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2 Great Secrets to Marketing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

2 Great Secrets to Marketing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Talya Miron-Shatz

four cartoon faces wearing masks

To market to people during this difficult and scary period, to really and cleverly market to them, you must understand their deepest psychological needs

People want what they don’t have, and there are ways of figuring out exactly what it is that they don’t have and how they’d like it served to them—even during a pandemic.

1. Cater to the Underlying Psychological Need

When my friend had a bone marrow transfusion to treat her leukemia, she had to stay indoors for 100 days to avoid getting infected with germs from the world outside. I couldn’t imagine what this would feel like, to be locked down and isolated. I sent her a tea towel with an image of the sea—not because she needed a towel, but so that she could enjoy an image of the ocean and the sun. I figured this was her desire, something that would reassure her more than chocolate or flowers.

I’ve seen this applied in pharmaceutical marketing. There, people obviously have medical needs, but if you only appeal to these needs—such as controlling high blood pressure or diabetes—and ignore emotional ones, your marketing is less effective.  

Consider this classic Lipitor commercial. The presenter is reliably older than 50, but not much more. He stands near a body of water, which signifies movement and freshness, the opposite of stagnation and of, well, being old. He’s avoiding discussing the reason why people take Lipitor or any other statin, to reduce the risk of stroke. Instead, he presents it as a way by which to “stop kidding myself about high cholesterol.” He speaks his final lines from the water, wearing nothing but his tan and chiseled arm muscles. The psychological needs of people on statins to be fit, adventurous and attractive are fully answered.  


When I trained a national team of sales reps about a new and costly cancer medication, I focused on the doctors’ psychological needs. On the surface, they needed information. Psychologically, however, the doctors needed certainty that prescribing this contender to the blockbuster was the right thing to do. If you missed this point, you’d be flooding them with graphs and evidence, but not converting them. Some of them also needed to be innovators and lead—which is why our appeal to doctors led with “dare to prescribe.” From an informational point of view, it’s meaningless. From a psychological and marketing point of view, it’s brilliant.

But sometimes marketers miss the psychological mark altogether. An agency created a diabetes-management program for a company’s employees. It failed miserably. It was a free product, but employee uptake was incredibly poor and I was hired to discover why. I found that the diabetic employees hated the phone calls alerting them when their blood sugar level went up. To them, it was a talking-to, an intrusive Big Brother intervention. When you consider how many people pay to receive calls from health coaches, you wonder what went wrong and why these calls were resented.

There’s a hitch, which leads us to the second tip.

2. Cater to the Need Discretely

For a product or service to restore a person’s wounded sense of self, it needs to do so implicitly. When the product screams, “You’re ill, I’ll tell you what to do,” it forces the consumer to think of the problem. Instead, the product should be offered discretely and provide an empowering psychological benefit.

At my own company, Buddy&Soul, we’ve worked to design such tools by way of a personal development platform. Our offerings, such as science-based, actionable e-courses on stress management, self-esteem and authenticity, aim to elevate people instead of labeling them as patients. In my career, I’ve seen consumers walk away from too many sites that only catered to their medical identity.  

Under our current pandemic, we don’t have power. We’ve been stripped of the power to leave the house, to go out and spend money, to decide who to meet and where. Also stripped of the power to make things better, for ourselves, our loved ones and the world in general. We dislike feeling powerless.

One way people have found they can regain power and protect others is through charitable donations, which are a rather humane version of compensatory consumption (there are others, such as expensive facemasks, that allow for a feeling of power at this time through luxury goods—but they’ve received their fair share of criticisms).

Donating to others in this challenging time helps us to feel powerful in a way that implies gratitude and solidarity, not superiority and one-upmanship.

The moral of the story is that to market now, you need to:

  1. Find what the underlying psychological needs are. In these challenging coronavirus times, the secret to marketing is to understand that people crave being back in control.
  2. Pretend like the medical need does not exist. If you attack it directly, consumers will flee. If you help them feel as though a huge existential fear isn’t looming over their heads, they’ll let you in their pockets. They’ll even feel good about it.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash.

Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz is a decision scientist who specializes in medical decision making. She consults phrama, health advertisers, corporates and startups on digital health, patient engagement and prescriber behavior. She worked with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman at Princeton University and taught at Wharton. Her book on how we make medical decisions will be published by Basic Books in 2021, providing unique insights on for anyone working in and for the health industry. As CEO of Buddy&Soul, she offers a comprehensive take on patient self-management and engagement. Dr. Miron-Shatz contributes to Psychology Today.