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Marketing the COVID-19 vaccine

Marketing the COVID-19 vaccine

Isar Kiani
Isar Kiani

Widespread vaccination across the United States has created hopes for life and the economy to revert to normal. With steady decline in the number of positive cases and deaths, vaccination advocates seem to have found greater support for their cause. By the end of March 2021, over 150 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the U.S. and nearly a quarter of the adult population has received at least one dose. 

However, as vaccines become more accessible, a new reality is emerging which involves many Americans who are unwilling to step forward to be vaccinated. Now, the enthusiasm for vaccination that had resulted in long lines and wait times is dwindling and with that, there are concerns that vaccination may not achieve its ultimate objective of creating an almost COVID-free society. The story of COVID vaccination is not so different from that of many other products of other natures that are offered to consumers. There are early adopters, and then there are those that require an increased effort before they finally adopt the product. In the world of business, this is usually when marketing steps up. Here, it seems that marketing is relatively absent.  

Like many other products, the COVID vaccine has its early adopters; those who are more invested in the promise that it brings and have greater optimism in that science behind the product is robust. Interestingly, with several varieties of the vaccine now available, vaccine takers are, at least mentally, left with options to choose from. Since their introduction, Pfizer and Moderna have benefited from relatively high volumes of publicity compared to the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca-Oxford alternatives. Part of this elevated status is tied to the fact that the two leading vaccines benefited from the first-mover advantage, which solidified their position in the minds of consumers as top-of-the-line choices. 

While it is arguable that Johnson & Johnson’s lagging introduction may not be a predictor of its consumer approval in the future, there are indications that consumers are already treating it as a second-rate choice and only acceptable when premium options are not available. With news of vaccines available in the United States in excess of its population, consumer perceptions may further slow the process of vaccination which is essential to restoring public health, social life, and national economy to an acceptable level. For this reason, national, regional, and local administrators should imagine their roles as more than a supply chain of getting vaccines to users, but also in charge of marketing efforts to mitigate resistance and selectivity when it comes to vaccination.  

A successful marketing effort for COVID vaccination requires a better understanding of the various dimensions that influence consumer decision making and recognizing whether and how they pose as impediments. Below, I have listed three of those dimensions that may have a more profound impact: 

  1. Uncertainty avoidance in product adoption can be influenced by option availability. 

According to the Hofstede scale of national culture, Americans score lower than average when it comes to avoidance of uncertainty. This means that Americans, as a nation, have a greater acceptance of what is new in comparison to the world’s average. While this may imply that Americans are more willing to expose themselves to a new vaccine, existence of several options introduces a new variable into the mix. Consequently, the previous expectations for Americans’ receptiveness of vaccination may not turn out as accurate as hoped. 

In other words, all vaccines are not starting on a level field to begin with. If that is so, vaccination administrators should focus more efforts on providing supporting evidence for every vaccine that is available and in doing so, they need to understand that those vaccines introduced later in the process deserve more focus in marketing them, due to them being in a disadvantaged position. Currently, the two frontrunners are receiving an overwhelming chunk of the attention which may be to the detriment of other vaccines when they hit the market.  

  1. Individualism and low power distance can mean resistance. 

A prominent feature of the American culture is its emphasis of individual rights and civil liberties. While this has been an underlying reason for many of its historical successes, when it comes to top-down authority, it can translate into resistance. There is still a significant number of United States citizens who consider mask mandates an infringement on their liberties and push back on the idea of vaccination as a requirement. The political skepticism that has resulted in very divided and partisan political landscape adds to the complexity. 

Under these circumstances, the government’s rhetoric and how this product is presented to consumers may play a critical role in nationwide vaccination efforts. Historically, Americans have pulled together during the harshest of times. Vaccination needs to resemble and be a sign of patriotism, above all else, and it is the responsibility of administrators to communicate this product as such.  

  1. Sense of abundancecan kill enthusiasm. 

Anyone who has studied supply and demand in economics understands the price elasticity of supply. In the case of vaccination, there is no price. Most consumers get vaccinated at no cost and therefore, price gives way to enthusiasm. With more supply and the assurance that vaccination is inevitable, if wanted, many consumers may push their vaccination date further back until either they feel more prepared or the vaccine they desire is accessible. With declining numbers of positive cases and deaths, this laxity may get exacerbated. The assurances by the Biden administration that exports of vaccines are postponed until conclusion of vaccination in the United States do not help the case. 

If you have ever paid attention to marketers in TV commercials, you are familiar with the efforts that they make to emphasize the scarcity of products that are very much abundant. They do so to drive in demand at a shorter timeframe. This is another page that vaccination administrators need to take out of marketers’ books, with lessons to learn. There should be more strict deadlines and a clearer timeline that gets communicated as of now.  

This vaccination is one of the greatest collective efforts in the history of this country and it deserves to succeed. It is clear that we need to boost adoption of this product and for that, marketing has lessons to teach.  

Isar Kiani is an assistant professor of marketing at St. John Fisher College, a marketing consultant and an entrepreneur.