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Build Brand Trust with Communities of Color Beyond COVID


When it comes to vaccine hesitancy or reluctance, there have always been concerns around the public's belief and attitude. This is especially apparent among blacks and other minority groups, whose concerns can stem from historic injustices that fueled mistrust. The COVID era has presented an opportunity to convert many who are ready to engage via transparency and by initiating trust through marketing.

Even before the vaccines for COVID-19 were approved for use, important concerns were being raised about possible reluctance among the public. Many of those concerns surrounded communities of color, especially Black people. Given historic injustices1 in the medical system, with effects that continue to this day,2 scientists noted that many Blacks may prove particularly wary.

The solution, some medical groups proposed, was to make sure that outreach efforts were plentiful to educate3 people about the safety of the vaccines, with particular efforts focused on communities of color. Pharma companies and other organizations worked to get the word out to these communities, as did inspirational individuals like Ashley Nealy, a 32-year-old Black woman in Atlanta, who shared why she volunteered to be part of the vaccine trials. “I volunteered because I know that Black Americans must be represented to ensure that a vaccine works on us,” she wrote in the New York Times.4

When the vaccines were created and approved in record time – the result of unprecedented, successful work by pharma companies – the first person to be vaccinated in the United States was Sandra Lindsay, an African American nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She told the Times she wanted “to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”5

Early efforts to reach Black people with these messages likely helped. Weeks after the vaccines rolled out across the country, some surveys indicated6 that Blacks were just as interested in getting the vaccine as whites, with equal levels of hesitancy.7

Still, figures tracked by the Kaiser Family Foundation continue to show that overall, Blacks and Hispanics have lower vaccination rates than whites in most states.8 What explains these differences?

Many experts say the differences in vaccination rates among various ethnic groups may have more to do with access. In Philadelphia, for example, NPR reported that providers said, “barriers such as the location of vaccination sites, online-only sign-ups, appointment scheduling, transportation and other planning and access issues are to blame.”9

At M Booth Health, we conducted a survey of our own. In it, we found that some wariness remains. A quarter of Blacks and 17% of Latinos said they felt or would feel nervous getting their vaccines, compared to 18% of whites and 9% of Asians. Nervousness, of course, does not automatically lead to declining the vaccine.

While hesitancy among Black people may not be higher than it is among white people, numerous reports suggest that the reasons behind such hesitancy differ among various communities. Our survey shed light on how vaccine makers can reach people of color who remain wary.

We also took a much broader view of the entire landscape for pharmaceutical brands at this historic, pivotal time. We explored the changing relationship between consumers and the pharmaceutical companies behind the vaccines. The results uncovered a seismic shift.

‘Pharma Brandemic’

Consumers now perceive and engage with pharmaceutical companies in an entirely new way. We call this shift the “Pharma Brandemic™.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 vaccines have changed healthcare marketing forever.10 The brands’ achievements and the upheaval of the pandemic have fundamentally altered consumers’ understandings of these brands in ways that are sure to last.

Some of the most powerful changes we uncovered involve the relationships between the pharmaceutical giants and minority communities, especially African Americans and Latinos. In fact, Black respondents in our survey are in some key ways the most likely to indicate that their feelings about individual pharmaceutical brands will impact how they choose any and all medicines they may take in the future.

And while overall Americans are feeling more positive about pharmaceutical brands, Blacks are the least likely to share in that more positive view. Our survey results indicate that these brands have more work to do in reaching and winning over people of color.

To succeed in a more diverse, changing nation, pharmaceutical brands will need to understand and traverse a changed landscape. Brand marketers will need to shed old ideas of what it takes to reach historically marginalized groups and develop new ways of delivering these communities the information they need when and where they seek it.

Black approach to staying informed

For starters, our survey of 1,000 demographically diverse adults (conducted online by independent market research and advisory firm Savanta in April 2021) looked at the extent to which people are actively staying informed about COVID vaccines which, in the United States, have been available from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Overall, Black respondents self-identified as being some of the most informed about the vaccines. More than half (52%) described themselves as either “active” or “super active” in their approach to staying informed. Only Asians reported a higher figure, at 56%. Among Latinos, 46% said they are “active” or “super active” in staying informed, just edging out white respondents at 45%.

Also, more than six-in-ten (61%) Black people polled said they’re more likely to ask or learn about the science behind a medicine before they request or accept it, several points higher than other demographic groups.

Favored sources

Given the especially active search for information members of these minority groups are demonstrating, where should pharmaceutical brands go to provide that information?

Online channels are crucial, we found. Latinos and Blacks were most likely to say they want to see more content on social media that make drugs and vaccines easier to understand (37% of Blacks and Latinos, compared to 32% of Asians and 30% of whites). Blacks, Latinos and Asians were also more likely than whites to say they want to be able to ask the company questions directly via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Many respondents also want to hear more from CEOs of top pharmaceutical brands. Nearly a third of Latinos, and slightly smaller numbers of Blacks and Asians, said they want more videos from these CEOs on social media channels to help them understand the medicines and vaccines and how they work.

So for pharmaceutical companies, producing online content, making knowledgeable people available for one-on-one exchanges, and putting CEOs front and center can go a long way in reaching these communities. It’s also essential that in all these ways, the information and answers provided make the science behind medicines and vaccines intelligible and clear.

Online influencers can also play an important role. More than three-in-ten Latino and Black people polled, and 19% of white people polled, said they’re most interested in hearing from the health and wellness influencers they follow on social media. In fact, minority audiences are twice as likely as white audiences to turn to Instagram and YouTube to learn about vaccines.

Lessons from flu vaccine marketing

The interest people of color showed in hearing more from influencers is particularly promising given recent research that shows how effective this strategy can be.

In a study published late last year by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access journal, a team of researchers explored whether online influencers could help sway more African Americans and Hispanics to get the flu vaccine. They found that areas targeted by the influencer campaign “showed significant increases in positive beliefs about the flu vaccine, and significant decreases in negative community attitudes toward the vaccine.” This study, the researchers wrote, showed “the potentials of using an influencer-based model to communicate information about flu vaccination on a large scale.”11

Our survey indicates that this effect may be just as strong for the COVID vaccine in reaching these same populations. While hesitancy rates among different ethnic groups may be similar, the reasons for hesitancy can differ greatly – and having unique strategies for reaching different groups is key.

In recent years, pharma companies have been putting more efforts into influencer marketing, developing relationships with popular and engaging figures online who have proven track records of success. The Biden administration has recently turned increasingly to influencers as well to help spread education about COVID vaccines.12

By tapping into the power of influencers to reach Latino and Black communities specifically, pharmaceutical leaders can not only encourage vaccinations, but build greater levels of trust for their brands overall.

Why pharma brands are the new Nike

Our survey also showed that Americans in general, regardless of ethnicity, now view pharmaceutical brands in a whole new way.

After having their lives turned upside down by the pandemic, and vaccines offering some level of return to normalcy, people are aware of Pfizer and Moderna like never before. (Johnson & Johnson was already well known to many before the pandemic because of its baby care products.) In our survey, one-third of respondents said they now see pharma brands more like lifestyle brands such as Nike or Amazon – household names that play a role in their daily lives.

While this newfound awareness has the most immediate impact on the vaccine makers, we found a halo effect that extends to other pharma brands as well. Bayer, AstraZeneca (maker of a vaccine available in other countries), Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, Lilly, GSK and Novartis have all seen increases in unaided brand recall.

Not only are people more aware, but they’ve also picked favorites. After months of reading and hearing about vaccine efforts, Americans say they’ve become more aware of differences among these brands. A whopping 51% of respondents said this in our survey.

Three-quarters of those surveyed said they have a favorite vaccine brand, with Pfizer being far and away the favorite. Thirty-six percent chose Pfizer, 19% named Moderna and 17% went with J&J.

On this front, people of color also stood out in the survey.

More than two-thirds (68%) of Black respondents told our survey that the company behind a drug or vaccine now matters to them. Sixty percent of Asians and 61% of Latinos said the same, compared to 47% of white respondents. Members of minority groups were also far more likely than white people to say the brand matters “a lot.”

Pfizer was the winner across the board, with nearly half (48%) of Asians and more than one-third of Black, Hispanic and white respondents saying they prefer the Pfizer vaccine.

Building Trust

The fact that members of these minority communities are more concerned about the brands behind their medicines does not mean they feel better about those brands. In fact, while Americans have an overall more positive take on the companies that create vaccines and medicines, that positivity is far from evenly spread.

When we asked people how they feel about pharma brands as a result of the pandemic, dramatic differences emerged. Interestingly, 39% of Asians and 32% of Latinos reported that they now have a more favorable view. Fewer white respondents (29%) said the same. And less than two-in-five (19%) of Blacks said their views were more favorable.

So while their feelings about COVID vaccines and their interest in medicines in general may be just as high as those of other groups, Blacks remain more skeptical of the companies themselves.

Why Brand Preference Will Last

On the flip side, when Black people do have a favorable view of a pharma brand, they are especially likely to commit to that brand for the long haul, our survey found.

Fifty-seven percent of Black respondents and 54% of Latinos said they will pay more attention to differences among pharmaceutical companies, compared to 45% of white respondents. Members of these minority groups are also more likely to ask their doctors about differences among drug companies, with 61% of Black and 60% of Latino respondents saying they feel more confident doing so, substantially more than the 49% of white respondents who said the same.

Also, of all demographics, six-in-ten Blacks and nearly as many Latinos (58%) said that going forward, they will tell their doctor about a personal preference they have for a specific pharmaceutical brand, compared to only four-in-ten whites.

Key Steps

What does all this data tell us? The expectations that have informed many marketing decisions up until now are suddenly outdated. It’s time to throw out the playbook.

Minority communities, including Blacks and Latinos, are actively looking for information on medicines and vaccines. They want to be informed and want the companies themselves to be informing them through online platforms – often featuring the brand leaders themselves. They want to hear messages from influencers they’ve learned to trust.

After a history of discrimination, Black people in particular remain especially wary of pharma brands. But they can be won over. And as a group determined to be “super active” in learning about medicines and vaccines, they’re ready to listen and learn.

When pharma brands put this knowledge to use, they’re likely to find millions of brand loyalists moving ahead, providing lifesaving and life-improving solutions to people who, for far too long, were ignored.

The Pharma Brandemic offers executives a new beginning, an unprecedented chance to engage diverse communities in different ways. Those who move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity will see results for the long haul, improving more lives and building stronger models for success as far as the eye can see.

Julia Jackson is Managing Partner and Marketing Communications Practice Lead at M Booth Health. She can be reached at julia.jackson@mboothhealth.com.


1. https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/30/health/tuskegee-syphilis-study-vaccine-distrust-reasons-wellness/index.html

2. https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/institutional-racism.html

3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/12/28/educating-black-americans-about-coronavirus-vaccine-could-increase-their-willingness-get-it/

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/04/opinion/letters/covid-vaccine-black.html

5. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/14/nyregion/us-covid-vaccine-first-sandra-lindsay.html

6. https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/21/politics/covid-vaccine-hesitancy-analysis/index.html

7. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/03/12/976172586/little-difference-in-vaccine-hesitancy-among-white-and-black-americans-poll-find

8. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/latest-data-on-covid-19-vaccinations-race-ethnicity/

9. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/04/26/989962041/why-black-and-latino-people-still-lag-on-covid-vaccines-and-how-to-fix-it

10. https://mboothhealth.com/blog/the-pharma-brandemic/

11. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0240828

12. https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-white-house-influencers-vaccine-misinformation-tiktok-youtube-twitch-2021-8

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