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How to create a safety brand

A strong marketing campaign can engage workers in safety, improve culture
By Amanda Silliker
| Canadian Occupational Safety

Hundreds of thousands of people commute via bus, streetcar or subway every day in Toronto. Many of them have seen at least one of the “Here’s why I work safe” posters. The posters show a father with his daughter, a man playing hockey with his buddies, a family photo in a wallet and a supervisor with his staff. The goal of the campaign is simply to remind people of what’s at stake when health and safety rules are not followed or not taken seriously, according to Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association, which has been running the ads since 2016. The campaign garners an estimated 15 million impressions annually.

Campaigns like these are effective in the general public and they can work within your organizations, too.

Marketing is a very important component of any safety program, although it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when safety professionals think about their job description. If the concept of health and safety is not sold to the worker — through effective marketing campaigns and communications — it’s nearly impossible to get a high-level of engagement and a positive safety culture.

“I think that safety has a bad rap — or at least not a good rap. When people come into the workforce, when they sign on with a company, they come in with a default belief that safety’s kind of a negative thing; it’s something they have to do. It’s really incumbent on safety professionals to really change that impression — and the way you do that is with good marketing, good branding,” says Andrew Faulkner, communications and content manager at SafeStart, a division of Electrolab, in Belleville, Ont.

An effective safety marketing and branding strategy can help mitigate risks.

“The more effective these programs are, it definitely benefits an organization by having a healthier workplace with fewer safety incidents,” says Chris Lee, vice-president of marketing and communications at Accompass in Toronto.

Faulkner agrees that a good campaign gets people on the same page with a common definition and language for what safety is.

“Everybody has their own thoughts on what safety means and how important it is, and if you do a good job at marketing safety initiatives, you can really establish a consensus on what’s happening, what’s going on, what you’re all talking about, what you’re not taking about and what everybody’s roles are,” he says. “It’s really a collection of beliefs and attitudes and rallying people around the safety flag, so to speak.”

While safety marketing can help reduce injuries and improve overall safety performance, it can also help out with the softer side of safety. For example, you may see an uptick in voluntary actions by employees, says Faulkner, such as more near-miss reports, more conversations about safety and more participation in toolbox talks.

Before embarking on a marketing campaign, it’s important to know what you’re working with. Employees should be surveyed to determine a baseline. A number of years ago, Doug Hohener, president of CreativeWorks Marketing in Markham, Ont., worked with a large company, that is heavily involved in the occupational health and safety business, on its own internal safety culture. He set up a video booth for employees to go in and answer a few questions about workplace safety. 

“You need that initial piece of finding out what they even know and whether they care,” says Hohener. “It’s the same as consumers: If we don’t get them to understand why you offer the services, how what you do matters and how best to communicate with them, then how can we ever engage them as an audience?”

Next, a marketing strategy needs to be developed. It should describe what the campaign is going to look like, who is going to roll it out, how it’s going to be communicated to workers, how much is in the budget and any other pertinent information. If your company has a marketing department, it’s a good idea to work with them.

“If you have internal communications professionals that can help you better understand how to create an effective message, it’s worth its weight in gold because the best safety program in the world is only as good as how effective your communication is to your employees about it,” says Lee.

Vendors and training providers may have some ready-made materials that you can use, so rather than crafting it all yourself, you can simply tweak the message to suit your organization, says Faulkner.

In order for the campaign to be successful, employees need to get involved. Look for your safety ambassadors — those employees who get excited about safety and have ideas for making it better. For a campaign he did at real estate company Minto, Hohener used actual employees in campaign posters.  

“The moment you see your staff on a poster in the subway you go, ‘What the heck? I know her and what’s this whole thing about?’ And that starts conversation,” he says.

For Hohener’s campaign at the large aforementioned Toronto company, workers formed committees to help solve some of the safety challenges the organization was facing.

“You need to partner with employees,” says Hohener, adding safety professionals should be prepared for some resistance because not all employees will be thrilled about participating.

A major key to the success of a marketing campaign is to ensure workers can relate to it. Perhaps some of the safety ambassadors would be willing to share their stories as part of the campaign.

“Any time you have an opportunity to connect it directly to employees’ personal experiences, it always carries much more gravity because it carries with it a sense of authenticity. It’s much more relatable,” says Lee. “It’s not just a slick marketing message. It makes it relevant and credible.”

Aside from using your own employees, other ways to ensure the messaging is relatable is by drawing on common experiences of your staff. For example, the majority of the cleaning staff at Minto were from the Philippines, so Hohener’s campaign drew heavily on Filipino culture.

“Whether it was certain events or Filipino food, it always had some connection back to the community,” he says. “So, if you have that symmetry somewhere — anything that’s cultural or environmental — you can tie it back to that so people can say, ‘I can relate. They’re just like me.’”

It’s also important to make sure the campaign and its communication materials outline why employees should care about this — the “what’s in it for me” component.

“Safety managers, and for good reason, are really used to talking about rules and regulations, but from a marketing perspective, that’s a really terrible way to communicate value,” says Faulkner. “To (employees), following really specific rules set up by the government, that’s really low on their priority list. But staying safe so they can come home to their families, that’s more important. And being able to take safety messages home that they can teach their kids, that’s very important to them.”


A great way to get employees engaged with a new safety marketing campaign is to “constantly make it fun and interactive,” says Hohener. Virtual reality is having a moment right now, so that might be something you want to include in your campaign. Organizations can set up an event that involves virtual reality and workers will show up just because they are curious, he says.

“You have to get them off their seat and into another environment.”

Gamification and contests can be used to keep workers interested. One idea is to drop puzzle pieces on workers’ desks and create a workplace challenge where they have to put the pieces together and see what the bigger pictures is, says Lee. The puzzle could spell out an important safety concept.

Social media is another way to make safety fun. The company could post photos of good workplace safety behaviours on the corporate Instagram and Twitter accounts. Workers could be encouraged to do the same and a prize could be drawn at random among those workers who participated. 

“It’s making it a part of the brand and showing that they are committed to safety,” says Lee.

Another way to keep things fresh is by using video. A new video could be posted once per week and it could feature safety ambassadors sharing their personal workplace safety stories.

But video doesn’t work in every scenario, cautions Lee. For example, in an open-concept office, workers may not want to be seen watching a video during a busy time for the company — it’s just bad optics. Or workers may not have access to a computer at work.

“It’s not just, ‘What are some of the cool, creative ideas?’ It’s being really thoughtful about what makes the most sense,” says Lee.

Podcasts could also be of interest to workers.

“Many employees and field workers enjoy podcasts because they can play them while in the car, while at home getting ready for work or even while working out,” says Hohener. “Podcasts are ideal for ongoing messaging and ‘how-to’ communication.”

An awareness event could help workers truly understand the hazards they face on the job. A member of the health and safety team could bring in hazardous materials (if it is safe to do so) and show the workers what they need to be aware of in order to work safely.

“It helps when you bring someone in to talk about what some of these things do to our bodies. It scares the crap out of them, but it also scares them straight,” says Hohener.  

Of course, any campaign will likely include emails, and there are a few tips and tricks to ensure these aren’t immediately deleted. Some concepts that marketers use can be applied to safety communications, says Lee, such as a very catchy subject line. One example might be: “Here’s one weird tip to help you avoid head injuries.” The answer might just be “Wear your hard hat” but it will certainly get more clicks than “Wearing your hard hat will prevent head injuries.”

Or the subject line could be “You’ll never guess what happens next,” and the email could explain what happens if certain policies and procedures are not followed.

“With marketing, you’re trying to influence behaviours and I think the principle behind that is you’re almost asking them to beg further exploration,” says Lee. “Finding ways to peak their interest is really important.”

Getting senior leaders involved can go a long way in showing employees how important safety is to the company. Hohener recommends the president or CEO films a safety message every quarter. Faulkner suggests some safety memos come from a senior leader, rather than the safety team.

“Those kinds of things can have a big impact and I think they are easy to overlook,” he says.

Personalized emails from senior leaders are also quite effective. The president may want to send a note to a safety ambassador who participated in the campaign. Hohener recommends senior leaders write old-fashioned letters instead of sending emails. This goes a long way with workers who will often put the letter up in their cubicle or locker.

No matter how the message is being communicated — videos, posters, email — it has to be crystal clear, says Lee. A lot of communicators try to be a little too clever with their wording, which is not as effective. For their safety campaign, safety managers should choose two or three words that represent the core concept to be promoted.

“Those three words can carry a ton of weight as opposed to a lengthier message which requires more time and more effort for employees to read through,” says Lee. “That’s really helpful for employees when they’re busy and safety’s not necessarily top of mind.”

It also has to be well crafted, says Faulkner. One way to show that something is valuable and that it matters is to spend some time on it yourself — make sure there are no typos, the images are current and relevant (not stock art from the 1980s) and all forms of communication have a consistent message.

“It doesn’t have to be super complicated, it doesn’t have to be super slick. It just has to be consistent and ensure you have given it some thought and some time,” Faulkner says.

Repetition is key in ensuring the campaign’s success. You are going to have to say that genius campaign tagline that you came up with a bunch of times and in a bunch of different ways.

“The trick is to really not get frustrated by that. To really recognize the value in having to slog that out and sticking to messaging and doing your best to adapt it to different situations and try doing it in different approaches,” Faulkner says. “Taking lots of different angles on the same message can hopefully help hit it home to different people because different people learn in different ways.”

While safety managers might be tempted to order some items with the new safety tagline — stress balls, pens, notebooks, mini hard hats et cetera — the marketing experts agree this is not necessarily the best approach right off the bat.

 “That’s what people think of when they think of marketing. They think of slapping the logo on a whole bunch of stuff, giving things out, says Faulkner. “When we talk about marketing, in general, you’re really talking about presenting benefits to people, trying to shift people’s attitudes — some soft, more intangible stuff — and that’s where safety managers need to start. If you get that right, then getting the stress balls can come after.”

Something that might be more effective (and cheaper) than a branded item is a simple Band-Aid. Lee offers the idea of buying a bulk box of Band-Aids from Costco, writing on Post-it notes something like, “This doesn’t help in 85 per cent of hand injuries that occur on the job,” and putting that on workers’ desks or slipping it into their lockers before their shift.

“These are messages that can have more of an impact than a squeeze toy of a hand,” he says. “It’s something that’s a little bit different than what they’re used to seeing… We can catch their attention by throwing them a curve ball and trying different ways to peak their interest.”

Measurement is an important component of any marketing campaign. Some tactics have measurement built-in, such as how many people attended an event or the open-rates on emails, but employee surveys are great measurement tools for overall safety improvement and engagement. Employees should be surveyed before the campaign is rolled out and then again every six months after that.

At the Toronto company Hohener was working with, employees scored the company at three out of 10 when it came to their engagement around safety. After two years, it moved to four and after four years, it was at eight.

“It took a long time, but every year there was a pendulum,” says Hohener. “Once you start getting all those little pieces in place, people are opening the safety newsletter more, they are coming to the lunch ‘n learns, you start to see the metrics grow along the way.”

But safety professionals don’t need to crunch too many numbers to know if their safety marketing campaign is successful.

“Oftentimes it’s really just a feeling in the air. People have a really good sense of when a culture is shifting,” says Faulkner. “It will start to feel like their job is getting easier, it will start to feel like people are more receptive to their safety messages. You can’t always put a number on that, but I am willing to bet that most safety folks know it when they see it.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of COS. 

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