Lessons from inside the UK Government’s ethnic Covid comms campaign

Lessons from inside the UK Government’s ethnic Covid comms campaign

Mediareach is a boutique ad agency that specialises in ethnic marketing. On 19 March last year, just days before the UK’s first national lockdown, the agency was called in to form part of a UK Cabinet Office communications taskforce with a brief to target Britain’s ethnic minorities with the ‘Stay at Home’ message.

“We targeted more than 30 different communities in the UK based on language, faith, regionality, new arrivals, first, second, fourth generation, Polish, Irish, Chinese, Japanese – anyone and everyone, because we’re all affected,” says Saad Al-Sharaf, Founder and CEO of Mediareach.

A year on from then and he draws comparisons with his experiences 30 years ago when the then Health Education Authority drafted him in to run 11 different campaigns targeting ethnic minorities for HIV/AIDS.

Saad Al-Sharaf... “In digital, brands target everybody they deem important in the sales funnel. But when it comes to diverse audiences, we are not seen as that important."

“People felt stigmatized. All sorts of media things were coming out and saying, ‘No, it’s not our disease, it’s your disease’. So there was a lot of mistrust,” says Saad.

Back then, the HIV/AIDS campaign used OOH, radio, press, as well as influential religious leaders and Bollywood celebrities to encourage behavioural change among communities who, at the time, believed they would not be affected by the disease.

The same channels were used again for Covid, with the two exceptions of OOH, which was abandoned quickly in favour of In-Home media and, of course, social media where fake news on Covid has circulated throughout.

He describes the whole experience as “tense but a worthy cause. We can work around the clock.”

Throughout the pandemic, Mediareach has reported through weekly calls to Team Nation, run by The Cabinet Office, which consists of “trusted” news companies and OMG Omni Gov, to deal with a fast moving brief aimed at providing a platform for information to millions of people.

Much of the work has been around generating content with influencers, such as, for example, a Gujarati-speaking healthcare professional ready to appear on radio and take questions from the community.

It has been an intense, fast-moving experience for the agency.

Editorial... one of the many key campaign outputs for print media

Lessons for brands from the Covid ethnic messaging campaign

The campaign is ongoing. But with this raft of experiences behind it, Mediareach has also been called in recently by local authorities in South London boroughs to run campaigns in several districts to address vaccine hesitancy, which has been shown to be higher among some ethnic minority groups.

Vaccine hesitancy among British ethnic communities, some have speculated, can be at least partly explained by a sense of marginalisation in these communities.

Covid, says Saad, has highlighted how ethnic minorities are often overlooked by brands.

He says, “Up to now, brands have paid lip service to the other, multicultural audience. It’s a tickbox exercise. It’s seen as tokenism.

“When [brands] do digital, when targeting people, they have different messages for different categories; specific messages for teenage girls and adults [for example] because they need all the audience to be captured. They want personalisation when it comes to digital. But when it comes to other audiences – Chinese, Arab, whatever – suddenly all of that personalisation is not relevant anymore.”

He continues, “In digital, brands target everybody they deem important in the sales funnel. But when it comes to diverse audiences, we are not seen as that important. Hence, I think, it gets into the mind of the ethnic consumer that ‘Maybe we’re not important’. And hence, when you have vaccine hesitancy you can’t just come to an audience and say: ‘Now is your time! I really care about you! Take this jab and go away!’”

With the 2021 census being carried out in March, Saad believes marketers will notice that a growing number of millennials and younger people will be of ethnic identity. He warns that brands who do not value them, and their identity, will pay a commercial penalty.