What’s showing at the hygiene theatre?

Nathan Bilton
September 2, 2020
A shop owner handing a food delivery order over to the delivery rider in an insulated bag

Once upon a time, brands were judged on the quality or cost of their product or service, the experience they offer and the company they keep. Those days are gone. Now, amid a global health pandemic, how clean you are – or claim to be – could be the difference in gaining a new customer or losing one. But how much is enough, what’s too much and when does it all just become hygiene theatre?

The clean war

The quick impact and ensuing destruction of COVID-19 on communities and economies globally could be compared to a wartime scenario. And, in many ways, we’re treating it like one. But instead of showing up to the battlefield armed with guns and missiles, we’re sporting antibacterial sprays and sanitisers.

Despite the fact that most experts agree distance is the best medicine against COVID-19, we’re trying to kill it with cleanliness. For businesses that can only awkwardly facilitate social distancing, like those in retail and hospitality services, this is especially true. In an effort to lure customers back indoors in greater numbers, they’re working gallantly to minimise the perceived risk of infection.

Hilton’s new initiative, CleanStay, is a great example. The hotel chain partnered with hygiene powerhouse RB, maker of Lysol and Dettol, to “develop elevated processes” designed to “provide guests with assurance and peace of mind”. The rigorous hygiene programme focuses on cleanliness that will be visible to guests, promising things like sealed rooms after cleaning, extra cleaning of high-touch and public areas, and new electrostatic sprayers which use an electrostatically charged disinfecting mist and ultraviolet light to sanitise surfaces. Yep.

To some people, such a spectacle of cleaning and sanitisation protocols could be seen as necessary and entirely sensible. To others, it’s comically excessive or what critics are calling hygiene theatre. And herein lies the challenge for brands.

The new germaphobe

Given the cost of additional cleaning, you would hope it’s something your customers actually want. We set out to answer that question as part of Course Corrector – a research initiative which aggregates first-party survey, search and social sentiment data with industry research. As it turns out, it’s pretty important.

More than half (68%) of all Australians indicated a strong or moderate desire to understand the measures a business has taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In retail specifically, 94% agreed it was important for retailers to clean public spaces regularly and adhere to social distancing measures.

Desire to understand the measures a business has taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19

This seems to be a result of our heightened concerns about cleanliness generally. When we asked how concerned people were feeling, 66% said they were somewhat concerned, while 12% indicated strong concerns – even going so far as to say they’ve become a ‘complete germaphobe’.

To what extent are you concerned about cleanliness since the pandemic began?

While it’s safe to assume that 12% of Australians haven’t developed actual germaphobia (what is medically defined as an intense terror or pathological fear of germs) overnight, we have taken on some of the behavioural symptoms. For example, have you recently avoided or left a situation perceived to result in germ exposure (cough, cough)? Are you spending more time thinking about, preparing for, or putting off situations that might involve germs? I know I’ve felt compelled to act out new rituals of washing and cleaning to the point of never wanting to hear or hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune ever again.

I’m not alone either. From Course Corrector, we know that 81% of Australians are washing and sanitising their hands more frequently, 71% are consciously avoiding touching public surfaces and more than half of us (51%) are altering our daily routines to avoid rush hour.

Due to COVID-19, I plan to make the following changes to my daily routine

When we looked a little closer at society’s new germaphobe, we noticed they tended to skew younger – 19% under 24 years and 35% under 34 years – and female. Interestingly, all of the respondents aged 18-24 years old that consider themselves a germaphobe were women.

Wiping the surface

There’s nothing wrong with firming up your cleaning practices. In fact, given what we now know, you probably should. A humble notice here and there to reassure your customer’s shouldn’t go awry either. The issue arises when establishments boast about their newfound purity while still inviting people into crowded unventilated indoor spaces without policing safe distancing. That would be counterintuitive.

Still, flashy marketing campaigns that parade extravagant new cleaning rituals or products are risky regardless, calling into question whether it’s money well spent.

In Lorna Jane’s case, it wasn’t. The activewear brand tried to spruik their LJ Shield clothing line as anti-viral, costing them a ton of bad press and a forced rebrand of the product. Celebrity chef Pete Evans made a similar misstep when he tried to market a $15,000 light frequency machine (called a BioCharger) that he claimed could ‘cure’ coronavirus.

The NSW Government’s $250 million investment in a ‘cleaners’ package’ could raise similar questions. Like whether part or all of this money would be better spent on less deep cleans of carriages, and more trains that allow better social distancing? Or less sanitising of classrooms and more support for teachers and parents caring for and educating kids during COVID-19?

Rather than a hotel room wrap, maybe a wrap over light switches or TV remotes will do. If you’re jeweler, wouldn’t an investment in AR (augmented reality) technology – that allows people to try on jewellery instore or at home without actually touching the jewellery – pacify the new germaphobe more than any deep clean could? Not to mention, serve you better in the long term.

It’s a murky space to navigate but, as long as your objective is to protect your customers, any genuine initiative shouldn’t cause too much controversy. And if you’re still not sure, why not ask your customers directly? Would they choose to pay more to dine or stay with fewer guests over electrostatically charged disinfecting mists? Could they opt in for additional cleaning of their room or table at a small cost, so you can redirect valuable resources to policing public areas? Would they prefer masks with their margaritas over more chlorine cleanses?

There’s no doubt our attitudes to health and safety have changed, and your customers will be judging you – not to mention expecting more from you. The brands who come out on top will have a better understanding of their customer, their market, and the mind and mood of the country.

Written by

Nathan Bilton
Nathan Bilton
After 13 years at The Works Nathan finds himself co-Creative Director. He has worked across brands in most categories and holds a passion for effective audio visual content regardless of channel.

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