Is “habituation” a sign of the times which is losing you business?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

In the UK, the government put up signs months ago that say, “Drive safely and save the NHS.” It hasn’t been changed or taken down since then, but for businesses, it serves as a reminder that signage should be refreshed every so often. As the theory of habituation states, one can basically become immune to the things that are seen everyday. It’s a function of how the brain manages to store so much information, and it’s a form of compression. In compression technology, the computer only remembers what changes. It doesn’t remember what stays the same. This is also what the brain does. If a piece of information stays the same, the brain processes it as something that doesn’t need to be remembered. It’ll simply be a memory. The point is that there is a need to refresh company signage during these COVID times.

A study conducted by the University of Cincinnati on The Economic Value of On-Premise Signage found that on-premise signs and regulations significantly impacted the performance of businesses, because the on-premise signage directly influences the vitality of that business in terms of giving uplift to the way the business carries on both in terms of transactions and recruitment. They discovered that 60% of businesses which upgraded their signage reported increases averaging 10%. Definitely, legibility is the most important characteristic of signage. That goes without saying. They also found that sign changes on a building, around a building, and leading to a company could increase hiring, that once nearly a quarter of the companies they surveyed had refreshed and improved their signage, they hired more people, presumably because their business was going on better. Business logos and the size and location of the signs, according to this survey, were more important for companies with more establishments. Branding, therefore, is important. However, the national lodging chain, which was a case study, found that the use of digital electronic signage to display pricing was associated with an increased average occupancy rate. In other words, because the display was in the same location, but the content, message, or pricing were different, it actually impacted occupancy rates positively, probably because it was an electronic sign, and it was an active sign rather than a printed one, so it stood out and people paid attention to it. 

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

There was a case where a specialty small business chain demonstrated the need for signage to reaffirm the value of the company offered by the niche retailer. The Cincinnati University report also discussed about a car dealership that found that the addition of a video signboard was associated with a large increase both in the service department revenue and the number of customers. They found apparently that there was a goodwill and reputational gain associated with posting community-related public services messages on the video board; in other words, using their signage in the dealerships for communicating what was going on in and around the community and not just for direct sales helped them earn more. This proves that marketing messages and public relations messages are not confined just to the press. Public relations focuses on all the touch points that a company has with their potential customers, partners, or staff, which are the three audience groups within the SPEAK|pr methodology. 

If your signage has been the same since before COVID, maybe it’s time for a makeover

Taking into consideration habituation and business, how much signage is pre-COVID that could instead talk about sanitation or reassure customers of safety protocols within establishments? Are any of the other aspects of the business that might have changed as a result of the “new normal” being addressed? This is why EastWest PR defines COVID PR as Compassionate, Optimistic, Values-based, Informative, and Digital. Signage is meant to be refreshed every so often, because if not, the three audience groups may be suffering from habituation. They may not recognize the difference in the businesses that have come back into the spotlight.  While getting the business, customers, and staff back, ask yourself: does the signage represent the positive outlook of the business for the months ahead?

Leaders of organizations must inspire others and plan for the future. These people lead and look forward to what lies ahead, and the signage needs to reflect this optimism and the drive to make the business profitable, to make it add value, to make it sustainable, and to communicate that, because habituation means that people could be seeing the same government signs that, quite often, are taken for granted by the human brain, which is just trying to look for the most important thing to look for next. Remember, the brain forgets what they seek frequently. 

Photo from NHS

Does your signage reflect the business?

Logos of brands may create a good baseline of information, but that’s different to getting people to take action. That’s what signage can create. With the Cincinnati University study in mind that found a direct correlation between upgrading and refreshing signage with business performance, look at how you can do that for your own business, and there are three different ways to go about this. One, does the visual marketing target the demographic in mind? Does this coordinate with the brand? Are you building signage? Do you have flashing signs, static signs, neon signs, running signs, ticker tape signs? Are they coordinating with the messages that you are sharing with your team, customers, and partners? The second aspect is, will they make or break your reputation? There are many shops and buildings at the moment with outdated signs which definitely need a new look. You don’t want to turn off potential customers, partners, or staff, so consider redoing your signage. This will hopefully improve your reputation among people who could possibly work for you, work with you, or buy from you.

The third part of signage is that it illustrates your relevance. Does the sign show that it is somehow attached to that business? No matter what the business is, the logo should reflect that, and so should the signage. If it doesn’t, people could have different impressions of you or your businesses. If the marketing messages are older and not yielding the same kind of results as they did before, the people seeing that could be suffering from habituation. That doesn’t necessarily mean the logo needs to be changed; it could just need a makeover, or maybe it needs new content. 

Keeping signage fresh, relevant, and optimistic is a key part of a public relations program. Paul Hourihane of ReMark Asia Pacific said we need to make sure that the actions of a business are greater than the advertising, and it can also be said that actions need to be greater than the signage. It’s called signage for a reason. It’s a sign of how the business is run and managed. So, make signage a big part of public relations. Look, once again, at the signage you’ve got and think about the psychological lure of habituation. Are people taking your business for granted? And if they are, think about how signage could change that.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Design Spark

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