Millions of us all over Kenya changed our purchase and consumption patterns in the nearly two months since Covid-19 hit our shores. Even our communication ingestion of news and types of data we take in has altered. We get bombarded by numerous neural inputs from all around our environments each day every day. But brilliantly, our brains filter out unimportant incoming sensory information, so we do not get too overloaded.
Researcher Mani Ramaswami investigates the process of only selectively noticing new stimuli, called habituation, and highlights its proven key to human survival. In human ancient history, if a neighbouring clan frequently gathered mangos near to the border of our clan’s territory, but never caused any offense or posed any danger, then our brains would stop noticing them and instead be alert for other clans trespassing into our safe zones.
Due to businesses that understand human psychology, we see marketers all over Kenya usually trying ways to break beyond habituation and grab our attention: flashing lights, new colour combinations, catchy phrases, famous faces, But since the coronavirus pandemic triggered deep human psychological fears about our personal and familial safety, consumer attention shifted and now stands ready on heightened alert for dangers and ways to keep our loved ones safe. In response, since March, we have heard from nearly every business premises proclaiming new was to grab our attention, especially that they take safety seriously, they clean surfaces often, they provide hand sanitisers, their employees wear masks.
However, the attempts at rudimentary safety claims are largely not working. Distrust and overuse of certain pandemic terms builds up our habituation. As an example of distrust seen in the media, even though the latest coronavirus breaks down quickly on surfaces degrading over 100 times in efficacy over the course of eight hours, we still see bizarre government-sponsored cleaning rituals in markets spraying unknown chemicals on the grounds and walls. Instead, markets or apartment blocks could just be kept closed for 24 hours and the virus on surfaces would be more degraded than misguided public relations decontamination attempts. So, distrust builds up and our psychological habituation tunes out the new irrelevant noise.
Examples include, bucking conventional logic during a lockdown, restaurant delivery businesses have crashed. Consumers do not trust the extra hygienic standards needed in a pandemic, so they would rather buy prepackaged food or cook at home where they know they can decontaminate any food ingredient. Also, hospitals sit eerily empty. People now avoid healthcare facilities even at great personal risk to their ongoing health due to fear of contamination from coronavirus.
How do businesses break beyond habituation and relate with their clientele in a pandemic-aware world? Be specific about real safety measures, not mere public relations claims that build consumer cynicism and keep them away.
Even I delayed my post-operative cancer follow-up because I feared entering a hospital in the era of Covid-19. Assurances of over-discussed hand sanitisers everywhere, masks, and temperature checks at entrances meant nothing to me. Given the over-communication of such standard safety measures in the market, I tuned it all out. Even apartment estates and supermarkets make basic safety claims these days. I wanted deeper assurances from Aga Khan University Hospital before I started going for my follow-ups, checks, and PET scan. Through my investigations, I learned how responsible hospitals go beyond hand sanitizers, masks, and the like by putting in place additional waiting areas to enhance social distancing, retaining completely separate facilities to care for Covid-19 patients, using high-tech negative pressure rooms for evaluation in casualty departments and in ICUs, and implementing isolation wards. All these safety measures can be confirmed. It made me feel comfortable going back for medical appointments. But everyone can ask about such deeper safety procedures from medical care providers. Get facts rather than postponing the critical that you need and put your healthcare at risk.
Similarly, companies desirous of brining customers back to their stores, premises, or deliveries, be specific about the safety measures you take. Customers have a right to know and will increasingly ask probing safety questions. Do not spout over-used terms that people now drown out. Want people to take your food delivery? Do your cooks wear masks and package the cooked food in near sterile conditions? Explain it in your marketing. Show your standard operating procedure process maps on your website. Show a live web cam of your food preparation, as an example. Set any business you operate apart in a pandemic to get your customers’ attention beyond habituation.