The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

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By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

January 28, 2021 | 10 min read

In Scotland, BrewDog offered up its fridges. In England, Boots and Superdrug have launched Covid-19 vaccine sites. In the US, Facebook and Walmart are among a number of brands working with the Ad Council to educate the public on immunisation. The Drum looks at how brands are helping to distribute the vaccine, proving you don’t have to be 'in science' to make a contribution.

After a long, arduous year, the Covid-19 vaccine now holds the key to our recovery. But for life to return to ‘normal’ (remember pub crawls and buffet dining?) widespread adoption of the vaccine is crucial.

For many, however, vaccination is a touchy subject. Most anti-vaxxers are adamant that there is no way in hell they’ll go anywhere near it, and there are also concerns over resources - are there enough doses to go round? Who’s going to inject them?… and where? From the moment a UK grandmother became the first person in the world to be given the jab back in early December, it has taken a Sisyphean effort to get the vaccination rolling.

But beyond big pharma companies and healthcare providers, brands from Facebook to Walmart, Boots to Superdrug are determined to do what they can to get the world vaccinated. The Drum assesses what brands have done so far, and the role they should play at this time of international crisis.

“All hands on deck”

“You don’t have to be in science to make a contribution,” insists Claire Gillis, chief exec of VMLY&Rx. “Brands from any sector can help the cause. No one is shut out of the effort. The pandemic is about all of us, and we have a part to play in finding solutions.”

Agreeing, Robb Henzi, senior vice-president strategy of Sparks & Honey insists that there is a role for every brand sector in the efforts: “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. If your organisation is able to create tangible value to this massive undertaking, then you have a role to play.”

Quick off the mark back in November, Boots (the UK's biggest pharmacy chain) began talks with NHS England to determine its involvement in the Covid-19 vaccine effort. Come January, up in Scotland, BrewDog let it be known it was offering up its pub space. It even asked fans to name a commemorative beer, suggests 'Little Prick' and 'Community Immunity’.

Over in the US, brands like Walmart and Facebook have helped raise $37 million for the Ad Council to fund a nationwide coronavirus vaccine campaign aimed at encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, Amazon has offered up its help to its new president, Joe Biden. Brands across all sectors around the globe have risen to the challenge.

Virtual signaling?

Consumers often judge brands by how they show up in a crisis, and the past year has certainly seen 'brand purpose' come into its own with the ‘power of brand’ only emphasised by the pandemic. Gillis explains that: "Nowadays, we expect brands to take a stand and help address societal challenges. Branding is no longer just about messaging, image or promotion. It’s about connecting communities, finding solutions, and helping the common cause."

Marie Stafford, global director at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence agrees there is a growing expectation from consumers that brands will step up and play a role in tackling human and societal challenges, insisting: “the experiences of 2020 have put a foot on the accelerator.”

While some people expect brands to do more, and will commend those who add their resources to the vaccine effort, brands like BrewDog haven't avoided scepticism, with people questioning the legitimacy of its intention.

According to research conducted by YouGov BrandIndex Data, the brewer's reputation was boosted after it offered up its services. The study suggests that brands that are quick to offer up their services in the interest of public health will reap the benefits in the eyes of the consumers, which has been a theme through this pandemic.

“You don’t want to seem like you’re capitalising for self-gain,” insists Henzi. “So finding that natural way for a brand or organisation to flex in new ways to help the vaccine effort is important.”

“Consumers are increasingly savvy at decoding brand motivations, so any opportunistic attempts at virtue signalling will likely get called out,” agrees Stafford. “There needs to be action, not just words on social media.”

Gillis suggests the principle of having an experience around a brand is more important than ever. She points to Boots as a perfect example of this. “It’s recent move to support the vaccine distribution effort in the UK enhances the brand experience, leverages its network and strengthens its position as a critical player in the delivery of valued healthcare services.”

Boots has started vaccinations in England

Collaboration is key

Another defining characteristic of the past year, is the power of collective effort. Breaking scientific records, the vaccine made history thanks to the collaboration of big pharma companies, and the roll-out should be no different, says Gillis – suggesting that partnerships will be critical.

“Brands don’t need to have health expertise or a specialist network to make a contribution to the vaccine roll-out,” she insists. “They can simply offer their support to organisations like the World Health Organisation and work with them to add value to centralised efforts.”

She says this is a great opportunity for brands to think holistically and package their experience to support the wider cause, and it’s a far better option than the disjointed service provision.

Stafford says in a highly charged context like the pandemic, agreeing it would be wise for brands to partner with, and be guided by those responsible for the vaccination programme.

Described as its “largest communications effort yet” the Ad Council has been working with a number of brands, including Facebook, General Motors and Walmart, to launch a Covid-19 vaccine education initiative, alongside healthcare bodies such as the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association.

Having launched major vaccine awareness campaigns like polio in the 1950s, the Ad Council says it's “wired for crisis” and it has been working on efforts for months, with the drive raising a colossal $37m thus far.

“When it comes to messages of critical importance, like the Covid-19 vaccines, we all have a role to play in educating the public,” contends its president and chief exec, Lisa Sherman. “Brands recognize this, especially these days as many are trusted messengers for millions of consumers. We’ve seen great enthusiasm from our corporate, media and philanthropic partners, wanting to get involved in many substantive and innovative ways.”

She believes the Ad Council's ongoing Covid-19 response has been a great model for this vaccine education effort. “Since the pandemic began in March 2020, we assembled a coalition of partners, teamed up with over 20 different agencies and content creators, and generated nearly $420 million in donated media,” Sherman recalls. “We know the importance of developing culturally relevant and resonant messaging. And, particularly with this effort, the importance of being able to adapt and pivot at the moment based on the latest information. You have to take an agile approach.”

One of the Ad Council's partners, Walmart, has donated $3m to the vaccine effort. “Educating Americans about the vaccines is critical to our nation’s recovery. This effort will have a profound impact on millions of lives,” contends its chief marketing officer, William White.

“As the demand for the Covid-19 vaccine continues, it’s critical that large retailers help with the administration of the vaccine,” he says. “Education to employees, tapping into each company’s strength and working together to get through the pandemic is important. We are all in this together, and by combining our strengths, we can help the economy and our communities recover faster.”

Walmart's network of pharmacies plan to deliver 10-13 million doses per month when supplies increase

Jab and no

As previously mentioned the subject of vaccination is highly sensitive, and ought to be handled with caution. Travel brand Ryanair recently found itself in hot water, when its tactless 'Jab and Go' advert made headlines. Attitudes towards vaccination span from people who are adamantly averse, to those who will be first in line. But between all that, there is a body of people who are agnostic, totally unsure what to do, so it is critical that any educational drive is sensitive towards their feelings.

“One of the biggest challenges is take-up - this all circles back to communication, in particular ensuring that communications are appropriate to the audience,” explains Gillis. “Behavioural science is key to understanding the nuances and tailoring messages, media and languages so communications speak appropriately to diverse groups.”

Henzi says that vaccines, while sensitive for some people, work. “We have a century of significant success stories, as well as a couple of cautionary moments that were opportunities for learning.”

He insists the tone needs to be confident and it needs to be very clear: “vaccines have a history of saving lives, and these vaccines are being created by some of the most innovative companies in the history of human civilization.”

Reflecting on its own experience, Ad Council's Sherman claims its effort is based on extensive research with both experts and consumers. "We’ve been reviewing all available research about potentially compelling messaging approaches to improve people’s confidence," she claims. "We are also in close consultation with health communications experts and experts in vaccine hesitancy and are conducting our own qualitative and quantitative research with our key target audiences."

The world will not get vaccinated overnight, and we have potentially years ahead of us in the drive to rid ourselves of coronavirus. Therefore, there is a great need for more brands to step up and do what they can to help distribute the vaccine, so we can reclaim some normality.

Brand Purpose Coronavirus Health

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