Removing ‘friction’ from India’s COVID-19 vaccination program

A lot has been written about how India eliminated Polio.

A related situation we are facing today is with the COVID-19 vaccine. The BIG difference: lack of time to conceive and launch a concerted campaign. Ideally, the conception should have started mid-late last year when other countries were placing massive orders for the then-untested/unproven vaccines, but I will let that be since that is not the focus of this post.

I’m not qualified to comment on the supply side of the vaccination.

From the beneficiary’s perspective (user/buyer), the vaccine situation could be seen from the prism of ‘friction’ that start-ups love to work on and reduce in order to make users/buyers aware of their product/service, consider it and eventually buy it.

Vaccine – Friction 1: Awareness
(addressing “Vaccination?”)

The biggest friction is that of creating massively widespread awareness that a vaccine exists and it is essential for us to collectively fighting and eliminating COVID-19.

This task has been middling, and this is where the Pulse Polio campaign worked phenomenally, but over a long period of time (that we do not have now). That campaign used every possible resource that can be used – superstar brand ambassadors (across States and pan-India), earworm’ish phone ringtones, massive TV, print, and outdoor advertising – to create awareness and visibility to the need.

An equivalent awareness campaign is imperative for the COVID-19 vaccination, though we do not have the luxury of time to lavish creativity on it. Yet, widespread awareness generation is as much a function of media spends as it is of creativity. We could start with functional messages and the power of media, and evolve the creativity as we go along. The Government has the might and resources to unleash a pan-India campaign and I’m sure that every media house in India would gladly volunteer to pitch/pool in with their support.

Consider the media plan needed to build such broad-based, pan-India, relentless awareness. Besides the phone intro messages (that were used last year), nothing short of a carpet-bombing of the message would do for this critical a need.

That means, we should be bombarded with a 15-30 second message before every OTT show we begin, on any OTT platform (this can be controlled, as much as telecom intro messages).

That means, every 3rd or 4th YouTube video starts with a 15-30 second message, on any given day.

That means, any linear TV channel we watch or any radio channel we listen to, there is at least one message every 60 minutes.

That means, any print newspaper we open (in any Indian language), there is a prominent strip ad, right below the masthead, asking us to get vaccinated.

Given this barrage, it is also important to plan for blindspots – the more the barrage, the more people are likely to assume they have already seen it and become blind to it after a point. So, using the base template, the campaign needs a monthly refresh (if not a fortnightly refresh) where major elements (say, like the face of the influencer/celebrity, or the headline) change, to make sure that they cannot be missed.

The use of regional languages is incredibly crucial for this campaign to succeed. This is an aspect where the Pulse Polio campaign truly shone.

An important aspect of the creativity to build awareness is the fact that if someone witnesses a message (that is part of the campaign), they should be hugely interested, incentivized, or compelled to share it forward or tell someone else/talk about it.

This is the kind of campaign that demands a thought-provoking/provocative image that you cannot get out of your mind to be indelibly linked to ‘COVID-19 vaccination’.

This is the kind of campaign that demands a jingle/song/tune that you cannot get out of your brain. It has to infect (sorry – pun unintended) your mind and stay there, even if you hate it.

This is the kind of campaign that we should all be greeting each other with, side-stepping “Aur, kya chal raha hai?”, “Oota aita?”, “Eppidi irukkeenga?”, etc. We should instead of greeting each other with a phrase that amounts to ‘Have you got vaccinated?’ (in a slightly more creative manner, of course).

A good yardstick for breaking the friction in awareness is to ensure that people are ‘touched’ several times in a day with the campaign’s many media tentacles. The more the touches, the better the consideration (next point).

Vaccine – Friction 2: Consideration
(addressing the “Vaccination? Do I really need it?“)

This is a significant part of the first friction – when the Government launches the awareness campaign, what would it say to build consideration for the vaccine among the poorest who are worried about their next meal?

That is not an easy question to answer. There is a lot of vaccine hesitancy in India for a multitude of reasons.

Usually, marketers use familiar faces of celebrities to infuse consideration in the message. Amitabh Bachchan did that for Pulse Polio, for instance, as he now does for a range of products from a scooter… to underwear. The familiarity could break the clutter among the other messages being bombarded at people, but too much familiarity could also breed blindspots.

A sheer media assault too could help build consideration. For example, the Airtel Girl campaign was unmissable because of the media assault it was layered in. That could at least make you consider what she was selling, but whether you also bought what she was selling had more dimensions.

Could the messaging use fear as a sentiment to build consideration? Insurance companies use fear very effectively and that could inspire this vaccine campaign to layer fear intelligently within the messaging. This is the ‘what if not’ part of the message to build consideration and urgency/immediacy of need.

Also, ‘People like me are getting the vaccine’ could be a powerful motivator to consider the vaccine.

The more the vehicles of consideration, the better the trust (next point).

Vaccine – Friction 3: Trust
(addressing the “Vaccination? Would it really help me?“)

Even more significant than consideration, what should the campaign say to make people trust the vaccine’s efficacy inherently?

Could the messaging use facts and data to build trust? This is the ‘what’ part of the message to build trust.

Or, would the faces roped in to talk about it be trusted to say the right thing and do the right thing? This is the ‘who’ part of the message to build trust.

For instance, when Coca-Cola faced the pesticides controversy, one route they took was to rope in Aamir Khan (known for his thoroughness in everything, generally) and got him to tour a Coca-Cola plant. That was Coca-Cola’s way of earning the trust back in their product, riding on the trust Aamir enjoyed/enjoys.

Like in consideration, the ‘People like me are trusting the vaccine’ could also help in building trust. The ‘people like me’ could have so many dimensions – people who live in the same city, who speak the same language, who eat the same kinds of food, etc. This would also mandate a nuanced media planning approach – a centrally created template for the message that is highly locally customized for assorted regions, in assorted regional languages.

The more the vehicles and layers of building trust, the better the immediacy of need that leads to delivery (next point).

Vaccine – Friction 4: Delivery
(addressing the “Vaccination? But where and how?“)

Our former Prime Minister Deve Gowda had written a letter to the Prime Minister suggesting ways to handle the crisis.

Point 7 in his letter was, “All barriers of identity proof should be dropped for poor people who come forward to get themselves vaccinated. Not having access to the internet and not having sufficient knowledge to register on the Government’s vaccine portal should not become a barrier to get vaccines“.

This is an interesting thought. Why not make the vaccination delivery completely friction-free by letting people walk in, get the jab, and walk out? Why insist on online registration, appointment, identity check, and so on, where every one of those elements increases friction?

A few logical reasons:

  • to keep a track of total vaccination numbers (records)
  • to keep track of a person’s first and second dose
  • to manage supply and demand

But, if we start with the premise that we should get anyone and everyone to simply walk into any nearby primary care center or Government/private hospital and get the vaccination, we may be looking at removing every possible barrier and make the experience monumentally friction-free.

This means letting the vaccine be very, very widely available, just like the Polio drops that were literally being administered on children on parents’ laps in gardens and on the road!

There are practical issues in this given the supply crunch for vaccines right now, but this is not likely to last (hopefully). The ideal state is to have more vaccines than people and make the vaccine availability utterly common and predictable. FMCG brands are very good at such widespread distribution, but they also sell products that don’t require ‘administering’. But surely the Government can learn something about distribution from the FMCG sector.

This also means giving the vaccines free of cost. Is that practically possible? A lot of things are subsidized by Governments across the world for various reasons. In this case, the reason is life and death, and everyone’s life is interlinked with each other, based on the success of the vaccination program. That’s a good starting point to consider free vaccination for all, for the sake of all. But, it is not that simple, of course, given the cost of manufacturing, the short period of time within which they need to be manufactured, the cost of distribution, and so on. This is the most complex, market-related problem that needs solving to reduce friction.

The third consideration is around the data needed to identify each citizen. Does it mandate only online registration and ID papers like Aadhaar? Could we do with no registration/Aadhaar and other, far more rudimentary methods? Would an election-style indelible ink (in another color, perhaps, given recent elections?) help in identifying each participant? Could that be linked with mobile sms-based authentication (that could be used also for reminders for 2nd shot)?

What if someone does not have a mobile/feature phone? That seems impossible, but that is something that needs to be considered given the criticality of the vaccination and the sheer size of India’s population. Should the bar (of expectation – minimum viable product) be lowered for such people to consider ‘at the very least… the first shot’?

This friction in delivery being removed (or the bar being ridiculously low) should be an integral part of the messaging too, to help build both consideration and trust.


COVID-19 vaccination is a hugely complicated issue, but it is also incredibly dire as a need. I would say that this is THE MOST important campaign the Indian Government ever needs to launch in recent history/memory and in the results of the campaign, hinges the country’s entire future and prospects.

By now, we should all be bombarded with multiple messages for vaccination on every possible medium – it should ideally be something we cannot get away from, ignore or miss. Last year, to a large extent, the same impact was crated for the basic COVID-19 precautions. In particular, the mobile phone introduction message, though annoying, was monumentally effective. That is the level of widespread awareness we need for the vaccination, followed by looking to completely remove all friction in consideration, trust, and delivery.

In other words, the COVID-19 campaign should ideally be THE most viral (pun intended – and I apologize for it) campaign ever launched by the Indian Government. We are nowhere near it right now, but I seriously wish we would get somewhere soon.

Cover picture courtesy: Kendal.

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