This article outlines how brands can rebuild trust with their customers by leveraging both the power of artificial intelligence and the psychology of safety, gratitude, and intimacy. Brands must engage consumers with the appropriate emotional language as they plan their progression from crisis response to the new normal. Three recommendations detail how leaders can use language strategically through the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
As cities around the world lift their lock-down orders, hard-hit travel and hospitality businesses are ramping up their operations in preparation for the summer high season. Not all customers are ready to return to their pre-COVID travel habits. Air travel in the US, while picking up, is still down 80% versus 2019. Anxiety over safety is top of mind with 83% of US consumers expecting a second wave of the outbreak, according to the Pew Research Center, and that fear is one factor depressing travel.
How can travel and hospitality companies motivate customers to pack their bags again? By focusing on trust–specifically the Trust-based emotions of Intimacy, Safety, and Gratitude.
Travelers need to feel confident that airlines, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues are doing all they can to keep them safe. Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Airlines, captured that sentiment in a recent email to the company’s customers: “Your safety remains paramount,” he wrote, and backed that up by describing specific policies Delta has adopted, including having employees wear masks, leaving middle seats empty on flights, and boarding flights from back to front to limit customer contact.
In this time of crisis, Persado analysis shows that customers engage most with Trust-based emotions of Intimacy, Safety, and Gratitude.
Bastian’s email is an example of how words that reflect the right emotional context can resonate with customers. Emotions are the foundation of communication all the time—but the right emotion varies by context, and the emotions that engaged customers before COVID-19 are not necessarily the same ones that engage now. In this time of crisis, Persado analysis shows that customers engage most with Trust-based emotions of Intimacy, Safety, and Gratitude.
In December 2019, these three emotions performed in the middle of the pack, taking a backseat to the more effective Attention-focused emotional language. Yet by April of 2020, the Trust-based emotions were the top three performing of all those tested, with Attention moving to last place.
Below, we describe the ways in which Trust-based emotions drive customer engagement and how travel and hospitality companies can leverage trust to get customers traveling again.
Before COVID-19, the most successful communications across all industries often leveraged Attention-grabbing phrases and techniques, like using all caps or Gratification language that appealed to a customer’s desire for reward.
In the travel sector before COVID-19, communications that appealed to a customer’s excitement about taking a trip or fascination about exploring a new city were among the top-performing emotions. One airline customer of Persado estimated $8 million in increased revenue as a result of using Excitement-oriented language in a web campaign promoting seat upgrades.
Beginning in March 2020, as the pandemic spread across Asia to Europe and then North America, Attention and Excitement language that used to engage no longer worked as well—for some, it even seemed tone-deaf. Messages that instead aimed to reassure customers and later to connect with them started inching up the performance rankings. Persado analysis of over 370 communications campaigns and 40,000 language permutations during April 2020 found that the most successful (in terms of customer response) leveraged one of the three Trust-based emotions of Safety, Gratitude, or Intimacy.
Persado’s definition of Safety, based on years of evolving research and data in behavioral psychology, is to eliminate any worries or doubts; to make one feel secure. Long before COVID-19, Safety effectively engaged audiences: it finished 2019 as the #2 emotion across channels worldwide.
Language that evokes Safety aims to make the audience feel protected, watched over, and taken care of. It’s not enough to say “we’re here for you.” Effective Safety language also communicates how a brand is protecting the wellbeing of its customers (and employees).
How and when to use safety
Gratitude is fundamentally about thanking the customer for their business. The most successful travel brands acknowledge that travelers have many options when it comes to trip planning, including where, when, and how—and during a pandemic, when those options are reduced dramatically, it’s paramount for brands to shift and accommodate their customers’ unique needs. This is exactly where language that evokes Gratitude can make a significant impact and drive not only immediate engagement, but long-term brand loyalty.
How and when to use Gratitude
Intimacy communicates a personal, one-to-one relationship to a traveler. It sends the message that the brand knows the customer and cares about their wellbeing. As cities reopen, airlines, hotels, and travel agencies need to reconnect with their audience—the majority of customers are likely hesitant or uneasy about jumping back into travel, despite some lifted restrictions. Using language that evokes Intimacy can help break the ice and ease travelers back into a wanderlust state of mind.
How and when to use Intimacy
The power of trust to make customers feel safe, needed, and seen provides key opportunities for travel and hospitality companies at different stages of the customer journey:
“We’re here for you” is now standard messaging for companies—and therefore no longer enough to evoke a powerful emotional response. Travel and hospitality companies now must find new ways to evoke safety and show more than just tell. Delta’s commitment to leaving the middle seat open is one example. Safety may also come through from the restaurant that serves only at outdoor seating areas or at half capacity. Companies that detail specific actions and give customers a way to learn more—as Starbucks does with its COVID-dedicated microsite—can go a long way to restoring customer confidence.
Safety isn’t just about words. It is also about specific practices that reduce the potential for infection. Some airlines, for example, are deep-cleaning planes more frequently and limiting meal and drink options to reduce contact. Enterprise Rent-A-Car has called out their enhanced cleaning practices between each rental on high-touch areas of the car. Public spaces like airports and hotel lobbies are also stocking hand sanitizer and limiting or eliminating self-service coffee and water fountains. And almost everyone is requiring employees to wear face masks—and sometimes customers. Take these actions and call attention to them in text messages, emails, reservation confirmations, and “before you go” reminders.
Because travel is still fairly limited right now, the first person in a family or social group to step on a train or plane will have a large audience who wants to hear about it. Effective and well-executed safety procedures will help ensure those messages are positive. Also, check in with the customer during and after the trip, leveraging Intimacy and Gratitude—the other two emotions for evoking trust. Thank the travelers who were willing to go first and offer them incentives to do it again—and perhaps even to share those rewards with a friend or family member.
Chris Curtis is a Senior Director at Persado in San Francisco and is a leader of Persado’s Technology and Travel practices. Previously Chris was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company where he held leadership positions in their Marketing and Sales practice.
Courtney Ambrose is a Senior Director at Persado in New York working with partners in the Travel, Retail, and Financial Services industries. Previously Courtney worked at American Express leading the company’s partnerships in the cable industry.