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How Marketing Can Change American Minds About A Covid-19 Vaccine

Very soon, Americans will be asked to do something that many do not wish to do. Americans will be asked to get a Covid-19 vaccine. This action will help save their lives, the lives of their loved ones and the lives of others. Even so, many will decline to participate. Their minds are already decided. Some don’t trust vaccines. Others don’t trust the government.                       

Trust in government is at all time low. How can government change people’s minds? How can government ask people to “trust us this time?” What is the role of scientific data in building trust? Many people are science skeptics.

This is a serious marketing challenge with serious social implications. Marketing groups are on board to sell the idea of having a vaccination. Will an advertising campaign over the next few months be effective?

According to the Edelman’s Trust Barometer, a yearly survey on global trust, Americans distrust government. In the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, we learn that government leaders are distrusted. Further, Americans say government is both less competent and unethical. Worse, respondents say that government does not have a credible vision for the future.

Not surprisingly, according to Edelman data, government officials are considered the least credible information source. Experts and peers are considered most credible. The Edelman data show that for those 18-34 years old, for example, influencers are trusted more than brands. Being able to relate to a messenger is nearly two times as important as whether the messenger is popular. Peer testimony is an extraordinarily powerful voice.

As for science, scientists use statistics. However, many people do not understand even the most basic statistics. As reported in the Daily Post, a UK-based newspaper, “… when researchers asked a representative sample of the US population to convert 20 out of 100 to a percentage, 28% failed to do so accurately. Even those who are capable of understanding statistics may not invest the effort necessary to see beyond their own prejudices.”

A good example of the high hurdles in changing people’s minds using science comes from a restaurant owner in Illinois. Illinois has once again shuttered restaurants due to Covid-19. One restaurant owner who is not complying with the shutdown order told The Wall Street Journal, “I’m not going to be the guy with a boarded-up building because I follow someone else’s science.” The “someone else’s science” is the CDC science.

Let’s get back to marketing. One approach is through public service advertising. Public service advertising is collaboration between government agencies, along with non-profit organizations, media and advertising agencies work together on behalf of social issues. Examples are “Smokey the Bear,” and more recently a campaign to encourage people to donate to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. Similarly, Covid-19 vaccine becomes a social issue advertising project.

For a public service campaign to work, the message and the messengers must be trusted. But, trust takes time to build. Just saying, “Trust me” will not work.

Here is a recommended approach for marketing the Covid-19 vaccine.

In order to understand if marketing can actually help change people’s minds about the Covid-19 vaccine, let’s look at the teachings of Dr. Howard Gardner. Dr. Howard Gardner is the influential Harvard Professor of Cognition and Education. He teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Dr. Gardner wrote a book in 2004 called, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. Dr. Gardner identified seven levers for changing minds. Dr. Gardner defines mind changing as “… when individuals or groups abandon the way in which they have customarily thought about an issue of importance and… conceive of it in a new way.” Basically, a mind is changed when one idea is converted or transformed into another. Here are Gardner’s seven levers for changing people’s minds.

1.    Reason: use logical argument. Have a well-formed, logical argument. Expect people to have counter-arguments that make sense to them. Recognize that there is some degree of uncertainty to science and to medicine. However, you have to start somewhere.

2.    Research: use data, observations and case studies. But, there are always data and research on the other side as well. Keep in mind that science is often dismissed. And, data along with scientific research are sometimes uncertain and, then, doubted. The recent issues with the Astra-Zeneca vaccine testing are a good example. The acknowledgment that Astra-Zeneca made a mistake in their preliminary studies has confused and damaged trust, according to The New York Times.

3.    Resonance: make an emotional connection between the new idea and the presenter of the new idea. Connecting on an emotional level is very important. The message and the messenger must come across as being on the same emotional wavelength as the audience. Likeability and trust are key. Any pro-vaccine testimony must come from people who have a real sense of the audience. The audience must perceive the messenger to be sympathetic towards them. Dr. Gardner points out that Bill Clinton was a genius at this. He could walk into a room of dissimilar people and read their reactions. This allowed him to say what he had to say in ways that turned off the fewest people. In other words, it is best to find “neutral” terms. This will allow the audience to evaluate the message more objectively.

4.    Redescription: present the new idea in a number of different ways across different media and devices. Do not simply repeat the message in the same way time after time. Redescription is the same as the now familiar marketing technique, Brand Journalism. Saying the same thing in the same way over and over loses people’s attention. For different audiences, the fundamental message must be expressed differently. Repetition is necessary. Excessive repetition is irritating. The goal is to repeat the same message in a variety of ways. If there is a story to tell, tell the story differently each time. A story is easier to remember than statistics. It also helps if the messenger embodies the story. This enhances credibility. Dr. Gardner says that delivering a message in a variety of formats increases the chances of an audience appreciating the message. With a greater understanding of the message, there is a greater chance of adoption of a new idea.

5.    Rewards and Resources: provide emotional benefits for changing beliefs. Marketers who focus on behavior change believe that rewards or punishments are the way to change behaviors. However, this approach does not always change minds. Behavior change is not necessarily the same as belief change. As with branded price deals and incentives, once the price promotion ends, the buyer reverts to former habits. Deal loyalty is not the same as real loyalty. In the case of a social issue, the goal is to actually move the audience from believing one thing to believing another. For example, a potent reward can be the protection of your child or your elderly parent. This message has universal appeal.

6.    Real world events: use the dramatic changes in world conditions. The world is an uncertain and turbulent place. However, it is possible to use events happening elsewhere to support your case. Use real events to justify why your message is necessary. Find stories or events in the news that can connect to your message in a meaningful way.

7.    Resistances: understand your audiences’ main resistances so these can be neutralized. Remember, “I feel your pain.” One of the problems with public service campaigns is using a story or message with which the government and its consultants are most comfortable. Dr. Gardner states that instead of using a story you relate to, use a story or message that makes sense to the audiences. This will open people’s minds to think about things differently. Don’t assume that the story you believe in is also the way the audience thinks. See the world from the audience point of view. What are their problems, concerns, worries? And, remember, the audience is not homogeneous. Different messages for different audiences with different needs and different concerns.

People can change their minds. Marketing has the skill sets to make minds change happen. Telling people that their beliefs are wrong is wrong. When someone’s beliefs are attacked, that person’s views become more entrenched.

Changing minds can happen. Marketing has an important role to play. This is a major opportunity for marketing to use its special creative skills to make a significant contribution to getting the coronavirus under control.

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