Finger on India’s pulse

| Updated on: Oct 29, 2015
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What can marketing learn from the polio immunisation campaign?

Sivakama Sundari was tending to her one-year-old all by herself, when the door bell rang.

As she took time to answer the bell, the rings increased to frantic levels.

Assuming that it must be an emergency, Sundari rushed to the door. It was a volunteer from the Pulse Polio Immunisation programme. The volunteer issued a curt reminder to the Mumbai-based housewife that her child had not been administered the dose of polio drops on the occasion of Pulse Polio Immunisation Day (PPID) that happened two days before this encounter.

Soon a team of two arrived with a dosage and the child was administered polio drops at the household along with a stern reminder that she should not miss Pulse Polio Immunisation Days (PPID) in the future.

This incident, which happened a couple of months ago, deserves mention simply because it’s four years since India has witnessed a single new case of polio and the country was declared polio-free by the WHO last year.

Still, there is a tribe of nearly a million volunteers who continue to work without a pause to keep India polio-free on every PPID — and for follow-ups, like the case above.

These are volunteers who, according to Hindi film icon and the UNICEF goodwill ambassador for polio eradication, Amitabh Bachchan, “walked miles to make it happen. They occasionally even get beaten up and still continue.”

Last weekend, when World Polio Day was observed all over the world, a postage stamp was launched in India exhorting us to “Keep India Polio-Free”.

The polio example merits mention in a marketing supplement for its ability to identify and reach every part of its target audience, not just with the communication message, but also with the product (the inoculation dosage, in this case). In a country of more than 1.25 billion citizens living across unpredictable and occasionally hostile terrain, this is no mean achievement.

The best of FMCG marketers will agree with that. More importantly, even after the campaign has met its targets, there is no sign of it losing momentum. What are some marketing lessons from the polio case study?

Voter ink, chalk marks

India has roughly 174 million children under the age of five who had to be covered on every immunisation day.

Even with nearly one million volunteers on the road, this would be a Herculean task.

Ashok Mahajan, Member of the International Polio Plus Committee and Advisor, India National Polio Plus Committee, says that the team did simple things — for instance, breaking up a city like Mumbai into 7,000 booths. Each booth would have three volunteers and cater to around 200 children.

Every child who got a dosage of polio drops was marked with voter ink on its little finger. But unlike the elections, this group did not have charts. So how did they spot absentees?

Mahajan points out that the trick lies in recruiting locals, who would know who’s turned up this time and who has not. This move worked even in smaller villages where births would not get registered in time, particularly if the childbirth happened at home and not in any healthcare facility.

The other indicator was if fewer children turn up than the expected 200 on an immunisation day, volunteers would go around the locality.

In most buildings, there are stickers put up on the doors of those having children under five years. Or else at the entrance of the building which displays the list of residents, you will find a chalk mark next to the house that has smaller children.

“These identification signals differ from corporation to corporation and from State to State,” says Mahajan.

Horses for courses

The other highlight of the polio eradication campaign was in its advertising. “Polio is the greatest campaign for us because the nation reaped the results,” Piyush Pandey, executive chairman, Ogilvy India and South Asia, told a gathering during the launch of his book in Mumbai. On stage with Pandey was Hindi film icon Amitabh Bachchan, who was the face behind the campaign.

“We played a small part in the fight against polio. We were two members of the team,” they say in an attempt to underplay their contribution in the entire campaign.

Bachchan, who fronted the communication campaign, makes a point that clients could take note of — patience and persistence pays.

“The campaign was launched about eight years ago. We faced many issues,” he says, and elaborates that, for instance, in rural India, mothers were not willing to pursue the dosage for their young. Bachchan says that in the normal course of business, when they fail with one agency they change, but they chose to persist with both the agency and the ambassador.

Bachchan relates an anecdote. When everything else did not get the required results, the campaign managers decided to bring Bachchan in his film avatar that he’s most remembered for — the angry young man (though that was many decades ago).

“Instead of pleading we decided to get annoyed with them,” he says. The campaign with “great annoyance” worked. Bachchan recalls a UN representative telling him that when they decided to study the reason for the latest campaign’s success, one rural woman apparently told the team “ Amitabhji bahut naaraz tha isi liye humne pila diya ,” (Amitabh was very upset, hence I decided to give polio drops to my child).

Then, certain sections of Muslims were opposed to the idea of giving polio drops to their younger ones.

The campaign adopted a two-pronged approach. First, the India National Polio Plus Committee engaged with Muslim clerics by bringing them under one umbrella — the Rotary Muslim Ulema Committee.

That took away some of the resistance from Muslim households. On the advertising front, Amitabh Bachchan combined forces with Shah Rukh Khan to drive the message home.

Milestone after milestone

Finally, the campaign was successful because every stakeholder was made accountable. Pradeep Saxena, past president of The Rotary Club of Bombay, says,“Rotary is at the vanguard of the polio eradication campaign internationally.”

But when the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation committed $350 million to the cause, it was subject to Rotary raising $200 million.

It was through milestone-based achievements that the funds were released for the project.

As Rotary had a huge network in India and across the world, it could draw upon this large base of its volunteers who worked hand-in-hand along with government volunteers to make India polio-free.

The model will soon be replicated to eradicate other diseases. And probably be replicated by marketers too.

Published on January 23, 2018

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