Most brand marketers have their customer journeys tattooed on their brains—and maybe their arms, too. The customer journey is the foundation of almost all marketing programs. But what if a worldwide pandemic sets up a few roadblocks and your customers start making detours along their journey? Get prepared, because that’s what’s about to happen.

Your customers are on a very different journey these days.

The Washington Post asked a few experts if, when, and whether they would go back to shopping as usual. The answer was a pretty resounding “not anytime soon.” Amanda Castel, an epidemiology professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said she plans to wait until her community meets established criteria, including a 14-day drop in the percentage of people testing positive. Even then, Castel said, “I’ll think about it as, ‘Is it nice to go, or do I need to go?’ ” Granted, an epidemiologist is going to have a different point of view than your average Joe or Jane customer.

So, out of curiosity, I posted an article about going out to eat on Facebook, and every single response boiled down to “not anytime soon,” with many people saying it would be a year before they do anything but take out and curbside pickup. Clearly, my friends are not a representative sample of the dining public, but I was surprised by the unanimity. My guess is that if it’s not a majority, some large percentage of your target audience is probably thinking the same thing: “Just how much do I really need to go to that store, that museum, that event, that beach, or that restaurant?” And if I do go out, I’ll probably decide when to go shopping based on the likelihood of running into other shoppers.

As a communicator, if your business is going to survive, you need to convince your stakeholders that it is safe to do business with you. Retail shops like American Eagle, Sephora, and Best Buy have already gone through that process. There’s a lot we can learn from their examples. 

Safety is your Unique Selling Proposition

Clearly the perception of safety and trustworthiness of your place of business, service, or product must now become part of your USP (Unique Selling Proposition).

In many industries — healthcare, airlines, automobiles — safety is just everyday table stakes. But for grocery brands, retail stores, non-profits venues and numerous service industries, safety must now be message one. Something as simple as a clean bathroom could be the difference between a successful opening and going out of business. And that’s just for products and services that haven’t been associated with large COVID-19 outbreaks or fatalities. For bars, restaurants, and live events — never mind long-term care facilities, meat processors, cruise ships, the military, and prisons — the path back to normality is far steeper.

One way to encourage your customers to return is to improve your COVID-19 safety image. And to get started on that you must understand where you are perceived on the issue of safety.

How to measure the perception of your COVID-19 safety: It starts with trust

Safety and trust are attributes that have been successfully measured for decades. And most of that measurement shows that trust and credibility are easy to lose and hard to earn back. So if your industry’s image has already been tarnished by the pandemic, you have a far tougher job ahead. Which is why you need to immediately start to assess stakeholder perceptions, so you know what needs to be fixed and how to do it.  If you’ve never even thought about safety as your USP,  you’ll want to ask your stakeholders what it will take to make them feel safe.

As we’ve written here in the past, there are standard survey questions that test for trust. And we can’t say it often enough: you need to be doing trust surveys on a regular basis these days.

Here are a few of the basic questions that are used to measure trust:

  • “This organization can be relied upon to keep its promises.”
  • “I feel very confident about this organization’s skills.”
  • “This organization has the ability to accomplish what it says it will do.”
  • “Sound principles seem to guide this organization’s behavior.”
  • “This organization does not mislead people like me.”
  • “This organization is known to be successful at the things it tries to do.”

As you might surmise from these statements, one of the important components of trust is competence, which is closely connected to a perception of safety. So if you have done trust surveys in the past, and have asked respondents for their agreement to statements like, “I feel confident in this organization’s skills,” or “This organization has the ability to accomplish what it says it will do,” then you already have a baseline.

You might want to add some specific safety questions to your ongoing research like:

  • “What concerns do you have about doing business with us now that stay-at-home orders have been lifted?”
  • “What would would make you feel safer, more secure, or protected from harm?”
  • “What concerns you most about going out to public spaces?”

If you’ve never measured trust or safety before, you need at least two data points:

1. Are your target audiences seeing your safety messages?

This is assessed using media content analysis. Analyze the content of your traditional and social earned media to see if the safety messages you are putting out there are in fact making their way into the media. And, more importantly, getting into the right media to influence your stakeholders.

If your safety messages are relatively straightforward and easily identifiable — like “we regularly disinfect” — then you might be able to pick them up using a Boolean search of your content (both coverage and social conversations) that most social listening and media measurement services can provide. Better yet, if you are using a more sophisticated media collection platform that offers AI-driven machine learning like FulIntel, Talkwalker, or Signal, then they can “teach” their system to identify your specific safety messages and you can track their appearance over time.

2. Are they believing your safety messages?

Knowing your messages  appeared is only the first step. Of far greater importance is knowing whether your stakeholders heard them and actually believed them. The only way you’re going to find that out is to survey them. You can start with the trust statements, and then add statements customized for your particular organizational messages: “I believe this organization has the ability to keep its workers safe,” or “…its workplace clean” or “…keep me safe from infection.” Whatever is most applicable to your situation.

For many of you, this may need only be a one-time exercise. If everyone already perceives you as safe, then you are good to go. Be sure to save your data for future reference or use as a baseline.

But if your COVID-19 safety perception scores are low, then you have some work to do. Your CEO and safety inspectors may need to do more to help get messages out, or you may need third parties to reinforce your messages.

If your issue is worker safety, you’ll need to make sure the union (if there is one) is on your side, as well as local community or political leaders. Good visuals will be crucial to support your messages.

Once all those image repair elements are in place, you’ll need to measure again to make sure everything is working. If it isn’t, then you may have a bigger cultural issue to fix. You will have to adjust your survey, or maybe do some focus groups to tease out the problem. Good luck, and stay safe and healthy. ∞

Illustration by Bill Paarlberg.

Recent Posts