Use an old marketing trick to reach the hard-to-reach unvaccinated | Opinion

People receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during Senior Weekend at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury.

Minnesota, like much of the nation, has gone all-in on vaccinations as our main battle tactic in the fight against COVID-19. 

We’ve lifted mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, following surprise new guidance from the federal government. People are crowding back into cafes and stadium seats. Yours truly recently enjoyed his first professionally poured glass of beer in 14 months. 

Our public health officials are gambling that the promise of being free to enjoy this sort of thing will spur on the unvaccinated to get their jabs and thus make the other public health measures unnecessary. All the marbles are bet on this working. 

The rate of vaccinations has slowed. A lot. But the trajectory we’re on should still get roughly two-thirds of Minnesotans vaccinated in the near future. That’s above the national average, so good for us. 

It’s not enough to beat the virus. 

Reaching the remaining third is going to be hard. There are a lot of opinions on how to do it. Bombard them with info on the safety of the vaccines. Try shaming them. Ohio is giving the newly vaccinated a chance to win $1 million. Gov. Tim Walz announced new inducements Thursday, including admission to the Minnesota Zoo, Nickelodeon Universe, the State Fair and Valleyfair or a $25 Visa card.

Some smart marketing would help. It’s not so much an idea as a strategy. All these incentives we’re hearing about are a good start, but they need to be a part of something bigger if they’re going to create enough momentum to make a difference. 

There’s an old-fashioned marketing strategy called “the bandwagon effect” that would be useful here. It’s based on the psychological tendency to do the things you see people around you doing. Its whole point is to boost momentum. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember the soft drink slogan “Join the Pepsi generation.” 

It’s an old-school way of thinking. These days we advertising types prefer to talk about people as individuals out to discover their best selves, rather than someone who’s following the crowd. “This Bud’s for you,” for example. 

Vaccine communications have been following this more individual-centric way of thinking. You get the shot so you’re finally safe from COVID-19, and you can get back to living your life.

And yet, the bandwagon effect explains a lot of the behavior we’ve seen so far. Demand was highest when the vaccine was scarce and people were scouring the internet for a shot. Scarcity is actually a marketing technique and a good way to trigger the bandwagon effect. I experienced this when I did ads for Harley-Davidson — they had a two-year waiting list for a new bike, and we used it to good effect. The fall-off in demand for shots has mirrored the rise in vaccine availability, as the model I’m talking about would predict.

We’ve moved beyond scarcity thanks to an amazing public health effort. But there are other ways to re-ignite momentum. The most powerful might be a simple change in context from “you” to “we” when talking about the vaccine and the incentives for getting it. Instead of just getting tickets to the State Fair in return for a shot, elevate it to doing your part to help the Great Minnesota Get Together come back. A free beer with a vaccination is in reality helping make sure the local brewery you care about doesn’t experience another year like 2020. 

There are all kinds of organizations like this that need more than just immunized customers. Their survival depends on whole communities once again feeling free to gather and have some fun. In addition to incentives, they can contribute organizing power and real connections to hard-to-reach groups. Exactly what public health officials currently lack. That’s how we get the unvaccinated on the bandwagon.

Think bars, churches, entertainment venues, volunteer fire departments, employers, rotary clubs. Any organization that would have hosted a blood drive pre-COVID might be willing to help with a vaccine drive. A good example of how this could work is the “home front” efforts that mobilized people to contribute old tools and toys to scrap metal drives during WWII. The message then wasn’t about individuals. It was about working collectively to beat a terrifying enemy. 

That should also be the message now. It has a better chance of taking hold if it’s supported by authentic action at the grassroots, rather than directed downward from public health authorities. The conversation becomes about what’s actually happening, which makes it easier to join. And harder for cynical politicians to hijack. It’s built around the idea of We, which is a thing our society sorely needs right now.

It’s worth a shot.