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Columbia Students Tackle COVID-19 Marketing Challenge

Matthew Sawyer is a strategic marketing and communication professional who has built brands ranging from beverage and business products to financial services and high-tech startups.

Last week, students in my Industry Insider course worked with marketing communication experts from Americares, a global nonprofit organization focused on healthcare and disaster relief, to solve the most critical challenge of our time — getting people to wear masks, social distance and wash hands to stop the spread of COVID-19. The students met the challenge with creative ideas that could effectively change people’s behavior; ideas that impressed seasoned experts in the communication industry.

Women washing hands. SOURCE: Americares, Veejay Vilafranca photographer

“I was impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and level of engagement,” said Americares Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Jed Selkowitz. “They brought a fresh perspective and a wealth of new ideas we had not explored previously.”

During the first 30 minutes of the virtual workshop, students learned from the Chief Marketing Officer and four members of his team about the communication function at Americares. Valuable insights were gained about the differences between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Students also learned about Americares’ rebranding initiative that included focusing its messaging on health as “Health makes everything possible” (VIDEO).

Students asked many questions about the structure of the organization, their content development process, and careers in nonprofit communications. They appreciated the in-depth and honest responses of the Americares team. As Clement Gibson, a first-year student in the M.S. Strategic Communication program, remarked, “transparency was present.”

Then students were grouped into five groups of six to work on the COVID-19 marketing challenge. They had already received a briefing document, so they came prepared to discuss, debate, and decide which ideas to recommend. Here are the instructions given:

The brief is simple—creative behavioral change. Specifically, create behavioral change across the country to increase adoption of mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing to help stem the spread of COVID-19 until we can administer the vaccines.


  1. Who are the target audience(s) in what geography? Why?
  2. What's the message to change behavior on masks/distancing/washing hands?
  3. How should Americares deliver the message?
  4. What strategic partners make sense (corporate and/or media)?

We regrouped after another 30 minutes for presentations from the students with questions, comments, and critique from the Americares team and Columbia faculty. Noteworthy, everyone agreed that government mandates would be met with resistance and probably not solve the problem. Rather each student group came up with positive and action-oriented messages targeted to a specific vulnerable audience. For example, one group recommended telling people in rural communities that wearing a mask is a symbol of being an American and a Patriot. They thought this message should be delivered by people respected in those communities, such country music artists, on the upcoming Academy of Country Music Awards and other appropriate media. 

Other groups recommended positive, action-inducing messages delivered by celebrities and role models targeting a specific audience. The Americares team thought these ideas were smart and appropriate, particularly if they are “hyper-local.” One group recommended a mobile app and other technology to reward college students for social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing. The Americares team thought this idea might be attractive to restaurants and retailers that lost volume due to the pandemic. (Note that Americares relies on business and media partners, because over 98% of their resources support health programs.)

"The workshop with Americares exemplifies our Strategic Communication program’s focus on current topics,” said Charlene Perilla-Iqbal, Deputy Academic Director of the M.S. in Strategic Communication program in Columbia University School of Professional Studies. “In addition, the students learned directly from a C-level executive about the inner workings of marketing and communication for a global health nonprofit organization.”

Child and medical work wear face masks. SOURCE: Americares, Ana Maria Ariza, photographer

About Americares

According to Forbes, Americares Foundation is the country’s 11th largest charity organization. Its mission is to “save lives and improve health for people affected by poverty or disaster so they can reach their full potential.” Each year Americares helps millions of people by supporting over 4,000 health centers worldwide with life-changing medicine, medical supplies, and health programs. Americares is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in 26 countries, providing critically needed protective gear, training and emotional support for frontline health workers to ensure they can continue their lifesaving work.

About Industry Insider          

Industry Insider is a core course for full-time students in the M.S. Strategic Communication program at Columbia University. The course was developed and is taught by Matthew Sawyer. It introduces students to the complex and changing communication and media industry. Students learn from top industry executives who participate in virtual workshops and guest speakers. In addition to Americares, students this semester participated in virtual workshops with AT&T, IBM, Mastercard, and the branding agency Landor + Fitch.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.