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Social marketing and shared beliefs combat COVID-19 in South Korea

  • July 30, 2021
A new study examines how South Korea’s social marketing strategies reduced the country’s spread of COVID-19.
Written by: Eric Lamar Burts
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton

Two women walking through a village in South KoreaA new study examines how South Korea’s social marketing strategies reduced the country’s spread of COVID-19.Despite the global shift in everyday life during the pandemic, South Korea devised numerous ways to reduce the highly contagious respiratory disease through strategic communication strategies.  

Thomas Powers, Ph.D., professor of marketing in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business and co-author of the research article “COVID-19: Lessons from South Korean Pandemic Communications Strategy,” explains the link between social marketing and health policy to address the pandemic in South Korea.

Many health crises are “wicked” problems, Powers says — social or cultural problems that are challenging to solve due to divergent opinions, lack of a single solution and incomplete knowledge. In 2015, after the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome broke out, citizens criticized South Korean officials for failure to inform them of the disease. The aftermath of the MERS outbreak helped South Korean officials recognize the importance of transparency.

Social marketing was central to the distribution of effective communication in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was to integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviors such as social distancing that benefit everyone for the greater social good.  

“Thanks to transparent risk communications throughout the pandemic, the public’s trust in the Korean government has been pretty high,” said Seongwon Choi, Ph.D., who received her doctoral degree in health services administration from UAB and is co-author of the study. Choi is an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Administration at Trinity University.

The authors studied four social marketing mix applications to pandemic communications:  

Product communication – A new set of behaviors improves the overall health of the population. Wearing masks, contact tracing, self-isolation and social distancing help minimize the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.

Price communication – The cost of adopting new behaviors is beneficial. Purchasing masks and giving up social interactions are both monetary and non-monetary costs to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Place communication – Given the severity of the virus and its transmissibility, adopting the new behaviors must be available for everyone. South Korea created an extensive network of accessible guidelines and policies for the public.  

Promotion communication – Accurate and transparent messaging systems through different media channels help control the offset of distrust among the public.  

Choi says South Korea’s shared beliefs and trust in authority made Koreans willingly share their personal information with the government.

According to a survey by the Institute of Future Government, nearly 85 percent of Koreans preferred having transparent information provided by the government on the details of the movements of infected patients to withholding the information for privacy protection.

“Koreans share a common understanding that combating the pandemic is critical for the nation,” Choi said. “If it takes giving up privacy, they are willing to do so. I also see that, because Koreans see and hear detailed contract tracing information updated daily, they know how their information is being used to keep the public safe.”