Blog: Thursday, 10 December 2020

Corona rules - wearing masks, testing, social distancing, and limiting visitors – means a change in behaviour. Here’s where the expertise of marketing can contribute. Originally used in corporate life and focused on profits, marketing has more recently spread into social and non-profit sectors such conservation and philanthropy – for example in anti-smoking and safe driving campaigns. The idea that virologists and epidemiologists might be joined by marketers in the battle against corona is put forward in this blog by two academics specialising in marketing.

Communication – the most important instrument

Marketing activities are often expressed as the four instruments Ps of the marketing mix – product, place, price, and promotion. The most important in the fight against corona is promotion; in other words, stimulating the desired behaviour through communication.

Communication starts with awareness, for example seeing a street banner or an advertisement on Facebook. However, individual decision-making processes have a number of phases, and awareness alone is not enough. Many people know what they should do, but don’t always act that way. They might still drive too fast, or they may not wear a facemask when they should.

After awareness comes the consideration phase, in which attitudes play an important role. Attitudes are driven by perceptions. Some people believe the behaviour in question such as not visiting others or receiving visitors helps against corona. Here, unambiguous information is essential. For example, its unhelpful to have the government and the Dutch institute for public health, the RIVM, issuing opposing signals about the usefulness of wearing facemasks.

In the social-psychological models of behavioural change, the influence of people from someone's social circle – friends, neighbours, family and social media contacts – is also important. Attitudes can also be influenced by competing information, including that from corona-trivializing groups.

So communication can reinforce healthy messages and respond to counterarguments. Ultimately the desired behaviour should follow. But this behaviour must also be maintained, otherwise there will be a relapse. The approval and encouragement from communication has a role in reinforcing  and sustaining behaviour. This is the feedback phase.

“The paradox is that the marketing approach can contribute significantly in bringing about behavioural change against corona, but caution is advised when mentioning this word”

Other elements from the marketing mix

Using the language of production and marketing, we can say that the most important ‘product’ in the context of corona is behavioural change. There are also concrete products and services, such as masks, corona tests, test facilities and – soon – vaccinations. The ‘production’ of changes in behaviour is also about making it as easy as possible, perhaps by designing comfortable facemasks or developing minimally invasive tests.

For masks, the question of positioning them as fashion or lifestyle indicators is similar to – although not as innocuous as – the idea of t-shirts evolving from purely functional garments into a carrier of a personal statement from the wearer.


Place – or the distribution of the product

The second of the four Ps of the marketing mix is ‘place’, or distribution. This is about bringing the product to the target consumer. In corona times, this means creating test facilities in every neighbourhood, keeping waiting times short and opening hours long, and providing fast results. Just as in any other production operation, there are criteria which could be challenging: test facilities should be designed to avoid crowding, and the logistics of providing cold storage in centres of population will be needed – some vaccines need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures.


Price – not just the monetary value

In monetary terms and for most people, price is only a small part of the sacrifices that are needed. Facemasks and hand sanitiser don’t cost much, and corona tests are available to buy. But there’s another price – the days spent alone in quarantine or self-isolation, and this is more concerning. There’s a psychological cost to being unable to be with family or friends. Individuals weigh this price against the value of following the corona rules.


Segmentation and monitoring

Segmenting a marketing campaign means tailoring it to target specific groups. For example, older people will adhere to the corona rules because they don’t want to get sick, whereas young people want their freedom back. This requires creating targeted elements in the marketing strategy, for example in the content of messages, and the channels by which the messages are delivered. Culture is also an important element. Western Europeans are relatively independent as individuals, while in other cultures the collective plays a greater role. This has consequences for implementing the various corona rules.

Measuring and monitoring the effects are crucial. Successful marketing is impossible without market research to understand people’s current knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours, particularly in this data-rich age. The same is true for anti-corona campaigns; they need continuous measurement of not only current behaviour, but also of attitudes, perceptions and behavioural intentions. Marketing has advanced techniques for doing this.



In marketing, the brand is the driving force – this is also true for many non-profit organizations. For example, Apple and Heineken are strong brands in the profit sector, and Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the non-profit sector. People can identify with strong brands, often they can emotionally identify with them too. But it’s also clear that bureaucratic institutions such as government departments or city health organizations (called GGDs in the Netherlands) are not usually strong brands. Anti-corona programmes could be outsourced to an existing strong brand, such as the Red Cross. Another possibility is to create a special organization with its own brand identity. Such a platform places the campaigns and programmes at a distance from the government. We should not have discussions about the content of communication campaigns in parliament.

Well-known people can also be deployed; it is essential that everyone sees their motivation for joining campaigns is not money but an intrinsic one, as we saw in recent campaigns with well-known influencers such as singer and vlogger Famke Louise with Diederik Gommers, chairman of the Dutch Association for Intensive Care.


Vaccination strategy; yes, no and maybe

Now that a vaccination is almost ready, it’s time to determine a marketing strategy for administering it to the public. As is often the case with social marketing, there are three groups of people to consider: the Yesses, the Maybes and the Noes.

Practical information, like where and when vaccinations can be obtained, is enough for the Yes group; they will push ahead to get their vaccinations without further prompting. The Maybe group has doubts about safety and side effects and should receive consistent, clear messages about this. Doctors and nurses are considered reliable sources of information for vaccinations, and well-regarded public health officials are particularly important. Perhaps images of Dutch celebrities getting vaccinated can also help. In the USA, the former Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton have offered to be vaccinated on camera. Specific attention to encouraging the group of Maybes – and there are probably a lot of them – will therefore make a relatively large contribution to the development of group immunity. The hardcore group of Noes, although probably much smaller in number, can wait a while.


The M-word

Unfortunately, the word ‘marketing’ sometimes evokes negative associations in the general public, but also among politicians and public administrators. For some, it means selling tricks and receiving unsolicited advertisements. Many non-profit brands are very successful marketing organisations, but often prefer to speak of their activities as ‘education’, ‘communication’, and ‘recruiting’. The paradox is that the marketing approach can contribute significantly in bringing about behavioural change against corona, but caution is advised when mentioning this word.

Prof. Berend Wierenga

Professor Emeritus of Marketing

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

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Prof. Charles Weinberg

Professor of Marketing Emeritus

University of British Columbia (UBC)

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