Attention marketers: Building vaccine confidence is key for a ‘return to normal’

The following is a guest post by Tim Barlow, director analyst at Gartner. Opinions are the author’s own.

Last week marked a year since the last time I ate indoors at a restaurant. To-go orders and the occasional parking lot “patio” have eased the loss, but eating indoors at a restaurant may be the thing I’m most looking forward to when this pandemic finally ends. Stepping onto a plane, standing amongst a crowd at a concert, sitting in a theater, not wearing a mask — we all have something we’ve internally tied with a return to normal. We’re getting closer. Vaccination pace continues to quicken, the Biden administration has accelerated timelines, and for the first time in a year, it feels like the end is in sight. But vaccinations aren’t synonymous with a return to normal. For that, we need vaccine confidence. And on that front, there’s more work to do.

First the good news: intent to vaccinate continues to improve. According to surveys of Gartner’s Consumer Communities — an online panel of roughly 500 participants, whose makeup resembles U.S. census data — the percent of people who say they’ll wait a few months after a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to them, continues to decline. At the end of November, 26% of respondents said they’d wait, by mid-January that number had shrunk to 19%, and by mid-February it was down again to 14%. We’re also seeing declines in the percent of respondents who said they were uncertain if they would take a vaccine at all, from 23% at the end of November to 10% by mid-February. These declines in key indicators are giant steps in the right direction. However, while intent to vaccinate shows strong majorities and continued improvement, responses around what activities people anticipate they’ll be willing to engage in after they’re fully vaccinated have been more tepid.

Most consumers say they aren’t willing to do everyday behaviors and activities just yet, even after they’re fully vaccinated, according to Gartner research. In fact, across three instances of this question being fielded between December 2020 and February 2021, no activity — which ranged from eating indoors at a restaurant to going to large public gatherings — garnered more than 50% positive response. Despite this overarching state of caution, the numbers do show slight improvement, even if unevenly distributed. Staying in a hotel saw an eight-percentage point improvement between early January and Mid-February, while addressing medical issues that were ignored/delayed saw just a four-percentage point lift.

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We expect to see continued improvement in these numbers and as more of the survey base becomes vaccinated, we can begin to ascertain any difference between forecasted behavior and reality. But as of today, people are still expressing a good deal of expected caution around post-vaccinated life.

Part of the challenge is likely tied to the sometimes conflicting information that has surfaced in recent months about safe activities once vaccinated. And hopefully, instances such as the CDC’s recently updated guidelines stating it’s safe for small gatherings of vaccinated individuals to be together indoors can help to move the needle on this front. But another contributing factor seems to be confidence in the vaccines themselves to prevent serious illness or death due to COVID-19. While only 15% of respondents were skeptical in a mid-February survey, just 24% said they were extremely confident. Given how successful the vaccines have proven to be through trial results, this lukewarm confidence represents an unfortunate disconnect from reality.

In yet another troubling development, the percent of consumers who said they felt knowledgeable about the vaccines fell ever so slightly between early December and mid-February. Again, given the robustly positive news that emerged about the vaccines during this timeframe, even a slight decline points to a worrying divide between people and the information available.

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Given the overwhelmingly positive data about the COVID-19 vaccines, growing understanding and building confidence among the public is ultimately a marketing and communication challenge. One of the most important aspects of this is in sources of information. While levels of trust in various sources of information fluctuate, doctors and public health institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the most important and most trusted across all demographics. So, when marketing and communicating about the vaccine:

  • Lead with doctors and health experts
  • Err on the side of overcommunication
  • Prioritize transparency

The end of the pandemic is in sight, but we won’t fully be there until people feel confident stepping back into normal, everyday routines and behaviors, such as traveling, public gatherings, and of course, eating in restaurants. It will be unevenly distributed and take time to get there but building justifiable confidence in vaccines is the next key milestone on this path to post-pandemic life.

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