Selling Survival: Marketing Must Support Medicine

More than nine months into the global pandemic, infection rates are rising in many locations. Hospitals are reaching the limits of their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. A new, unstudied strain of the virus is emerging. And people are running scared.

How scared? Here are two poignant measures. The number of prescriptions written for anti-anxiety medications rose by 34.1 percent over a two-month period at the outset of the pandemic. And comparing March through May of 2019 to the same period during 2020, Google searches for the term “life insurance” rose by 50 percent. Actual life insurance sales saw year-over-year increases in the double digits. 

Hope is finally on the way, though. America should soon begin to feel better, both physically and emotionally. The recent emergency approval of two COVID-19 vaccines by the Food and Drug Adminsitration is an extraordinary, much-anticipated, and even prayed-for medical achievement that will put America on the road to recovery. 

But not so fast. 

You’d think that getting the nation to line up for vaccination would be a slam-dunk. We’ll only vanquish the virus once a critical mass of Americans takes the vaccine. By some estimates, we’ll need to vaccinate 75% of the US to achieve herd immunity. But a recent study by Pew Research found that while confidence in the vaccine is rising, only 60 percent of Americans say they’ll definitely or probably get the vaccine. An alarming 39 percent of people surveyed say they definitely or probably won’t take the COVID-19 jab. And more than half of those disinclined people say that the availability of more vaccine information is unlikely to change their minds. 

Where does that leave us? In short, facing the greatest marketing challenge of our lifetime — one that can only be met through lockstep cooperation among public and private organizations. We’ll need consistent, compelling messaging to counter the disinformation that runs rampant in the media. And we must deliver an unfailingly positive customer experience to build trust, educate, and — to use an apt marketing term — convert enough people to achieve herd immunity.  

We have to start thinking of the COVID-19 vaccine as a brand. Trust is at the heart of successful brands. Unfortunately, government, businesses and the news media are starting out with a trust deficit. Trust takes time to build and, as many brand marketers can attest, can be destroyed in an instant. Moreover, when people are dying every day, time is a precious, life-saving commodity.

In marketing the COVID-19 vaccine, public and private institutions must cooperate to pull every brand trust lever they can reach. The levers most immediately available to the vaccine marketing team include transparency, discipline in messaging, listening to the voice of the customer, and deploying trusted spokespeople and platforms to deliver vaccine content. Around the world, doctors have proven to be the most effective spokespeople, even for non-medical products. But within certain demographics, other narrators may prove more powerful.

Here’s a case in point: Black Americans have historically placed less trust in the medical profession than white Americans. And while they’ve suffered disproportionately at the hands of the virus, many in the Black and Latinx communities are disinclined to trust the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Many aren’t convinced that proper, culturally specific testing of the vaccine has been conducted. In the case of undocumented immigrants, fear of contact with any authority may amount to a deterrent. Deploying spokespeople who earn the greatest trust among these groups will be essential in persuading them to get vaccinated. Hyper-local recruitment of representatives — like community and church leaders — may be an effective strategy, but involves a more complex training process. The more people you have singing in the choir, the more likely it is that someone will sing off-key. 

Media buyers look at two measures — reach and frequency — when determining a buy. Depending on who and how many people marketers want to reach, where they place their marketing messages will vary. They might choose 15-second spots on cable news broadcasts, place handmade flyers in a local library, or anything in between. But the importance of frequency never varies. People have to see a consistent, compelling message many times before they’ll even consider buying a product.

Converting potential buyers into actual buyers is another, often expensive battle. The cost of customer acquisition is something marketers study carefully. The potential return on investment in vaccine marketing — the survival of our nation — is priceless. But just like a company introducing a new widget, vaccine marketers face financial constraints. Dynamic tracking of ROI on all vaccine marketing tactics is crucial to optimizing our marketing spend.

The COVID-19 vaccine presents an unusual marketing dilemma. The vaccines approved thus far must be administered in two doses. While earning repeat business is pretty straightforward in many product categories, it’s not so simple with a vaccine. When people taste a great chocolate chip cookie, they’re persuaded by an immediate personal experience to buy another. The value of a vaccine can’t be felt immediately. And it may be a while before we know that it has delivered on its promise. Incentivizing customers to make repeat purchases is a proven tool for gaining repeat business: Witness the proliferation of rewards programs in today’s marketplace. The technique may also have a place in the vaccine marketer’s playbook. 

We must consider other proven tactics, too. During World War II, the US government called on Rosie the Riveter to marshal women into the workforce. And Rosie came through. Between 1940 and 1944, the number of working women in the United States increased by 57 percent.

Perhaps we need to create an icon of Rosie’s stature. Perhaps her message of strength, hope, and patriotic responsibility would resonate today. Or maybe we need a lovable golden retriever mascot or a symbol with the stamina of the Energizer Bunny. The campaign to vaccinate America against COVID-19 is undoubtedly the war effort of our times. Let’s bring our best marketing minds to lead it.   


Susan Doktor is a journalist, business strategist and principal at Branddoktor LLC. 

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