Social distancing signage: creativity can make public spaces safer

Social distancing signage: creativity can make public spaces safer

Creative social distancing signage is more likely to be noticed,
and encourage people to use public spaces safely.

To change people’s behaviour, you have to engage them emotionally.

So says Andy Briscoe, Creative Director and the brains behind the much-lauded ‘Normville’ campaign. Coming from agency JDO, Normville communicates social distancing using a series of fictional characters and CAD mockups of large-format installations.

On evidence, emotional engagement around social distancing has been rare; instead, businesses are more likely to have taken a direct, literal approach.

The cause behind this messaging is a worthwhile one. Physical spaces remain highly lucrative – branded retail environments, and corporate spaces alike.

On the retail side, a lot of smart money backs the enduring importance of bricks and mortar. Brookfield, a major property investor in the US, has set aside a $5bn pot to invest directly in its tenants’ businesses. Furthermore, ONS data shows that the Covid-boom in ecommerce has already undergone a correction, and it seems that over 70% of retail sales will remain offline.

On the corporate side: many businesses may not be rushing to bring people back to the office. But nor are they shutting up shop.

Nick Bloom – an Stanford academic better known for extolling the virtues of home working – says that a total loss of office space could lead to a ‘productivity slump’, since in-person collaboration is vital for creativity and innovation.

Park has been investigating how signage and creativity can help businesses keep these spaces alive.

The easiest instances of this to find have been in retail spaces. A walk round London’s West End threw up a number of interesting ideas. But the learnings, around how people engage with creative (and not-so creative) messaging, can equally be applied to corporate environments.

Photography, of the ideas we uncovered, is shown here. Many of them should inspire marketers and brand creatives. But overall, we concluded that brands’ responses, from a creative standpoint, have been muted.

To a degree, this may be understandable; Covid-19 has been a shock for brands as much as consumers. Marketers have needed time to adapt.

But Park has previously spoken in favour of marketing one’s way through difficult trading periods, as a vital part not just of engaging customers, but also, of keeping people in jobs, and businesses alive.

With the critical Christmas trading period now virtually upon us, and with the furlough scheme due to end October 31st, there is no time to waste.

Businesses, which wish to remain invested in physical spaces, must now invest in the creativity needed make those spaces pay.

Inspirational examples of social distancing signage

The best idea we saw from London retailers was by Vans, the first case we’ve ever seen of user-generated display.

The skatewear brand invited fans to get creative under lockdown, by creating sculptures out of shoeboxes. The prize for the best entrants was to have their creations displayed in store.

Customers had to walk past the cardboard exhibits – and a lot of other social distancing messaging – in order to enter the store.

This conveyed the safety messaging needed to open safely. But it would also have generated a great deal of brand engagement online, and helped to offset a dip in offline trade.

This is a characteristically clever pivot from a brand which has built up a lot of equity in celebrating the creativity of its audience. Customers have long been able personalize their Vans footwear with custom artwork, and the award-winning ‘Not Just One Creator’ campaign from 2019 tapped into creative influencers in order to grow the brand’s reach across new customer segments.

Across the street from Vans is Lush Cosmetics, a brand which sells environmentally-friendly toiletries.

The store always had a sink at the entrance where you could try washing your hands with one of their brightly-coloured vegan soaps. Now, they’ve introduced handwashing as a policy for every visitor.

It’s possible that some customers may find this an inconvenience, but the selection of pre-cut soap shavings at the sink is beautifully presented, and it’s an immediate way to engage customers on their way in.

These are two inspirational pieces of creative thinking – and one may say that it’s not fair to judge all brands as if they’re on a level platform. After all, not every business sells soap, or has a sink in its storefront.

Really, this ought to be a call for brand marketers to return to their own safe territory.

For decades, brand propositions have been built around highly commoditized, poorly differentiated products and services, such as groceries, FMCG, insurance and banking, often with brilliant creative ideas.

Examples include:

  • price comparison website > meerkats
  • carbonated cola drink > happiness
  • cosmetics > because you’re worth it.

Social distancing is, in itself, a poorly-differentiated concept; it’s the same for every business.

Yet it has already inspired some dazzling varied creative ideas – albeit not necessarily from brands.

Social distancing as a concept

‘It’s not a metre of thin air;
It’s a metre of love and care.’

The language communicates social distancing perfectly, but on closer inspection, the ad is too good to be true (see image below). The long, peaked cap couldn’t realistically be installed in a conventional display board.

We asked Andy Briscoe what the thinking was, behind the self-consciously impossible designs of Normville, and whether they could still show brands anything useful about real-world advertising.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s realistic or not”, says Andy.

“Remember, in May, we were still at a point of disbelief; many people were saying it was just flu. Normville circumvents that issue by not mentioning the virus at all – but it does tell people to take care of each other.”

“What we ended up with is a make-believe world populated by cartoon characters, so it didn’t seem to matter whether the designs could actually be installed in the real world. What matters is that it gets peoples’ attention in a fun and engaging way.”

But is there any space for this kind of approach in real-world brand comms?

Brands are tasked with the very real concern of enabling people to shop safely. Some customers may not necessarily engage with creative messaging; unclear signage could put customers and staff at risk.

Those concerns are valid, but actually, such creativity also helps tackle another, key problem of communicating clearly to audiences.

‘Direct’ messaging does not necessarily aid clarity. The UK government’s response to the pandemic is a good case in point. The initial ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS’ slogan resonated well with the public, but its ‘Stay alert’ successor was considered by many to have been confusing.

In cases such as this, when the details are too complicated to be packaged up in only a few words, humorous and conceptual thinking can still instill the spirit of an idea.

There’s a longstanding precedent for this approach. WWII propaganda was often humorous or conceptual – as these examples below show – but perfectly clear in its meaning, with the added benefit of making people smile in adverse circumstances.

What this shows that is that people are absolutely receptive to creative messaging around serious issues. This is possibly the most valuable learning that brands can take from Normville.

“The government response seems to have been to put black and yellow tape around everything”, said Andy. “Normville was intended to be an antidote to that.”

“Solving problems practically can help to a certain degree, but facing challenges with imagination can have the far greater benefit of making us feel better – either about ourselves or about something else. Ultimately we all hold dear the things that make us feel good.”

Preserving brand values

Despite the ample room for creativity around social distancing signage, the ‘typical’ brand response has seemed lacking.

This example from Dolce & Gabbana had been inexpertly applied using sticky tape.

We also spotted this low-level sign in the Giorgio Armani store front (below). It’s about eight inches tall. Had we not been looking for it, we doubt we’d have noticed.

Brands, it seems, have a certain degree of squeamshiness around how to integrate the signage with one’s carefully-crafted branded environment.

One store assistant, who chose not to be named, told us that his store had decided not to put signs on their jewellery displays because of the aesthetics; instead, the staff were keeping hand sanitizer under the counter to offer to customers.

Roberto Cavalli won marks for effort with this FSDU, but an honest appraisal would be that it doesn’t blend in perfectly with the interior.

But the creative challenge, of how to communicate around the pandemic, is not one confined to social distancing.

Within days of news of the pandemic having broken, an ad reel was released entitled, ‘All Covid-19 ads are the same’, showing uncanny uniformity in brands’ broadcast advertising.

Perhaps we are witnessing a degree of lag, as brand marketers, more accustomed to sales and brand engagement comms, now find themselves tasked with health and safety messaging, and exhorting customers to return to their stores.

Andy commented: “Many businesses, and the UK government alike were taking the wait-and-see approach – hoping that the worst of the pandemic may be over in a month, or by the end of the summer.”

We now know that isn’t the case. The UK government has warned that the first vaccine deliveries are unlikely to be made until mid-2021.

Many brands refit their in-store décor ever couple of years anyway; POS materials are changed quarterly, or more often.

Considering the ease and affordability of producing such materials, relative to the benefits of getting it right, retail brands and corporate offices alike should be opening the creative taps, as a key tool to making sure visitors feel safe to come inside.

Practical steps towards creative social distancing

Some very simple social distancing signage was also the most effective.

Harvey Nichols used some simple brand copywriting, on a mixture of window vinyls and in-store displays. Messages such as this were spread throughout all eight floors of their Knightsbridge store.

Urban Industry, a consciously sustainable business, used eco-friendly plyboard and paper to communicate safety guidelines in a way that was right in-tune with their brand.

Such signage does not to be expensive. Park supplied a well know investment bank with repositionable signage for 14 global offices at a cost of under £3,000 per office. Read the case study here.

Set against the cost of rented real estate, and the profitability of using that space well, that seems a worthwhile and affordable investment.

What’s critically important is that brands take some kind of positive action.

‘Waiting and seeing’ has rarely been part of a winning marketing strategy; being on the front foot has usually been vital to inspiring audiences and retaining market share.

Customer safety and, equally, brand safety must be key priorities; brands certainly must not be seen to capitalizing on pandemic in an insensitive way. Doubtless, there will be hiccups and false moves.

But the role of brand creatives has always been to communicate with consumers, however delicate or complex the message. In consumer marketing in particular, it is widely acknowledged that creativity and conceptual thinking are the optimal ways of getting those messages across.

As Andy Briscoe puts it,

‘People will engage with imagination.’

To give our businesses the best chance of coming through this pandemic in one piece, now is the time to let creative people do what they do best: communicate imaginatively with customers, and inspire them to continue engaging with our brands.

Thanks to Andy

Andy Briscoe is Creative Director at JDO, a creative agency specialising in brand design and innovation.

If you’ve been inspired by Normville and would like to get in touch with JDO to find out more, click here.

Get in touch with Park

Park conducts a complete range of large-format printing services in-house at our London facility.

Clients value our precision colour-control, fast turnaround times, and rapid installation and delivery by our expert large format team, and we’re proud to be the display printing partner of choice for the likes of Schroders and Christie’s auction house.

Our range includes repositionable graphics – great for flexible retail spaces and work places – and wipe-clean materials with antibacterial coatings.

Visit our large format printing hub to find out more.



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