Winning hearts and minds in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Simon Davies
By Simon Davies | 12 July 2021
Simon Davies

Simon Davies, CEO and founder of Bastion Brands

The rate of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the Australian population represents a failure of marketing. A recent survey found that one in three respondents would refuse vaccination or were undecided. In a country where general vaccination rates are much, much higher, this hesitant third is evidence that we need to change our tactics.

Fact-based marketing lacks stickiness

The government has opted for a fact-based campaign that uses a health professional, Dr Nick Coatsworth, an infectious disease physician, to talk about the vaccine. He assures us it’s safe and free and encourages us all to get vaccinated. “We’re not safe until we’re all safe,” is the latest slogan. No further detail about the when, where and how, but there’s a URL to that ends the ad.

If you want to dig into the depository of the Department of Health, you can also view explainer videos about how the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s all very factual and credible but let’s face it, boring and hard to recall. It simply doesn’t hit any of the emotional cues which will drive behaviour change.

While there will always be a degree of reluctance when it comes to public health and medical issues, an overwhelming majority of Australians plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The ads, however, are doing nothing to convince those who are in the grey area.

Hesitancy is not due to lack of information. People have read and heard more information about this vaccine than they have about any other vaccine they’ve ever had before. More information does not improve uptake. Hesitancy stems from doubt, the wavering balance between risk and safety, and the only way to counter that is through messaging that has a stronger call to action and demonstrates the clear benefits of taking that action – or the dire consequences of not.

The battle for hearts and minds

It’s well documented that emotion affects our decision-making. The ads we’re seeing are factual, informative and feature a credible spokesperson but they don’t tug on our heartstrings to go and book our vaccines. A more effective tactic would be to create a strong motivation to get vaccinated, and soon, such as the threat of further lockdowns, or not being able to travel to visit family. Note how keen people are to get vaccinated thanks to the recent lockdowns around Australia as they can't go out due to restrictions.

To put it simply, fear and loss aversion in marketing works. Hesitancy is about the fear of the vaccine being dangerous outweighing the alternative. Marketing needs to lean on the fear of a future where COVID-19 controls our lives. We need marketing that explains to people how life is going to be if they don't get vaccinated, that if they don't get the jab their civil liberties will be taken away. If we really want to fast-track the uptake of the vaccine then direct messaging, which gets straight to the point and isn't sugar-coated will work.

Added to this, we could show the benefits of being vaccinated, such as open businesses, being able to travel, seeing family – a clear contrast between the unvaccinated and vaccinated futures we could have.

Multiply the channels

Marketing is also about frequency and reach, which we are not seeing currently. Through no fault of its own, the government needs to update the messaging around each vaccine in real-time, which is adding to uncertainty around what actions they want people to take.

A better approach would be to start introducing levels of loss aversion via a properly integrated multi-channel campaign with a large amount of frequency so people take action and boost vaccination numbers. In addition to video and poster ads, we have access to people through government apps and services where we can send targeted notifications.

And finally, all messaging, including that coming from politicians at different levels of government when facing the press, needs to be consistent with the campaign so that people don’t hear conflicting things from their medical professionals, the federal Department of Health, state health authorities and the MPs on the news cycle.

A lot rides on good, astute marketing to defeat vaccine hesitancy and we owe it to the public – and the future we could all have – to get this right.

Simon Davies is the founder and chief executive of Bastion Brands. He started the business in 2012 and now leads a team across Melbourne and Sydney.


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