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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 1, 2021 | 13 min read

Healthcare agencies are gearing up to battle misinformation and human nature in aid of a vast vaccination programme. WPP Health Practice, FCB Health Europe and Digitas Health share how they‘re aiming to harness social networks, influencers and traditional advertising tactics to get the job done.

Vaccines are only effective as remedies if enough people take them – and persuading them to do just so poses a huge marketing challenge to pharmaceutical firms, medical providers and the healthcare agencies working with them.

A recent study published in The Lancet found that declining confidence in vaccines has stymied inoculation efforts, and in some cases led to “surges“ in cases of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) even named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

Stunts, such as the reported attempt by Downing Street‘s so-called ‘Union unit‘ to brand each AstraZeneca vaccine kit with patriotic livery, are unlikely to help. Just last week, an Ipsos Mori poll in the UK found 28% of 18- to 34-year-olds would not take a vaccine if offered one.

Glen Halliwell, business unit director at Publicis healthcare agency Langland, describes today‘s approval as “great news“, but notes that “no one has ever tried to roll out a vaccine as rapidly as we are going to roll this one out.“

The task for government and health services, he explains, is one of “broad education“ about this vaccine. “What it is for, what it will protect you against, how to get it and how many injections are required to be protected.

“Critical here is ensuring we reach the members of the community where English is not their first language, or where cultural or religious concerns regarding vaccine ingredients may lead to some hesitation.“

Lee Fraser has been the chief medical officer at Digitas Health since 2014 and spent a decade in academia researching molecular medicines. He outlines the scale of the challenge when he tells The Drum: “In order for vaccines to be successful in ending the pandemic, we will need to get vaccination rates into the mid-70% range at a minimum. In a climate where we have seen a decline in the public’s belief in science and erosion of fact in favour of social and public opinion, studies suggest only 60% of people are currently willing to get a vaccine. We clearly need to drive trust to get to herd immunity and end the pandemic.“

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy and Covid-19 scepticism will mean shoring up public trust in the pharmaceutical industry and a public health infrastructure that, in many countries this year, has been found wanting.

Reputation booster

Claire Gillis is the international chief executive officer of WPP Health Practice. 2020, she says, has been an “interesting time“ for the healthcare agency. The business has been subjected to the same stresses and strains as every other ad shop, at the same time as working on what might be its most important project ever – with the WHO.

Together, they have been working on some of the biggest public health communications efforts in the world this year and back in April marshalled thousands of influencers – from celebrity names to micro and even virtual influencers – to encourage better handwashing and accessible hygiene methods.

Looking towards the coming campaigns for Covid-19 vaccines, Gillis says the agency‘s role will be crucial. While it‘s up to the clients to produce the vaccines, “our job is to make sure that it‘s packaged in the right way so that you communicate the right things“, she says.

While individual vaccines do sometimes get the brand treatment (for example, Merck‘s ebola vaccine, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration last December, is marketed as Ervebo), Gillis suspects pharma firms will prefer to absorb the halo effect into their main brand. “I actually think that the important brand is the corporate brand. Go to the doctor and ask for the ‘Pfizer vaccine‘.“

One issue that may complicate vaccine comms campaigns is the public perception of pharmaceutical companies themselves. Despite their role in creating life-saving vaccines, companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are not altruistic enterprises – a fact underlined by Pfizer‘s share price, which has climbed upwards since it announced its vaccine progress in November.

“The impact of trust on vaccine acceptance cannot be overstated,“ says Gillis. “My view is that the development of a coronavirus vaccine has given pharma companies a long-overdue boost in reputation. But still, how we define the value that pharma brings and how they price their drugs and services has created huge levels of tension all over the world – particularly in the US.“

That tension may complicate the job of communicating vaccine benefits to the public. Not coincidentally, Pfizer launched its first-ever brand campaign earlier in the summer, anchored on the tagline ‘Science will win‘. It‘s full of inspiring shots of white-coated lab staff working into the night, with a voiceover intoning: “The entire global scientific community is working together to beat this thing. When science wins, we all win.“ It‘s about as close to a chest-thump as you‘re likely to see from a pharmaceutical conglomerate.

While the creative itself sought to instil hope in an anxious public, Gillis notes: “‘Science will win‘ was about changing the perception that pharmaceutical companies profited from health and from sickness.“

While the principal customers of firms like Pfizer are governments and healthcare providers, public image is still important for recruiting top talent – and as a form of political insurance against future regulatory pushes. “It‘s better to have the public embracing your industry and understanding it, rather than dissing it,“ Gillis says.

However, she believes that greater public awareness of the scientific process behind vaccine production – of the financial risks borne by drugmakers and the collaboration that has gone on behind the scenes – can help to rehabilitate the sector‘s image. “There are no other industries that plough so much into development for so little return.

“The focus has been on the collaborative efforts with universities and governments – and, for the first time, each other. It‘s been an impressive and herculean effort to find a solution – and this has been done without the usual commercial drivers and constraints associated with drug production. Without a doubt, any success in this Covid-19 race will be and has already been accompanied by huge stock market rises. But when it‘s done this way round – public health first and profits later – who can complain?“

Still, it‘s “human nature“ that presents the biggest obstacle to vaccine uptake, Gillis says. “We revert back to habits that were formed as we were growing up. You could argue that if we all had washed our hands, we wouldn‘t be in this position. In fact, MRSA rates are on the way down and flu infections are way down. So if you take away the barriers of availability to the vaccine, then actually it‘s human behaviour that is the biggest barrier to changing outcomes.“

Consumers, not patients

In the US, pharma companies will be able to communicate the benefits of their vaccine to consumers directly with a media blitz. “Storytelling is as central to healthcare marketing as it is to any FMCG brand,“ says Gillis. But in countries where pharmaceutical advertising is restricted, they‘ll have to take other routes to reach audiences. She points to a recent appearance by the chief executive of BioNTech, professor Ugur Sahin, on BBC1‘s The Andrew Marr Show as more valuable than any glossy video production. “People want to hear about other people. Understanding and harnessing the power behind storytelling will be the central persuasive marketing tool as pharma and governments roll-out the vaccine.“

FCB Health London’s director of behavioural science, Linda Cowie, says audience analysis is key to developing the right messages to market the vaccine. “By getting a deeper understanding of what is driving or hindering someone’s behaviour, we can identify the right tools to develop, to either overcome the behavioural barriers or enhance the main drivers of behaviour identified.“

The aim, she says, is to “design tools in a way that optimises their effectiveness in driving a change, rather than just conveying information.“

Digitas‘s Fraser compares traditional pharma advertising with seasonal flu campaigns. “The former is all about communicating the science, safety and efficacy, while the latter is more direct activation; in some states, flu vaccine manufacturers partner with drug stores to offer incentives to consumers that trigger their ability to be vaccinated.“

Gillis suggests that, even in restricted markets, pharmaceutical messaging will adopt a new tone – speaking to the public not as patients, but as consumers. She argues medical advertisers everywhere need to catch-up with changed public attitudes to healthcare, which emphasise choice and adaptability even in markets with state providers, such as Britain.

“Pharma now understands that it needs to adopt more of an FMCG mindset – opening two-way dialogues to help uncover relevant, relatable and useful healthcare solutions,“ says Gillis. “This focus on listening is critical and will be incredibly important not only when marketing the new vaccines, but also in promoting vaccine acceptance within our communities.

“As vaccines are rolled out, it‘s going to be more important than ever for the health sector to really listen to its audience.“

As such, she expects to drive the agency‘s clients towards newer methods such as voice assistants and AI chatbots, the better to directly engage the public and combat misinformation. Lessons from previous vaccination efforts – such as seasonal flu, HPV and Zika – will also be brought to bear.

Influence shot

One channel unavailable to health marketers in the past is influencers. Gillis notes that WPP‘s job is to develop the consistent medical advice of doctors and officials into effective, useful messaging; Instagrammers and TikTokkers can help provide bridgeheads into hard-to-reach demographics. “You don‘t need the government, you need influencers – people you can trust – to give you that information.“

Lee says that Digitas already has a social platform project in the works. “In a time when the most trusted source of news and content is people in your peer group, we think the ultimate measure of public trust in a medical brand is when people — not necessarily vaccine manufacturers or government authorities — recommend it to friends, family or followers. Instead of simply providing information to support the adoption of a vaccine, we envision a social movement to collectively pull-off the biggest wellness intervention of our time, ending the pandemic one simple act at a time.“

In the UK, plans by the NHS to enlist a corps of ‘very sensible‘ celebrities were reported by The Guardian this week; top choices for NHS comms chiefs included prominent doctors such as Good Morning Britain regular Dr Hilary Jones, as well as the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge and crusading Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford.

So, relying on influencers, even unusual ones, makes sense. An Ipsos Mori poll found that the professions chiefly tasked with informing the public about Covid-19 vaccines – government ministers, politicians, marketers and journalists – were also the professions least trusted to tell the truth (nurses, doctors and scientists, however, enjoyed high trust ratings).

Insights like those led to the WHO‘s big influencer push back in April. The work was a chance “to change the trajectory of the pandemic before we knew there was going to be a vaccine“, says Gillis. “We see the use of celebrities using and endorsing behaviour working well within communities – this can be the likes of the Lady Gaga‘s of the world, but also it will be key community leaders.“

A similar rationale has led to a series of live-streamed Q&As organised by WPP Health Practice with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). The sessions see prominent scientists quizzed on the ideas behind pandemic responses and contribute to the fight against vaccine misinformation. Recent research by the LSHTM suggests misinformation has had an active role in increasing vaccine hesitancy among the public.

Professor Heidi Larson explains: “Misinformation plays into existing anxieties and uncertainty around new vaccines, as well as the new platforms that are being used to develop them. This threatens to undermine the levels of vaccine acceptance required.“

A similar live-streaming project, staged by sister agency VMLY&Rx in China, brought together figures from the pharmaceutical, medical and social media communities to create a coronavirus forum that included 20 million participants. “This pandemic has heightened, more than ever, that we all need to work together, and cross-sector collaborative effort will be essential if we are to successfully roll-out the vaccines,“ says Gillis.

For those curious about to how marketers and stakeholders will persuade the public to take the Covid-19 vaccine next year, a campaign by M&C Saatchi released in October may hold a few clues. Produced for the NHS and Public Health England, the ‘Just the Flu‘ campaign aimed to get as many adults to get a flu shot as possible.

The spot underlines the danger posed by the flu to individuals and the community and utilizes the trusted figure of an NHS nurse. Tackling misinformation, emphasizing consumer choice and offering an altruistic motive (preventing further spread of flu), it could provide a model for the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out next year.

Lee agrees, suggesting that, we need to shift the notion of vaccines away from personal sickness and toward population wellness. “Vaccines are preventative and obviously they require patients to opt-in when they are not sick. We know this type of behaviour – ie preventative medicine – is hard to modify in adults.“

How marketers approach, analyse and ultimately overcome the challenge of persuading the public to get vaccinated will likely hold lessons for future trust-building campaigns (in the healthcare sector and far beyond). But while the rewards will likely be great, the risks of failure are just as big. As Gillis concludes: “Vaccines only work if people take them. And people only take vaccines if they trust them.“

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.

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