Reducing the Spread of COVID-19
A Social Marketing Perspective

Nancy R. Lee, MBA
Teaching Associate, University of Washington
Adjunct Faculty, Boise State University
President, Social Marketing Services, Inc.
Strategic Advisor, C+C: All About the Good

This article presents perspectives on what Social Marketing principles, strategies and best practices appear to have been applied to reducing the spread of the coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), even if they were not labeled as such. In addition, it discusses which ones were not apparent in this campaign to date (as of April 30, 2020), and might have helped. The following components of a strategic social marketing campaign, and related principles for success, are considered:

  • Priority Audience Segments
  • Desired Behaviors
  • Audience Insights: Barriers, Desired Benefits
  • Marketing Intervention Tools to Help Citizen Behavior Change:
    • Product Strategies
    • Price Strategies
    • Place Strategies
    • Promotional Strategies

It should be noted that this article does not address the pros and cons of other efforts undertaken, primarily upstream, to reduce the spread of the virus including ensuring adequate supplies of test kits and masks, and supporting healthcare workers, businesses and their employees during this time of crisis.

The focus of this article, instead, is downstream, on activities, both voluntary and involuntary, to influence public behavior change to reduce the spread of the virus.


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the 2019 coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Several behavior-related facts were emphasized at the time of the announcement. The virus is spread mainly through close contact, and by small droplets produced when people cough, sneeze, or talk. People may also catch COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then their face. Of additional relevance to potential preventive behaviors, it was noted that the virus can survive on surfaces up to 72 hours, and that it is most contagious during the first 3 days after onset of symptoms. It was noted, however, that spread may be possible before symptoms appear and in the later stages of the disease.


In addition to the General Population, the following is a list of major audience segments that appear to have been “singled out” at times for specific, relevant, desired behaviors that would reduce the chances of their contracting the virus, and/or spreading it:

  1. Most vulnerable (homeless, immigrants, refugees, adults over 60, pregnant women, people with autoimmune diseases, people living at or below poverty line, people with underlying health conditions like heart or lung disease, and prison populations)
  2. Helpers (healthcare professionals, first responders, workers in public health, nursing homes and long-term care facilities)
  3. Essential businesses (grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores)
  4. Directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19 (test positive, have symptoms, household member tests positive, exposed in other ways, etc.)
  5. Community (faith-based organizations, community-based organizations/non-profits, average citizens doing extraordinary deeds, etc.)
  6. Families (kids of all ages, parents, grandparents, guardians, other caregivers)


One of the more impressive Social Marketing principles that seemed to be followed in developing and recommending desired behaviors was that many of them were very singular, concrete and consistently worded. Behaviors that were emphasized the most appear to be those applicable to the General Population:

Major Behaviors Promoted Most Frequently and Consistently by Public Health Institutions:

  • Practice Social Distancing at least 6 feet
  • Stay at Home
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds several times a day
  • Cover your cough and sneezes with your elbow
  • Wear a homemade cloth face mask when in situations with higher volume of people (e.g., shopping, in certain workplaces, on mass transit, etc.)

Other Behaviors also Encouraged for the General Population, With Some Contradicted and/or Not Verified by Public Health Institutions:

  • Wipe down grocery packages before putting them on your counters or in cupboards
  • If you have symptoms, call your healthcare provider before going to the emergency room
  • Quarantine yourself for 14 days  if you have tested positive for the virus or have symptoms or have traveled from an area of high breakouts
  • Use disinfectant wipes on surfaces in your home and car
  • Leave packages delivered to your door outside
  • If you wear plastic gloves, such as when shopping, remove them carefully and dispose of them so as not to spread any viruses picked up by them
  • Only call 911 for emergencies
  • Avoid high touch surfaces
  • Interact electronically (e.g. FaceTime and Zoom)
  • Postpone elective surgeries
  • Limit your shopping trips
  • Take your shoes off at the door
  • When out shopping, put your phone in a clear plastic bag to avoid touching the screen
  • Stay healthy
  • Take care of your mental health
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Exercise
  • Do not play on playground equipment, basketball courts, or tennis courts in parks
  • Order meals to go
  • Order groceries to be delivered or picked up
  • Request retail businesses put purchases outside for pickup
  • Stay hydrated
  • Ask for/seek help if you need it


Barriers to Behaviors the Marketing Intervention Mix Apparently Focused on Addressing:

  • Need to make frequent trips to groceries
  • Difficult to get groceries since not able to take public transit
  • Need for prescription medications
  • Need to interact/work with coworkers
  • Need to take care of a family member so must go to their home
  • Mental health concerns with social isolation
  • Desire to enjoy my nights out to restaurants and bars
  • Belong to groups I care about that meet regularly in person (e.g., church, gym, community groups)
  • My work can only be done in my place of business (e.g., hair salons, tattoo artists)
  • Many students don’t have laptops that enable distance learning (grade school and university)
  • Need to travel for my business
  • Have vacations planned
  • Have ceremonies like a wedding or graduation or memorial service planned
  • Need to vote in person
  • Lack of internet access, computer or smart phone to order groceries, download book, etc.
  • Lack of a car to use the drive-thru, get to food bank, visit a testing site, or just get out of the house for a change of scenery
  • Lack of a safe outdoor space for exercise
  • Feeling of isolation/need to get out
  • Believing there is a lot of misinformation and exaggeration

Desired Benefits from Behaviors that Strategies Apparently Highlighted:

  • Save lives
  • Keep from getting the Virus
  • Keep from spreading the Virus, especially to family and friends and vulnerable populations
  • Collectively assist society in “flattening the curve” which saves lives and assists the medical community from becoming overwhelmed by high patient volumes
  • Learn new skills (e.g., Zoom for virtual gatherings)
  • Spend more time, even remotely, with people you love



Tangible Goods


  • Hand sanitizers
  • Soap
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Masks, face coverings, face cloths
  • Gloves
  • Gowns for healthcare providers
  • Test kits
  • Face cloths
  • Phones that tell how good doing with distancing
  • Plexiglas shields in grocery stores
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers and service providers
  • Plexiglas shields at checkout counters
  • Single use pens and pencils for signing at banks and restaurants
  • Wristbands (like Fitbits) that buzz when closer than 6 feet
  • Local Call Centers
  • Locations for isolation when can’t do at home (e.g., sports stadiums converted to temporary shelters)
  • Employers organizing and supporting Zoom meetings
  • Volunteer healthcare workers
  • Testing sites
  • Universities and School Districts offering remote and online activities
  • Childcare for children who are already in close contact
  • Drive-by testing
  • Videos on how to make a face covering


Monetary Incentives and Disincentives for Desired Behaviors

Non-monetary Incentives

  • Fines like in NYC for not social distancing
  • Employees receiving increased days for Paid Time Off
  • Suspension of library late fees
  • Restaurants giving discounts for pick-up
  • Employers offering sick leave so essential workers are able to stay home
  • Recognition for healthcare workers (e.g., crowd applause)
  • City mayors and State Governors acknowledging communities for social distancing
  • Local radio and TV stations telling many of the goodwill/heartwarming stories of companies helping others

PLACE STRATEGIES NOTICED: Making Access Convenient or Inconvenient

  • Reducing # of people in stores at any given time
  • Marking 6ft distances in stores
  • Use of face covering by retail workers
  • School closures
  • Non-essential businesses closed or moved to remote work options
  • Encouraging takeout orders
  • Blocked off playgrounds and parks
  • Blocked off parking in parks
  • Shared streets, accommodating cars, pedestrians and bicycles
  • One-way lanes in grocery stores
  • Widening sidewalks
  • Placing purchased items outside business door for pickup
  • Special hours for seniors and other vulnerable populations


  • Introducing Social Distancing vs. Physical Distancing
  • Distinguishing Face Cloths vs. Face Masks vs. Face Coverings
  • Fight Fear and Stigma as well as the Virus
  • Overstocking vs. Realistic Purchasing
  • Distinguishing Essential Businesses from Non-essential Businesses


Messages: Ones that Messengers, Creative Elements/Slogans Focused On:

  • Daily reports of new cases & deaths
  • Specific behaviors to do, how and why
  • What staying home will do to shorten and contain the spread
  • We will get through this together
  • Driven by the science narratives
  • Need for mass community action
  • Highlighting well known people with the virus (Cuomo, British Prime Minister, Tom Hanks)
  • Emphasizing it will take all of us to make a difference


  • Elected officials
  • Newscasters
  • Professors at University Medical Centers
  • Physicians
  • Health Agencies: CDC, State and County Public Health Departments
  • School Superintendents
  • Police & Fire Chiefs
  • People on nextdoor and Facebook sharing how to make a mask easily
  • General Public clapping for healthcare workers and first responders
  • Corporations and Foundations promoting desired behaviors:
    • Auto manufacturer showing cleaning steering wheel
    • Grocery stores
    • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation emphasizing importance of making testing more available and vaccines on a fast track
    • Major League Baseball making PPE out of uniforms
  • Late night hosts (Stephen Cobert, Fallon, Kimmel, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, etc.) hosting shows from home and promoting positive behaviors
  • Social influencers/celebrities leading by example (demonstrating their struggles/successes with homeschooling kids, promoting charities, showing how to make masks, featuring ways to stay connected while apart, providing entertainment, etc.)

Creative Elements: Graphics, Images, Slogans

  • We Will Get Through This Together
  • Spread the Facts
  • Be Kind
  • “April Distance Brings May Existence”
  • Stay Home. Stay Healthy.
  • Stay Home. Stay Safe.
  • Stand Together. Stay Apart.
  • Icons for behaviors: Stay home, Washing hands, 6 feet apart, Meditation
  • One-way directional signs on aisles in grocery stores
  • Cartoons
  • Songs (e.g., “Need a Little Help from My Friends” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”)

Media Channels

  • Press conferences
  • Radio and TV news/programs, and paid and unpaid ads
  • Town Halls (Remote)
  • Social Media
  • Emails to customers
  • Posters
  • Zoom
  • Neighborhood email groups
  • Retail store signage
  • Electronic signs on roadways
  • Billboards
  • Coverage of special events (e.g., neighbors on balconies singing, parades honoring local heroes)
  • Newspaper stories//Editorials


Done Well: Followed Social Marketing Principles

  • Consistent emphasis on major specific, doable behaviors
  • Focus on personal desired benefits
  • Focus on at risk populations and locations
  • Making norms visible
  • Featuring credible messengers
  • Recognizing that a mandatory behavior (quarantining) was necessary and engaging communities to “help” get through it
  • Reducing barriers (e.g., businesses shifting to home deliveries, employees working from home)

Could Have Been Better/More

  • Key behaviors and associated messages needed to be more consistent throughout the states
  • Some behaviors needed clarity and detail:
    • Use of masks and gloves
    • Sanitizing mail and takeout packages
    • Gatherings among families and friends not living together
    • What to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus
  • Products that would have helped reduce the spread:
    • More and sooner testing availability
    • More mask availability
    • Contact Tracing mechanisms
    • Immunizations
  • More multicultural and multilingual tailored messaging
  • Better and earlier funded public health and healthcare systems
  • Time and resources for more audience research throughout the process to make better informed decisions
  • Elected Officials: Although they frequently served as messengers to their constituents, it may have been beneficial for them to have been more strongly advised to engage in and make more visible specific behaviors that the general public was being encouraged to perform, primarily to help create a norm for desired behaviors. For example, I noticed press conferences where elected officials and their staff stood less than 6 feet apart; did not wear cloth masks, and even a few who shook hands.

In summary, I am happy (even thrilled) that many of Social Marketing’s best practices were implemented to help reduce the spread. In some ways, this felt like “our moment” to demonstrate Behavior Change for Social Good, one I hope we can refer to for future “wicked problems” that Social Marketing can help alleviate.



1. Retrieved April 13, 2020:

2. ESMA Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic. A Statement from the ESMA

3. ESMA Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic. A Statement from the ESMA


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