With limited vaccine rollout, retailers hold back on marketing
Every fall during flu seasons, retailers can’t promote their influenza vaccines heavily enough—this year, campaigns aired earlier than ever. Yet promotional plans for the highly anticipated COVID-19 vaccine are a different story. Retailers are holding back on any major marketing as they deal with limited distribution and a hungry public.
“It’s the challenge of a lifetime for a marketer and a communications professional,” says Patrick McLean, chief marketing officer of Walgreen Co., noting the need to pass on timely and relevant information to customers as availability changes in real time. In addition, “the demand is vastly outstripping the supply,” he says.
The list of retailers serving as federal pharmacy partners receiving coronavirus vaccine supplies includes national drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens as well as regional chains Publix, Hy-Vee, Albertsons and Health Mart. Many are also working with states on distribution. Yet the rollout is slow and supply is limited—many consumers who qualify for inoculation have had trouble scheduling a shot.
But many retailers are shying away from paid marketing until more vaccines arrive, which some anticipate will be when the third vaccine, the single-dose product from Johnson & Johnson, comes on the market, likely this spring. Until then, marketers are using social media on a local level to inform and educate customers.
Walgreens began receiving some vaccine supply late last year but does not yet have enough to satisfy mass demand, McLean says. In the meantime, the marketing team is keeping its information up to date on its app and website by meeting multiple times a day and keeping a content and storytelling team on standby for digital updates.
Last week, Walgreens, which has seen 14 million visits to its vaccine landing page within the last month, introduced a wait-list option for people to sign up for more information on vaccine eligibility and availability. The list already has 500,000 signups, McLean says. The chain recently announced that it is partnering with Uber on free rides for vaccine-eligible consumers in underserved communities.
CVS Health is also relying on its own vaccine site to promote its vaccine capabilities. The retailer, which has locations within Target stores in addition to its freestanding stores, has been receiving some vaccines through state partnerships, and will also receive some of the federal supply beginning Feb. 12, according to a spokesman, who said the chain expects to administer as many as 25 million doses a month, assuming adequate supply. The landing page helps educate customers on where vaccine is available and who is eligible, and both CVS.com and CVSHealth.com are updated regularly. The retailer is not running any paid ads around the COVID vaccine.
Allocations 'extremely limited'
Hy-Vee, which began receiving vaccines from the CDC at its pharmacies in Iowa and South Dakota this week, has been posting to individual store Facebook pages about new allocations, a spokeswoman says. She notes that Hy-Vee, which has also been running vaccinations in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, is not doing any “paid advertising at this time because vaccine allocations are extremely limited.”
Supermarket chain Publix will be running some awareness campaigns through traditional and social media as well as on a dedicated portion of its website, according to a spokeswoman.
CPESN, a network of more than 300 community pharmacies, is receiving a “small quantity” of the vaccine, a spokesman says, noting that CPESN has not disclosed which pharmacies will have the vaccines because they are “not in place to receive hundreds of inquiries from new patients.” CPESN is waiting on more supply to release availability on its channels, he says.
As it waits for more vaccines, Walgreens is working on a mass marketing campaign that will help educate consumers who are reluctant to receive the vaccine. That paid push is expected to roll out later this spring, closer to a late March or early April timeframe, McLean says.
“We’re preparing for that moment when we flip the switch,” he says. “You’ll see a significant marketing and communications effort from Walgreens at that time.”
Hear more about vaccine trends at Ad Age Next: Health and Wellness, a virtual conference taking place on Feb. 11. Buy your tickets here.