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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The non-consumption barrier to our vaccination drive

The non-consumption barrier to our vaccination drive

Like many CEOs, policymakers also need to recognize that the real challenge of success often lies in addressing various friction points that get in the way of a good offer being taken

Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
Photo: Hindustan Times

Most chief executive officers (CEOs) think of competition as the biggest challenge for getting customers to buy their products and services. But a much bigger challenge is non-consumption—especially when the reasons people aren’t buying have more to do with friction than with what one is selling. A recent article in The New York Times points out how clueless businesses often are of barriers in the way of prospects becoming actual customers. It describes a big population of those who haven’t gotten a covid vaccine yet, but aren’t hesitant. They’d gladly get vaccinated and put covid behind them if they could, but the barriers are too high and the people trying to ‘sell’ the idea to them don’t get it.

From a pleasant perch at a work-from-home office, with a schedule flexible enough to jump for a vaccine appointment when it opens up and drive for an hour if need be, the task of getting vaccinated might be modestly inconvenient, but it is certainly doable. It’s understandable why people in that situation might well be baffled by those who, despite the increasing availability of vaccines (in India during the campaign’s initial phase and in the US now), aren’t moving quickly to get them. This is a problem hiding in plain sight.

Many Indians were hesitant to embrace vaccination for a multitude of reasons. For starters, the World Health Organization’s vaccine advisory group had expressed complacency on the part of both the government and vaccine makers in India. Not all trials were done with the rigour expected, and many continue to have reservations on India’s accelerated speed of approvals and lack of transparent data. The government increased the gap between jabs from 4 weeks to 6, and then to 12 and now 16, in a manner that seemed arbitrary, which did little to quell rumours. Relentless talk that India’s fatality was much lower than the global rate also led some people to miscalculate the risk-return ratio in favour of no-vax.

How do we combat vax non-consumption? Start with the basics: How does one even know if one is eligible for a jab? By one study, about 3 in 10 people didn’t know if they were eligible in their state or not, and whether it was free or not. As any good marketer will tell you, even if I’m aware I have a problem, if I don’t know that there’s a potential solution, I’m unlikely to take action. And despite the well-intentioned posts on any number of official websites, the eligibility message is unlikely to cross the consciousness of those who don’t own a smartphone, don’t have broadband access, or don’t ‘doomscroll’.

Now consider those who aren’t working from home. Perhaps they’re in critical roles that require workplace attendance. Or they run small service businesses, as plumbers, electricians, home healthcare workers, home delivery agents, etc. For them, matching time availability with appointments is a challenge, especially when the website is cranky and hangs on overload. And what about lost pay for the hours it might take to get to a centre for a jab? And what of time lost to recovery from vaccine side-effects? Add to that the task of finding someone to look after the kids while you’re gone, or the trouble of reaching a vaccination site without public transport available under a lockdown.

India’s CoWin vaccination access system offers an illustration of how the challenge of non-consumption must get due attention. The essence of the problem is that even if someone wants your product or service because it meets an important need, barriers of access to that offering leave that need unmet, the deal unconcluded, and the potential transaction unconsummated.

For those making decisions on products, services, channels and offers, the barriers that hold off consumption are often invisible. Decision-makers can often swipe away challenges of cost, access, timing and convenience with superior resources. And yet, an incredible range of blind spots persists, limiting the reach of even an attractive offering.

A company that really counters this well is Amazon. As Geoff Colvin of Fortune admiringly remarked, “Amazon is the world champion at taking out friction." From one-click buying to ‘buy it again’ and instant reports on item availability to suggestions that are indeed relevant, all the way to doorstep delivery, the company has worked hard to eliminate barriers. In many cases, price barriers too. Even for those people who want to avoid doing business with Amazon, it’s hard.

What’s needed is the elimination of friction. Once you work out how to tackle non-consumption, it’s difficult to go back to putting up with friction.

Indian health authorities must work on that. In the US, the levelling off of its rate of vaccination was initially framed in terms of vaccine-hesitancy, or its more virulent cousin, anti-vax disinformation. That made for great headlines. When public health officials and other observers started digging in, however, it turned out to be a problem of non-consumption, primarily.

The response to that learning, while piecemeal and slow, is encouraging. Celebrities are endorsing vaccines and often sharing videos of getting vaccinated. New Jersey Transit, in partnership with Novartis, has begun offering free rides to vaccine sites. Pop-up vaccine sites are targeting hard-to-reach migrant workers where they live and work. Vaccine centres are shifting from appointments to a walk-in/drive-through model. And the conversation is shifting from seeing the unvaccinated as anti-vaxxers to simply lacking access. India has lessons to learn from this.

Rita McGrath and M. Muneer are, respectively, professor at Columbia Business School and founder of Valize; and the co-founder and chief evangelist of Medici Institute.

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Published: 17 Jun 2021, 10:05 PM IST
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