How to market the coronavirus vaccine

The UK’s first COVID-19 vaccine was administered to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan yesterday morning, pathing the road to recovery for a nation in turmoil – stricken by the deadly pandemic.

In order for the vaccine to successfully end the current coronavirus outbreak, over 70% of the country’s population would have to be inoculated. With only 60% of people currently willing to get a vaccine, it’s clear that trust needs to be driven in order to gain the herd immunity required to stop the pandemic in its tracks.

In an era of strong political divisions, public trust in the pharmaceutical industry and public health infrastructure is waning. Marketers are therefore presented with the seemingly impossible task of overcoming the scepticism that surrounds the COVID-19 vaccine and enhance the population’s confidence. 

War on disinformation

The greatest cause of resistance toward the coronavirus vaccine has been the abundance online conspiracy theories. To prevent this, online social media platforms are working closely with Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden and Health Secretary Matt Hancock to ensure that no company should be profiting from vaccine misinformation – pledging to act swifter to flagged content. Platforms will step up work with public health bodies to promote factual and reliable messages to help people find the information they need about any COVID-19 vaccine.

Reaching the consumer

In the USA pharmaceutical advertisements are legal, therefore the company responsible for the first coronavirus vaccine, Pfizer, were able to launch their brand campaign earlier in the summer. The television commercial is filled with footage of white-coated lab staff working into the night, set to an inspiring voice over stating: “The entire global scientific community is working together to beat this thing. When science wins, we all win.” 

While you can advertise over-the-counter medicines on British TV, prescription-only pharmaceuticals cannot be marketed by the companies responsible for medical breakthrough – therefore, the vaccine will have to take other routes to reach audiences. With rampant distrust in political officials, a vaccine incentivisation strategy that centres around doing it for “the greater good” is unlikely to be successful – instead a localised, grassroots marketing approach may be more beneficial. Conveying a hopeful message through the art of storytelling remains the most powerful way in which to personally reach, and subsequently persuade individuals of the vaccine’s benefits. 


In the 1950s, there was similar opposition to the polio vaccine in America – and while many of the efforts to convince older generations were successful; younger people (who were the ones that really needed it) continued to refuse the immunisation injection. Of course, that was until 1956 when Elvis Presley agreed to have the vaccination before a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The star was photographed whilst being inoculated backstage – the image proved to be a huge success in promoting the medication – within 8 months, youth vaccination had risen from around 10% to over 80%. 

Similarly to the 1950s, 18 to 34-year-olds are the key demographic sceptical of the vaccination, with 30% stating that they would refuse the medication if offered it – and sadly, there aren’t many universally popular stars like Elvis around today. One channel unavailable to health marketers in the past is influencers – Instagrammers and TikTokkers can help provide bridgeheads into hard-to-reach demographics.

Last week, The Guardian reported that the NHS plans to enlist a variety of ‘very sensible‘ celebrities. Top choices included prominent doctors such as Good Morning Britain regular Dr Hilary Jones, as well as the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge and crusading Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford. Journalist and television personality, Piers Morgan and Health Secretary Matt Hancock also announced plans to be vaccinated live on television.

We see the use of celebrities using and endorsing behaviour working well within communities – this can be the likes of the Lady Gagas of the world, but also it will be key community leaders.

– Claire Gillis, international chief executive officer of WPP Health Practice


The approach marketers will take in the coming months and how they ultimately overcome the challenge of persuading the public to get vaccinated will likely hold lessons for future trust-building campaigns (in the healthcare sector and far beyond). While the rewards will be great, the risks of failure are just as big. As Gillis concludes: “Vaccines only work if people take them. And people only take vaccines if they trust them.”

If you’re looking to build consumer confidence in your brand, get in touch with Cordis today. As a full service marketing agency, our broad expertise in social media, design, events and videography enables us to utilise various methods of communication when translating your company’s story to a vast audience.