Activism or opportunistic marketing: Why businesses need to tread carefully with the COVID vaccine

covid vaccination

Krispy Kreme offered a free glazed doughnut to anybody who showed proof of vaccination. Source: Shutterstock.

Proactive corporate support for COVID vaccination has triggered praise for some companies. But does it indicate a growing willingness to take a stand on high-profile public issues… or is it simply opportunistic marketing?

It’s easy and low-risk for big retailers to offer undercover space or the use of their car-parks for pop-up COVID testing or as vaccination sites. And many companies are providing time-off or paid leave for staff to get vaccinated, or are offering their own medical teams to help vaccinate the public in areas with worker shortages.

But going further — to proactively promote or even mandate individual vaccination — seems to be fraught with risk. It shouldn’t be controversial, yet it can backfire, especially for consumer brand businesses.

Take for example when Krispy Kreme in the United States offered one free glazed doughnut per day to any customer who could show proof they had been vaccinated. The company said it was meant to show “sweet support” to help accelerate slow vaccine rollout. Instead, it triggered a storm of outrage from doctors and dietitians about people gaining weight in quarantine at home, and accusations of fat-shaming and weight stigma. Some even attacked Krispy Kreme for discriminating against people who don’t want the vaccine and accused the company of being “part of the indoctrination of the citizens.”

Back down in Australia, the Prince Alfred Hotel in Port Melbourne gave a free drink to customers who had been vaccinated. They had to cancel the scheme after getting a slap on the wrist by federal health regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which said businesses cannot offer alcohol, tobacco or medicines as incentives to get vaccinated. Similarly, the Stomping Ground Brewery in Melbourne planned to give vaccinated people a free drink at a nearby beer festival, but abandoned the idea after social media attacks by anti-vaxxers.

More significantly, when Shepparton-based food processor SPC became the first Australian company to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all staff earlier this month, the immediate response was criticism and doubt from unions and legal commentators with police investigating online threats.

Issue managers are sometimes keen for their organisation to take a stand on public controversies, yet it calls for judgement and wisdom. Companies need to be deliberate and selective. There is hardly a better example of how it can all go wrong than when Ed Bastain, chief executive of Atlanta-based Delta Airline, made an initial statement praising aspects of Georgia’s highly contentious new voting rights legislation. However, he had badly misjudged the situation and his stakeholders. In the face of a social media fury and threatened boycotts, he issued a new statement reversing his position and condemning the state legislation.

By contrast there has been no backing down by Mike Lindell, the so-called “My Pillow Guy” from TV infomercials, whose outspoken promotion of Trump’s election fraud conspiracy led to major retailers across the US dropping his company’s bedding products.

Although opinion polls consistently show customer support for brands taking a stand on current public issues, it is very easy to confuse legitimate issue participation with blatant marketing. For example, in the wake of last year’s disastrous bushfires in Australia, Tiffany and Co took out full page newspaper advertisements rebuking Prime Minister Scott Morrison for not taking “bold and decisive action” on climate change.

Given that it came less than 12 months after the global jewellery brand first launched in Australia, Carl Rhodes in The New Daily was likely justified in concluding: “One doesn’t have to be a hardened cynic to smell public relations opportunism.”

While COVID vaccination may offer a seemingly soft opportunity for corporate issue activism, CEOs and senior executives everywhere need to think very carefully about whether to take a stand on a high-profile issue; which issue that should be; and, critically, whether that position is truly aligned with their history, their brand and their values.

Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes and his latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

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