By Tempest Wright, Staff Writer/Illustrator –  April 12, 2021

Marketing and Health Care Coalesce to Fight COVID-19


The result of marketing isn’t always to sell a product or service. Oftentimes, state entities, hospitals and clinics, and nonprofit organizations organize awareness campaigns and employ health care marketers dedicated to the education and safety of the public. The COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies this.

When word of a new and mysterious respiratory virus circulated, no one in the general public was quite sure what SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) was or how dangerous it could be. It was unclear where this illness came from, how it spread, and the magnitude of its impact on human health. Now that the world has seen a 12-month-long (and counting) campaign informing the public of what experts say COVID-19 is, how to prevent it, and what to do when exposed to infection, it’s time for a new wave of information to roll out surrounding the coronavirus vaccine. How does information spread when the goal is to influence people to make important decisions about their health, rather than to buy something?

There are slews of vaccine misinformation that circulate among the public, and the point of a public safety campaign is to present facts that answer questions and combat doubts. As it currently stands, 1 in 5 people will refuse the coronavirus vaccine. How do you market something, for the good of public health, that a considerable number of the public doesn’t trust? Speaking with the Associated Press, infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, states, “The unexpected looms large and that’s why I think for any of these vaccines, we’re going to need a large safety database to provide reassurance.” This is where marketing expertise steps in.

To market successfully to a concerned demographic, several steps are required to avoid offending the target audience, consequently strengthening their distrust. First, it’s important not to deliver messages in absolutes, as this alienates people who are vaccine-hesitant. For example, insisting that vaccines are 100% safe, while downplaying possible side effects and/or allergic reactions, does little to assuage peoples’ fears. Ironically, it does the opposite by invaliding their anxiety, and it translates as patronizing and dismissive of genuine concerns.

Address common fears with fact-based information — seek to educate, instead of admonishing people to indulge in something of which they fear. Shame cannot combat fear, but facts can provide reassurance, build confidence, and foster trust between health care providers and consumers. In a piece by Becker’s Hospital Review, Kelly Jo Golson, chief marketing officer of Advocate Aurora Health, describes their efforts, “One step we’ve taken with our marketing dollars is to turn them to education. We’ve sought to develop practical, informative content that is driven by the needs, questions, and fears of the consumers and communities we serve. Our consumer insights team frequently engages in listening tours and input sessions to truly understand where the gaps are and how we can fill them.”

 Rather than profit, the effectiveness of health care marketing is determined through population health. The main objective of health care marketers is to build a lasting relationship with their target audiences, rather than complete a single transaction. In its first brand campaign, Pfizer, one pharmaceutical company behind the making of the COVID-19 vaccine, created “Science Will Win” in effort to build trust with the public and counter misinformation. Similarly, Public Health England and the National Health Service (NHS) teamed up to urge British citizens to get their flu shots in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The “Just the Flu” campaign is described as the biggest flu campaign in British history. The campaign urges its audience not to dismiss the seriousness of the flu, especially as the population battles a novel respiratory infection for which there was no immunity developed at the time of the campaign’s release.

 In addition to brand campaigns, entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) work with health care agencies to implement micro-influencers, specifically licensed medical professionals that are popular on short-form social media platforms such as TikTok, to encourage COVID-19 preventative measures and explain the mRNA vaccine to their followers. As TikTok videos can only be up to 60 seconds long, these influencers explain medical terminology and function in ways that are easy to digest and, most importantly, share. This is effective when people are more likely to relate to normal, everyday individuals, such as the doctor explaining the vaccine or the friend or family member that sent them the video, than they are to trust government entities.

Along with brand campaigns and word-of-mouth via micro-influencers, storytelling is central to health care marketing. People are hungry to learn about other people. While pharmaceutical marketing is restricted in some areas, including the United States, storytelling is an avenue by which health care marketers connect to their target demographics organically. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, such stories include those of essential workers, first responders, COVID-19 long haulers, and people who have lost loved ones to complications of the virus. The goal is to foster human connection, even as the world remains distanced from one another for the sake of safety.

Sustaining the confidence of consumers as the pandemic wears on, and in the years to follow, will be critical to health systems across the globe. Marketing and communications will be the vectors by which the health care industry will keep the channel of trust and education open with its patients.


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