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How Israel launched a world-leading Covid-19 vaccination campaign: lessons from the ground

The Drum 12 Jan 2021 12:33
By Samuel Scott-12 January 2021 12:33pm

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Israel has vaccinated a vastly greater percentage of people against the coronavirus than any other country so far. In this edition of The Promotion Fix, newly immunised columnist Samuel Scott interviews a top health official there and shows what marketers can learn from the successes.

‘Order early, pay a lot, digitise distribution and stretch the supply.’ That was how one journalist here summarised Israel’s world-leading success in vaccinating the population against coronavirus so far. Marketers could learn a thing or two

In this column – my first since receiving the vaccine myself – I look at how effective infrastructure, distribution, pricing, positioning and promotion have all contributed to Israel vaccinating more than 20% of the people as of Sunday. I will go from the top of the funnel decades ago to the bottom of the funnel that was the jab in my shoulder last week.

How Israel combined digital infrastructure with creativity

Israel has had universal health care since 1995. All citizens must register with one of the country’s four healthcare funds (somewhat similar to HMOs in the US and provider trusts in the UK). The detailed history is here.

Each fund’s clinics are located throughout the country – often with multiple ones in every city and town, giving them a wide presence with local attention. People here support the healthcare system at a level that rivals the British love for their National Health Service.

“The system is centralised with the Ministry of Health coordinating the directives while the four health service organisations were recruited to administer the vaccines on the local and community level,” she added. “Multidisciplinary health teams were recruited to contribute work hours above and beyond their regular work schedules in order to operationalise the vaccine initiative.”

Without this existing nationwide infrastructure in the first place, Israel’s vaccine drive today would probably not have succeeded. But what helped even more was what the marketing industry calls ‘digital transformation.’ Israel implemented it 20 years ago.

The doctor swipes my card and reviews my information and medical history. When I get prescriptions at the pharmacy, the person swipes my card again and sees what the physician has prescribed. After I received my first coronavirus vaccine, the system later automatically created an appointment for the second dose and coordinated with me over SMS. I have not seen a piece of paper at a Clalit clinic in 10 years.

So-called ‘digital transformation’ is not throwing your entire promotion budget online. It is rebuilding businesses and internal processes with digital technology. In strategic terms, that was Israel’s source of advantage at the very beginning.

When marketers talk about ‘creativity,’ they are almost always referring to brand advertisements and the people who make them. But ‘creative’ is not actually a job title or department name. Anyone can be creative while doing anything – even something as mundane as product distribution. And Israel thought outside the pizza box.

How positioning and pricing played a role

Usually, a company that is first to market has a strong advantage. But rightly or wrongly, governments seem not in a rush to use Russia’s vaccine following reports that its authorisation process was rushed. And the Russian government – objectively speaking – likely has a disreputable brand at the moment. (Perhaps for good reason.)

But after Russia, Pfizer got there first. So Israel jumped at the opportunity. (Oxford-AstraZeneca's vaccine seems more suitable for use by poor countries with less money and fewer advanced labs.)

An anonymous Israeli government official reportedly told The Jerusalem Post that the country was paying Pfizer roughly $30 per dose. A Reuters report put the price at $62. That is anywhere from a 50% to 200% markup. (Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment for this column.)

Israeli was seemingly able to take advantage of its preexisting position in international finance. And that was another strategic source of leverage.

Still, Israel reportedly also convinced Pfizer to sell the country many vaccines with a promise of information. Israel seems to have used its existing healthcare infrastructure to position itself as the most valuable buyer in more ways than one.

“Israel has committed to send the pharmaceutical company data and details especially gathered for them including the consequences of the inoculations, side effects, efficacy [and] amount of time it takes to develop antibodies, according to different types of population, age, gender [and] preexisting conditions. The agreement extensively details the various parameters that will be sent to Pfizer.”

How Israel communicated the importance of vaccines

One of the longstanding debates in philosophy is whether humans make moral decisions based primarily on reason (Immanuel Kant) or emotion (David Hume). Well, in a different context, the advertising industry discovered long ago that Hume is usually correct when it comes to purchasing decisions.

Here a basic messaging guide that I once created after having too many facepalming conversations with certain ‘covidiot’ acquaintances.

The statements are factual and accurate. But they are entirely unconvincing and forgettable based on the number of people I see in Tel Aviv and online who still question vaccines, refuse to wear masks and protest against lockdowns. Think emotionally, not rationally. (Even in the B2B world.)

Such language is powerful here. It encourages individuals to join an important group effort. Most Jewish people consider ourselves to be members of a close-knit tribe. Modern-day Israel was also largely built by people living and working together on collective farms called kibbutzim. After independence in 1948, the first political party to lead a government was a socialist Labor Party that ruled politics for the next 30 years.

For another good, localised example of messaging, look at this Australian ad campaign that encourages mask wearing.

It speaks for itself. And Scotland could probably run the exact same thing. For England, it might instead have statements such as “Put a mask on your stiff upper lip” or “Keep calm and carry on – with a mask.” But I will defer to my Scottish and English counterparts on all this.

Sadly, 40% of people in France said in December that they would not take a coronavirus vaccine because of fears over side effects. But such misinformation has not been a large problem in Israel. (My few ‘covidiot’ acquaintances notwithstanding.)

“Opinion leaders and role models took the lead in becoming the first to become vaccinated, which was publicised widely in mass and social media. The changes in information are transparent to the public as new recommendations are communicated – for example, as each new type of vaccine is introduced with its specific instructions. Online information, use of social media and community infrastructures for sharing information are paramount.”

Now, Israelis love to create private groups on Facebook and WhatsApp. The parents of the children in a given school class often have one. The mothers living in a given neighborhood often have one. Circles of friends often have one. There is even a closed Facebook group called Coronavirus Vaccines Between Friends with 55,000 members.

Stay strong – this is almost over

This past year has been hell. Even though Israel is rapidly vaccinating the population, we are still in the middle of a third nationwide lockdown that will likely not end until weeks after most people here have received a vaccine. It is not easy. ‘Digital transformation’ may have allowed us to have anything delivered to our homes, but it is not healthy to be trapped inside all the time.

Still, I will be lucky enough to receive the second coronavirus vaccine dose in a few weeks. Starting in February 2021, I will be able to travel and speak at marketing and business conferences like it is 2019. I hope that all of you will soon be able to do the same.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel

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