The Flu Bug promotes flu tests through word of mouth campaign

Houllis family poses with the Flu Bug / Ronyai Hawkins, market manager, Fizz)

Word-of-mouth campaigns may not be the first tactic brands consider for their promotions. They don’t have the immediate reach or flash of video, but the centuries of proven success with the approach are now being used to get the word out about flu testing.

Quidel, a manufacturer and developer of influenza tests, wanted a way to get more people to recognize the dangers of flu and drive home the fact that they need to take precautions to avoid being infected or seek treatment if, in fact, people feel ill.

To move the needle, so to speak, the company enlisted the help of an agency that specializes in word-of-mouth campaigns. The campaign is already seeing a payoff, helping change the way the influenza virus is viewed in a way that gets noticed, which includes a batch of VW Beetles and a giant flu virus model.

Why the word is so important

According to Harvard Medical, over 36,000 people in the US die from the flu each year, and another 200,000 are hospitalized. Some stats see that number even higher. Knowledge of getting a flu test and knowing the symptoms could save many people, including those at highest risk, but getting people to pay attention is difficult.

Doug Bryant, president and chief executive of Quidel Corporation, had read ‘Fizz: Harness the Power of Word of Mouth Marketing to Drive Brand Growth,' by word-of-mouth marketing specialist Ted Wright, chief executive officer at Fizz in Atlanta.

“Word of mouth is your best marketing tool if you can get people talking to other people about things that you are interested in. It's just natural to think that that would be effective,” said Bryant.

Wright added that there are problems with the broadcast medium and the discussion of the flu, mainly that people don’t believe all of what they see and hear on the airwaves, especially with the preponderance of fake news and misinformation on health issues. Another problem is, because of pop-ups and blockers as well as the glut of information, many people aren’t seeing traditional and online messages. That's why he believes word of mouth is ascending.

“I think that's the difference between mass and word of mouth is it really just comes down to effectiveness because that's just where the American people are today,” said Wright.

Quidel is trying to drive more conversations about the flu and the importance of testing. They want to let people know that if they go to work sick, they could spread the flu to their friends and their co-workers who, in turn, could spread it to their families. Those with compromised immune systems are even more at risk. Those who do go to work sick may not even know they have the flu, which is why Quidel is championing getting tested.

“That was the whole idea…creating awareness which drives information, which makes people understand that maybe they should go to a healthcare professional and find out if they truly have the flu. Because you don't know unless you're really tested for it,” said Cheryl Miller, senior director and general manager at Quidel for emerging markets.

Getting healthcare to buy in through data

With their data, Quidel is using a tool – a flu map – that puts the message out to the public so that they can look into their local communities and see if influenza is high, moderate or low, with real-time data.

Flu Map

“That's the whole story we're trying to really build…because it's not just about you, it's about others,” said Miller.

Wright said to get everyone on board, the first thing they decided to do was to treat both the consumer and the doctor as people, taking both off a pedestal and just laying out the facts.

“The facts are that more flu testing would be better for everybody. It would be better for the doctors, so they could know with more certainty what's going on with their patients, and it would be better for the consumers, because they would know what they had and then they would know how to treat it,” said Wright, who added that the healthcare community has been receptive to the idea and proactive in moving the conversation along to their patients and healthcare peers.

Miller said that the way Quidel gathers and presents data – uploading every evening – makes theirs the only tool that can make updates in real time. Bryant added that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has been involved with Quidel from the start as they developed the product, and the company has worked with thought leaders locally and nationally.

Driving awareness with the Flu Bug

One of the biggest drivers of the flu awareness campaign, the way Quidel was able to garner attention, was to drive the Flu Bug around four key cities. No, they didn’t drive around giving people the flu - they drove VW Beetles, or Bugs, around Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Houston, bringing their message to key audiences.

The concept was based on trying to make the word of mouth messaging more interesting, more obvious and accessible to get noticed. So, they took a model of a virus and blew it up 100 times. They then got a designer who does work for Disney and Universal Studios make bright pink fiberglass and foam virus models, which they then bolted to the top of VW bugs. Drivers of the vehicles are trained to tell the story and some are even improv actors.

Ronyai Hawkins, aka Captain Quidel / Christopher Barake/Instagram

The reaction from people, and getting people to ask the drivers what they were doing, has made the word of mouth campaign a success so far.

“When you're doing word of mouth, you want to allow people to come to you and you want to make it obvious and easy for them to do that,” said Wright. “An average word of mouth conversation is 32 seconds, so you figure you got half a minute.” In that 32-second time frame, they had to explain why the flu can be potentially so dangerous, then they have to encourage people to get a flu test, where to get one and what the benefit is.

Luckily, it takes just a few community influencers to tell friends and ask the Flu Bug to come to PTA groups, school nurses associations, and other area groups, which gives them a chance to continue the conversation.

Wright told a tale of a woman at Quidel whose college-aged daughter borrowed one of the newly made flu bugs for a weekend. When she returned it, she told the crew about all the people that stopped her and had conversations with her about the car and its reason for existing. Thinking it just might be a fluke, she took the car out again and got even more responses, with people stopping her in the middle of the road to ask questions.

“When you tell a client, ‘Hey, it's working really well,’ a lot of people expect that. And I couldn't figure out if it was possible for me to really explain how well it was working, so we wired up the car with a bunch of GoPros and just drove around for a day, just so we could show. And then we had like microbiologists from the CDC stopping us in the road and saying, ‘Hey, stop, I'm not crazy, I'm a microbiologist,’ and they want to have a discussion. And we have civilians in the Whole Foods parking lot…we were able to really let the client understand what the power was,” said Wright.

Kids posing with the Flu Bug / Cherease Kincaid, Webgram

Wright noted that the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is an excellent example of great word of mouth automotive marketing.

“Think about how difficult it would be to go up to a bunch of people at any soccer match and say, ‘Hey, want to talk about hot dogs?’ No, that's not going to work,” he said, adding that the conversation the Wienermobile generates lets the company talk about hot dogs from a logical starting point.

“We have people that have talked to us about the flu bug and then they say, ‘I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard about it. My friends have told me.’ So now it's starting to come around and we're starting to have active conversations on the market where people are talking to us.

“The weirdest thing is, people stop the car on the street. They flag you down. They get so excited about it. Half the people say ‘what is this?’ The other half of the people know that it’s a flu virus. I am shocked. A lot more people were paying attention in high school biology than I thought,” said Wright.

Scaling up with influencers

Through his research, Wright has found that 10% of the US population loves to share stories with their friends and are intrinsically motivated. Their stories get shared at a rate that will run eight factorial on average, which is 40,370 shares per single individual influencer in a year.

“If you've got 10,000 people and their stories get shared on an average of 40,000 times, that starts to be the size of America. Where you find out that everyone in America by mathematical average, has heard this story three or four times. That is the rate at which we are getting at, which is why you do word of mouth marketing every day and not just every once in a while. Because it builds on itself and, as the network increases, it starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy that everybody has heard this story or everybody is taking it and doing something in a particular direction,” said Wright.

While they are only in four markets currently, Wright says that if you want to cover the US, there are only 12 key markets you need to be in – six leadership markets and six fast follower markets. Currently, the team is only focused on North America, and Miller says that won’t end anytime soon, since the conversations keep happening.

“Eventually we've moved from providing solutions to a healthcare professional that makes their life easier to taking the data that comes from a healthcare professional and packaging it in tools that word of mouth marketing is using and that we're able to build, like these maps, to drive that message down to the consumer,” she said. “So now the consumer can use tools that they need and we can now reach new people. It's not only that patient, it's those people that take care of patients like school officials or long term care providers.”

With their data, Quidel and the team can reach more people, and then those people become educated, learn more about influenza and what it means, and they will go back to their healthcare provider and ask for a test if they're sick. That's the ultimate goal of the campaign. When someone gets a test, it adds more data into their database, which makes their data visualization stronger, which makes the message stronger. And that continues to build upon itself.

“It's a whole new way of creating a conversation, building our brand, and more importantly, saving lives. No child or grandparent should die from the flu, and if we can educate people through some fun tools, some neat marketing, if we can get them to stay home and possibly not infect someone who is at risk for a complication and can die, we've done our job. That's ultimately what this is all about,” stated Miller.

Months after the campaign started, it is still going strong and will expand in 2018. Wright noted that they are getting requests for the flu bugs to come talk to big crowds at conventions, military bases and private companies. To fill those requests, they’ve even taken the model off the car and made a statue, when the cars won’t fit into the meeting spaces, which, of course, means the word-of-mouth campaign is working.

“The whole reason is to have more conversations, so eventually less people die of the flu,” concluded Wright.

Doug Zanger contributed to this report.

Kyle O'Brien

I am a reporter for The Drum covering a wide array of topics but always trying to tell the best stories possible. I am a former west coaster from California and Portland, Oregon, now living in Pennsylvania — with time spent in NYC each week.

I also play saxophone professionally.

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