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Can marketing strategies help increase vaccination rates?

Researchers at Stanford are exploring using traditional marketing strategies to help increase COVID-19 vaccine acceptance.

What if the same strategies used to sell a car could be used to increase vaccine compliance in other parts of the world? It's a question marketing experts are investigating as the world continues to struggle to reach high rates of vaccination to help end the pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccine distribution varies widely around the world, causing disparities nearly everywhere. Only a fifth of world's population in low- and lower-middle-income countries have received a first dose, falling far short of the World Health Organization's target of vaccinating 40% of the population against COVID-19 by the end of this year.

Although much of the problem is one of supply, getting more vaccines to more regions of the world will not single-handedly increase vaccination rates overall. Vaccine hesitancy -- often coupled with a lack of understanding about the vaccine's safety and benefits -- continues to hamper distribution efforts all over the world, including in some of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic.

Marketing experts think they may have a solution. A new Stanford Medicine-led study shows how some marketing strategies that target human behavior -- similar to those used to sell new technology or flashy cars in the U.S. -- can be adapted to cultures to sway individuals toward COVID-19 vaccine acceptance. For instance, car brands are strongly associated with individual identity and offer a sense of pride and status, the researchers said. Perhaps appealing to one's notion of identity could positively influence vaccination rates.

"What is needed is a positive, proactive communication strategy to effectively achieve a high rate of vaccination in low- and low-middle-income populations," said Kevin Schulman, MD, a professor of medicine, who led the study and is a director for the Clinical Excellence Research Center at the Stanford University School of Medicine.   

In the study, published in BMJ Global Health on Oct. 14, 2021, Schulman; Stacy Wood, PhD, professor of marketing at North Carolina State University; and Muhammad Ali Pate, MD, global director of health, nutrition and population at the World Bank, note that the findings could help accelerate worldwide efforts to achieve desired vaccination rates.

Adapting locally

The study looked at 12 marketing strategies that Schulman and Wood identified in the U.S. market and detailed in a paper published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine. They surveyed a panel of 92 experts from universities in each of the seven World Bank regions -- Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, Europe and Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific and North America -- to assess whether these same strategies could increases vaccine acceptance.

"This was probably the largest study soliciting opinions of global marketing scholars ever undertaken," said Wood. The team hopes their research will serve as something of an instruction manual to help local health officials prepare education campaigns and avoid the steep learning curve other countries have faced when it comes to understanding and accepting the vaccine.

The study found that strategies based on personal or group identity generally successfully encourage people to accept the vaccine, but the nature of those identifying factors varies from country to country. In countries of Europe, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, people tend to align strongly with sports, so the authors recommended promotional campaigns in which sports teams and players endorsed the vaccine.

In East Asia and the Pacific, on the other hand, community members identify more with their profession, suggesting a campaign that links being vaccinated with professional success might bring better results.

Identifying a common enemy, such as the economic impact of the pandemic, seems to be an effective tactic both inside and outside the United States, the researchers said. In addition, the certain local communities might use emotion-based analogies, such as "vaccination protects you like a mother's loving arms," to enhance acceptance.

As rates continue to pick up, the authors said that invoking a strategy called innovation observability, which directs peoples' attention to the popularity of getting the vaccine, seems to work across cultures. For example, a billboard with an electronic counter of people who've been vaccinated can serve as a thank you to those people, while also keeping the community informed about daily vaccine rates.

The World Bank provides funding for local vaccination campaigns, the researchers said, but governments and local health officials must first submit a communications plan. The study authors hope this research can help inform local governments and health officials as they create vaccination campaigns and them by simplifying that process.

Photo by oleg_chumakov

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