The Grief Cycle and What’s Next

Author: Kerry Dymond, Director of Qualitative Research

Australians are grieving … Understanding emotions will be key to navigating brands and customer experience, post COVID. 

Our research throughout the pandemic shows this has been a traumatic event for Australians and what we are feeling and seek to feel, is changing quickly.

As we’ve listened to Australians stories from across the country, the human grief cycle model developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1926 emerged quickly as a direct reflection of what we are experiencing.

From our proprietary research, Sprouthas adapted this framework to provide guidance for insight, brand and CX leaders to navigate and respond appropriately.

Using implicit techniques grounded in neuroscience, we’ve mapped the core motivational needs of Australians as we move through this cycle, and provided examples of how to activate marketing and customer experiences in response to these needs.

Motivations matter. Our motivational needs are the powerful, unconscious needs that drive our behaviour. They are not our feelings (happy, sad, disgust etc.), but rather the deep-seated emotional needs that drive much of our decision making.

On to our Australian story …

Many of us live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place.  We believe we are in control, are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted.  Experiencing a traumatic event, something that feels profoundly unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe, unpredictable, that others are bad, and that one is powerless in protecting ourselves.

We grieve when we lose something we value – the greater the value of the thing we have lost, the more intense our grief. Traumatic experiences are overwhelming and occur when an event is interpreted as creating a world, now and in the future, that is more dangerous and poses a sense of serious threat. And this is Australia today though COVID-19.

So, how do brands navigate this emotional minefield and give Australians back the power and control? Through understanding the emotional motivations…

Let’s start by understanding grief

The human grief cycle model developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1926 fits perfectly with what we are seeing with Australians over this pandemic. We at Sprout think it’s a powerful way to bring to life the human experience of COVID-19 – you might find you can very easily place yourself on the cycle.

To put it simply, when humans experience trauma and grieve, there are 5 stages of grief that we experience through the cycle. The first is denial. Is this actually happening? Is it happening to me and my family? If we think back to late January/early February, this is where Australia (and even, you) sat… what is Corona? (why does it sound like a beer brand?) It won’t impact me, it’s somewhere in China.

From denial, once realisation sets in, humans move into a stage of feeling anxious. This is real? What is going to happen? How will this impact me and my family? Again, think back to February and March when the reality hit that COVID-19 was going to impact EVERYONE! We all moved into an oh sh*t moment of what is the impact? Will I lose my job? Will schools close? Will I get sick?? Fear, fear and more fear.

From anxiety, depression sets in and this is specifically related to social isolation, social distancing and all the protective screens, frightening signs, crosses in the supermarket etc. that started to be part of our reality. We are in lockdown, and this is frightening, isolating and impacts my financial wellbeing, emotional wellbeing and more.

From depression, depending on the impact of the trauma, humans move to bargaining. This is a very important stage in the cycle as we begin to feel we can move out of the darkness and depression and begin to build a new reality. However, this is not the same for all people. If the impact of the trauma has been significant, then people fall into the ‘hopeful/hopeless yoyo’ and cycle back through anxiety and depression before they find the strength or have the reality to begin to bargain.

From bargaining, we move into acceptance; this is a powerful part of the journey and is when we can redefine ourselves and begin to build a new normal in response to the trauma we have experienced.

The final part of the cycle is living the new normal – a redefined space where we have revaluated our lives and values as a direct result of our experience. Feel familiar??

Right, so now that we understand the cycle and human experience of COVID-19 what do we do with this?

Overlaying our research into human motivations allows us to understand the motivations sought at each stage and use this understanding to tap into the right motivations at the right time. With this knowledge, we can empower Australians to recover and redefine their new normal with confidence. Brands can be such a powerful part of the recovery.

Let’s bring it all together… At Sprout, we use a neuroscience tool to enhance our traditional research methods. This tool allows us to go beyond the rational and understand the enduring emotional motivations, which directly impact human behaviour (you’ll have heard of system 1 and system 2). Based on 200 years of psychological study and development, we know for sure that there are 9 core and enduring motivations which people seek to feel or seek to avoid. We have also layered these needs onto the grief cycle, giving brands a very real tool for engaging Australians. The result is the COVID-19 Motivational Journey Map.

Let’s take a look at each step. Maybe also consider how your organisation is responding and whether it is in line with where Aussies are today. Is there a need to re-align your response accordingly?

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Denial, anxiety and insecurity – We have moved thorough this (for now)

The security motivation was at play early in our experience of COVID-19. This is a fundamental human motivation about survival. The grief model shows that when Australians began to learn about COVID-19 during February 2020, the initial reaction was denial. This stage of denial shows Australians in a state of shock, feeling confused and frightened (remember Bondi beach?!). Uncertainty is core to how Australians perceive the world during this denial phase.

Denial and a lack of security lead to Australians entering the anxiety stage of the grief cycle. At this stage, more news and information being shared about COVID-19, as well as the beginning of measures for social distancing and isolation, causes the reality and severity of the situation to hit home – people are losing their jobs, people are getting sick, schools are talking about closing. During the anxiety stage, people are feeling very base emotions and are in a reactive state of mind. There is significant frustration and anger as Australians start the ‘juggle’. At this stage, Australians seek to avoid feeling insecure; we do not want to feel UNSAFE, and this is related to financial security and health-related fears. At this stage, brands needed to deliver reassurance and support, providing trusted and transparent information to Australians and communicating regularly.

Many brands have done this well and have helped Australians to feel safe. The Australian government and State government also, on the whole, did a good job in this stage.

Disengagement and depression

In this stage, social isolation is in full swing and the loss of employment becomes real, impacting day to day lives profoundly and catalysing a change to a new emotional need – engagement. This motivation is part of the social motivations that see human beings needing to be engaged and involved in their lives and activities. Social isolation and loss of employment leads Australians to seek to avoid feeling bored, not motivated and lacking a sense of purpose. If Australians are not able to avoid this motivation, this leads to depression in the grief cycle.

As the government officially dictates emergency measures and lockdowns, anxiety turns to depression; Australians are staying home, homeschooling and many have had changes to employment. At this stage, we see both the engagement motivation continue to play a role as well as the belonging motivation. To avoid depression, Australians seek to feel involved and part of something, as well as craving real social connection and togetherness. Brands need to deliver emotional support to help Australians feel engaged and part of something to avoid depression. Enter ‘we are all in this together’.

Bargaining and empowerment

In this stage, Australians become more used to life during COVID-19 and get into a new routine around social isolation. As well as more positive information coming from government institutions around the impact social isolation is having on the number of cases, a new stage begins – the bargaining stage. It is at this stage that Australians reach out and tell their stories, they find a new meaning in life, they review what’s important in their lives and feel a strange sense of calm and almost renewed optimism. It is at this stage that the empowerment motivation comes in to play, and this is the most potent motivation Australians seek to feel in life right now. This motivation is about seeking to feel free, powerful and in control and so avoiding feeling trapped and restricted. Brands need to activate this motivation to allow for Australians to feel more confident in life.

Acceptance and achievement

Confidence in life leads to the acceptance stage in the grief cycle. At this stage, Australians begin to formulate their new normal, explore options for change, learn from previous mistakes and ensure they do the right thing. These are the esteem and mastery motivations in activation. Australians seek to learn from their mistakes, to do better and be more responsible. Brands need to show that they can support Australians in making better choices and mastering aspects of their lives to ensure they are successful in building their new normal.

If you would like more information, please contact kate@sproutresearch.com.au