‘The biggest mistake marketers can make is approaching this like any other vaccine campaign’

As governments, institutions and pharmaceutical brands put their weight behind persuading the public to get on board with the coronavirus vaccine, Dr Lee Fraser, chief medical officer at Digitas Health, discusses how marketers should alter their approach to vaccine confidence programs.

In a few weeks, we will mark a year of ’life under the curve’ – lives of avoidance and risk management to mitigate the coronavirus’s spread and impact. The arrival of multiple Covid-19 vaccines has restored hope that the end of the pandemic is within reach. Still, the troubling reality is that we remain a long way from population immunity.

With vaccines developed, the challenge of solving this global crisis has shifted, leaving two central questions. First, logistically, how do we get vaccines widely distributed for use? Second, how do we ensure people are educated, informed and motivated to get vaccinated?

As the new administration enters the White House, I’m cautiously optimistic the federal government will implement a clear, national plan to address the former. However, the latter might be a more complicated question.

While getting vaccinated is an easy decision for many, it’s not that simple for everyone. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, more than a quarter of Americans say they probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated. The study, along with several others, has found that Black Americans, Latinos and those who live in rural areas are more likely to be skeptical of the vaccine.

We also know from experience that adult vaccination rates hover between 45% and 65% depending on the vaccine – percentages that are a far cry from the 70-75% vaccination rates Dr Fauci and the WHO believe are necessary to reach population immunity. And as new virus variants emerge, even Dr Fauci admits the real target may need to be higher.

Not your traditional vaccine campaign

Historically, adult vaccination messages focus on individual benefits and protection. For example, think about the print and digital campaigns for the flu shot. Most initiatives highlight the importance of protecting yourself from influenza, tout the value of the vaccine and how to get it for free at your local pharmacy. While moderately successful, these campaigns have only ever achieved the 45-65% vaccination rates mentioned above.

Simply put, we cannot repeat the same tactics and expect different results. The biggest mistake current campaigns (and brands) can make is approaching this like any other vaccine campaign. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve dealt with before and our response from an education marketing standpoint needs to reflect that challenge.

Most vaccine campaigns focus on a few key areas of motivation and education: fear of getting sick, the effectiveness of the vaccine and the safety of the vaccine.

These are important Covid-19 vaccine messages too, but what’s clear is these messages alone won’t get us to the vaccination rates needed. Instead, communications efforts should focus on building trust and develop messaging around the vaccine’s ability to enable the safe return of community life and work.

By focusing on the impact on communities v individuals, vaccination messages can cut across party lines and the ’mask debate’ to reach those who aren’t motivated by personal fear of getting sick or skepticism of the vaccine itself.

The key message is that no matter where you live or what your interests are – whether it’s going to a Nascar race, bowling alley or brunch with friends – the vaccine is the fastest path to being able to re-engage in those activities. Ultimately, this approach would focus less on individual protection and more on what can be gained (ie get back to your community and daily life). While people may be able to ignore or dismiss personal risk, you can’t ignore the foundational human need for social engagement and connection

Awareness is different from trust

You would have to be living under a rock to not know the FDA approved two Covid-19 vaccines. However, when it comes to healthcare, awareness is different from trust. There is (or should be) no room for misinformation in health, but we’ve seen this happen repeatedly during the pandemic. Conflicting messages have sowed public distrust, making it critical for vaccine campaigns to rebuild that trust.

Televising the inoculations of influential figures from across the cultural landscape (political, scientific, music, sports etc) can be a tremendous awareness driver, but it doesn’t necessarily drive trust. Why? Because health and wellness is intimately personal.

For marketers to build trust, vaccine campaigns need to go a few levels down and tap into local, largely unknown micro-influencers who the community will trust as the messenger. In communities where there are concerns about the vaccine, local leaders are going to the best advocates for delivering the message that will change minds and behavior. There is no question healthcare communicators need local voices to help build trust, educate and drive action that will lead to more vaccinations.

One thing we know is that there is no silver bullet campaign that will convince everyone to get vaccinated. As we (healthcare and brand marketers) deploy various messages and advertising efforts to drive inoculations, we must adopt a different approach – an unprecedented problem requires a new kind of solution.

Dr Lee Fraser is executive vice-president and chief medical officer at Digitas Health.

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.