid are fundamental needs like health and security, which need to be satisfied before moving on up to higher needs.

During years of economic growth and prosperity, we move up the pyramid of needs, focusing on the need for esteem and self-actualisation. As marketers we have supported that journey and seen luxury brands enjoy spectacular growth.

COVID-19 has dismantled that in a matter of months. In crisis people revert to the base of the pyramid – the basic needs like shelter, food and safety. We’ve seen a sudden profound change in consumer thinking. As marketers it’s essential to reconnect with these basic human needs and communicate to them.

Rediscover the extraordinary in the ordinary. The simple things in life are coming into focus as the most valuable. Can you think of a brand doing this?

Step 5: Telling a Better Story

As we learn to move within uncertainty, we become better storytellers. Uncertainty is at the heart of storytelling. It’s what keeps our brains engaged and draws us forward into what happens next. Let’s face it, when things get predictable, we disengage. Uncertainty, tension and curiosity are what keeps us hooked until the end.

Our stories reflect our world. Of late we have been living in prosperous times, and many of our business narratives have lacked the dramatic elements that keep our brains engaged. Living in uncertainty can help us intuitively become better storytellers as we experience unpredictable plotlines for ourselves. We understand what makes a good story.

In turn, storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to help our customers through uncertainty – by telling stories that inspire and engage. As emotions run high, we can use our storytelling skills to turn the fear of change into feelings of connection, trust and resilience.

Step 6: Focusing on the Future 

Another crucial step in mastering our tango with uncertainty is looking to the long-term. Seth Godin made an interesting observation regarding COVID-19 recently:

My generation was the dominant voice for 60 years. A voice that worried about the next 24 hours, not the next 24 years. That’s about to shift, regardless of what year you were born.”

He’s right – this crisis is shaking us out of our short-termism. It’s challenging us to plan and think about sustainable long-term solutions for every aspect of our lives. As marketers, we need to look past the results of the next quarter and put our focus on the role your brands can play in building a better world in the long-term.

Let’s embrace the uncertainty of the moment to develop new skills and ideas that will propel us into a safer and more successful future. The innovative actions we take today will carry us to a new normal. View this as an opportunity to try something previously unthought of. We’re being pushed to put ourselves out there, get creative and take risks.

As we unite together let’s master the dance with uncertainty, welcome change and look forward to what comes next.

Dance with uncertainty.

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