Pharma looks to spotlight need for more patients—and diversity—in COVID-19 trials

Klick Health and ACTIV are targeting a diverse group as volunteers in a COVID-19 treatment trial. (Klick Health)

Customers visiting Black-owned barbershops are getting an education along with their undercuts—thanks to a new COVID-19 marketing effort. 

The new focused effort in the Rise Above COVID campaign offers masks, hand sanitizers and information cards at barber and beauty shops to direct people how to join a treatment trial if they become infected with COVID-19.

The targeted outreach—part of a bigger, pharma-backed push to recruit diverse patients for COVID trials—launched a few weeks ago as a grassroots effort with Black barbershops and salons in Chicago, New York and the Raleigh-Durham area. It's meant to help overcome the community's mistrust of the medical field, especially when it comes to trials and experiments.

Using a “train the trainer” model, field team leaders spoke with doctors involved in COVID-19 treatment trials to answer any questions and emphasized the importance of the Black communities’ participation. Klick Health partnered with Wil Power Integrated Marketing and its network of barbershops and salons across the U.S. to jumpstart the community-focused campaign.

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Klick and Wil Power realize the importance of the barber businesses and their owners as trusted voices and "respected entrepreneurs within their communities," Amy Gómez, Klick Health senior VP and head of cross-cultural marketing, said.

"The barbershop or the salon is kind of a sacred space where you learn about what's happening in the neighborhood and you talk about the world news, the function goes far beyond just getting your hair done,” she said.

Klick is the agency of record for Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) and created its cross-cultural Rise Above COVID campaign to help drive volunteers to clinical trials. The effort reminds people that while vaccines may be grabbing headlines, important coronavirus treatments are still in development—and clinical trials still need patients.

ACTIV—a public-private initiative that includes pharma members such as Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer and Roche's Genentech—was founded as the pandemic began last April by the National Institutes of Health to prioritize and speed up the development of coronavirus treatments and vaccines.

The Rise Above campaign launched in September with a handful of trial sites in a few states and has now grown to 123 sites in more than 45 states. Its marketing features COVID-19 patients encouraging others to join the fight. The aim is to change the view from victims of the virus to people who not only get treatment for themselves but also take an active part to help the community.

On its website, patients stand by statements such as, “I’m not a COVID-19 patient, I am a breakthrough waiting to happen” and “I'm not a COVID-19 patient, I’m a discovery in the making.”

The ACTIV group's job is a challenging and time-sensitive one—they need to find people who've been diagnosed with COVID-19 within the past six days.

“Even now that we have vaccines, people are still getting sick and people are still dying. It's critically important that we find safe and effective treatments," Gómez said.

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The target group is essentially anyone over the age of 18 with COVID-19, but the coalition is especially interested in outreach to communities of color—specifically to Black and Latino communities which have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.

Klick executive creative director Samantha Dolin said the ultimate goal of the project is that it becomes obsolete.

“It's an interesting paradox that we always keep in the back of our mind," she said. "Closing shop on this, so to speak, is actually a day of celebration for us because it means we've really crossed a key milestone and found that solution for the communities to heal.”