Branded face masks is a strategy our industry and government should be exploring

With mask-wearing compulsory in some parts of Victoria, Roger Hogan suggests that marketers, and governments, should create branded face masks. It would help brands, but it might also just encourage the public to widely wear them.

On the weekend, the Victorian government made face masks compulsory in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire. As the pandemic develops, the same could happen in other states, perhaps across the whole country. But before other governments rush to follow Victoria’s example, it should consider an alternative, or at least complementary, strategy: branded face masks.

If the goal is to protect our health with as little cost as possible to our civil liberties, harnessing the power of marketing, business competition, and consumer choice is likely to be a better option than compulsion.

Even if we take civil liberties out of the equation, there are still reasons to think that a private-sector solution – branded face masks sold by retailers and given away as promotional items – would be more effective and efficient in the medium and long terms. It would certainly be more colourful.

Imagine a street full (to the extent permissible under lockdowns and other restrictions) of faces half-obscured by anonymous strips of fabric. The word ‘dystopia’ comes to mind.

Now picture that same street, where those strips of fabric advertise footy teams, rock bands, celebrities, super heroes… whatever expresses the passions, interests and humanity of the people behind the masks.

I know which one I’d rather walk down, and I suspect most people would feel the same. But creating a private-sector solution for a national public health emergency would require high-level collaboration between Australia’s governments and the marketing industry.

Compulsion has a short shelf life

Clearly, compulsion is necessary right now in Melbourne and Mitchell, and the Andrews government has understandably extended the state of emergency to 16 August. It’s likely, however, that the requirement to wear masks will last well beyond that date.

That’s relevant, because there are reasons to think that a compulsory mask-wearing regime will become less effective and efficient the longer it stays in place.

The most obvious measure of effectiveness would be the compliance rate—and this is where, in my view, the compulsion model becomes risky for governments. Public trust in governments and other institutions had sunk to an all-time low before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the public’s patience has been stretched further by virus-related lockdowns and other restrictions.

It would take only a few incidents of mule-headed refusal to wear a mask and one or two arrests to darken the public mood further, with potentially adverse consequences at the ballot box.

And how efficient is it, from a taxpayer’s point of view, to spend money on enforced mask-wearing when so much is being spent, and so much debt incurred, on measures already in place?

While compulsion might be necessary, and even desirable, in the short term, a private-sector solution could prove effective and efficient over longer periods.

A branded solution

It’s true that most Australians have not become regular mask-wearers since the pandemic began.

As ABC Melbourne Radio noted recently, this is partly for cultural reasons and partly because of mixed messages in the pandemic’s early stages about whether or not masks were proof against COVID-19.

Messaging should no longer be an issue, as informed consensus now favours wearing masks.

Better still, from a marketer’s point of view, designer masks have begun to pique consumer interest, suggesting there is scope to leverage that interest into sales of masks that carry popular brands. On that basis alone, branded face masks – compared to the compulsion model – would be pushing at an open door. There might (might) be a longer-term pay-off if branded face masks prove so popular that people wear them during normal flu season, once the pandemic has run its course. That would be a major behavioural, even cultural, change for Australians.

There would also be a much lower, perhaps very low, cost to government (i.e. the taxpayer) if the private sector, driven by the prospect of profit, finances the initiative.

Harnessing the profit motive to a national public health outcome would require top-level collaboration between governments and the industry. Perhaps a Zoom call between the federal government and, say, the Australian Marketing Institute would be a start.

Scott Morrison, you’re a marketing man—how about it? And all you marketers out there: You and your brand-owning clients could make some money. You’d certainly be doing a lot of public good.

Roger Hogan is the principal of Australian Media Services


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.