Simon Davies (pictured below) is founder and CEO of health marketing agency Bastion Brands. In this guest post, Davies says the success of Australia’s COVID vaccine response will be in how well it is marketed…
As the Australian Government refines its plan to roll out the COVID vaccine, it’s fair to say there’ll be relief expressed by frontline workers and those most vulnerable to the virus, but some scepticism from others.
The challenge is one of marketing, not science. While there will always be people on the fringe rejecting the science, it’s the undecided public in the middle we need to convince. And if the anti-vax movement attacks the science, it doesn’t matter how sound the facts are – the marketing has to win hearts and minds. In this, we can learn a lot from the mistakes of other campaigns around the world.
You can overdo the facts
Don’t let the facts get in the way of an emotional connection. This is not to encourage fabrication; the campaign still needs to have facts supporting it. However, governments around the world have struggled to persuade the hesitant public to accept the vaccine because communication is too fact-based.
At the core of vaccine hesitancy are perceptions about risk and safety: does the person feel they are at risk of catching COVID? Do they believe its impacts could be serious? And do they believe the vaccine is safe and effective?
Hesitancy is not due to lack of information; more information does not ensure a higher uptake. Underpinning hesitancy is a deep-rooted mistrust of vaccinations that has been planted there by social influence. If a whole bunch of people (for example, anti-vaxxers) have been vocal about their hesitancy, then people who are otherwise ‘neutral’ who have been exposed to that attitude are more likely to echo it. It means they feel the risk of catching COVID is low and/or the consequences are negligible compared to the risk presented by taking the vaccine.
In the US, one-third of Americans say they ‘probably or definitely’ would refuse the vaccine. The good news is that Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world because vaccination is a social norm. For the vaccines to be effective to end the pandemic, vaccination rates need to exceed 70 per cent of the population, minimum. It is in everyone’s best interests that as many people are vaccinated as possible.
Counter fear with another emotion
Persuasion, for medical marketing, is about finding the sweet spot between science and emotion. Humans make decisions 90 per cent based on emotion, 10 per cent on logic, making emotion a critical component of effective communications. A campaign needs to be informative, but most importantly, it needs to stimulate an emotional response.
The key here is to acknowledge the fear and doubt that the public may be experiencing and counter that with another emotion. For example, the public is concerned about how quickly scientists have managed to deliver safe COVID-19 vaccinations in just 10 months. The fact is that a lot of resources were poured into research as a matter of urgency, more than many other projects usually attract over several years. But the facts aren’t interesting until they’re composed as a narrative. Storytelling around how the vaccines were developed, how they work, how healthcare professionals support them, and successful case studies are crucial to turn fear into confidence.
Right message, right messenger
The challenge with health messaging is that it needs to be consistent, but one size does not fit all. Tailoring communication to each audience is critical because each person’s vaccine journey is different based on their priority stage and level of motivation and will be received differently based on factors such as political affiliation, race, ethnicity, age and location.
Choosing the appropriate messenger is similarly important. The right influencers and opinion leaders are powerful, credible persuaders with defined audiences. For example, Lady Gaga would be a powerful influencer with certain groups, whereas Dr Norman Swan would serve a different audience. A recommendation from a healthcare professional is the strongest determinant of a vaccine’s acceptance. Healthcare professionals are the most critical influencers in vaccine confidence.
Key to bespoke messaging will be identifying the audience’s major concerns. Simply telling people “the science says it’s fine” or running a shame campaign is unlikely to prove a winning strategy. Instead, emphasise what can be gained from immunity.
Finally, make vaccination highly visible. Make sure it is distributed through high traffic areas, whether that’s a local pharmacy or a town hall. Some centres in the UK are using cathedrals. The key is for people to see other people getting vaccinated because social proof is a highly effective way to overcome the trust issue.
Misinformation is rife because it is persuasive, and by its nature it is immune to facts. Countering misinformation and uncertainty is a matter of more effective communication through better marketing. Attitudes and behaviours about vaccination are malleable, so let’s make sure we change them for the better.
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