Names, like sticks and stones, can hurt you. Just ask Corona — the beer, not the virus.
The coronavirus is currently a trending topic and a major public health hazard worldwide. But at the same time, it is also not doing the Mexican beer brand of the same name any good. Being linked to something like the corona virus is something you absolutely do not want as a brand. The name corona virus comes from the Latin word corona, meaning crown or halo. Under an electron microscope, the image of the virus is reminiscent of a solar corona.
In a recent article published by nytimes.com (2020) the following statement was made – Grupo Modelo’s Corona beer drew attention about a month ago after consumers mistakenly associated it with the fast-spreading Corona virus, which by that point had already begun its global march. Corona has become the subject of memes and videos shared on social media as the toll from the virus climbs worldwide. Reports of an increase in online searches for “corona beer virus” and “beer coronavirus” show the Mexican beer hasn’t been able to escape the association.
Even if the vast majority of people aren’t making the association, there still could be damage to the brand’s goodwill just because of the similar names. Trademark attorney and founder of Gerben Law Firm, Josh Gerben, notes: “The vast majority don’t think they’re tied. But you don’t know what the subliminal messaging is here.”
One must ask the question – Who is to Blame? If anyone is to blame for turning a perfectly good word meaning crown into a modern synonym for a deadly virus, it’s the scientists in the late 1960s who decided that the protrusions on the virus they were examining under a microscope looked rather like the bright gaseous ring visible around the sun during an eclipse. One thing is for sure – the word that will emerge from the current crisis battered and vilified beyond all recognition is most certainly corona.
As we can imagine Corona beer is potentially facing a PR nightmare. But they’re not the first. Other brands have felt the pain of homonymy too, for example:
- a soda called Sars – marketed in Taiwan
- a chocolate called Isis (in fact a pharmaceutical company and a wallet app have been called Isis as well)
- Golden Gaytime is an Australian ice cream bar. Their slogan: “It’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own.”
- An appetite suppressant candy called Ayds – “Ayds helps you take-off weight and helps you keep it off.”
It also does not help that Corona, like Ayds, seems to have an ill-chosen tag line. In case Ayds didn’t already remind you of AIDS, the motto “Ayds helps you take- off weight” drove the point home. Likewise, Corona’s pitch for its new “hard seltzer” flavours is: “coming ashore soon.”
The name Corona is now on everybody’s lips. And in marketing terms, that is never NOT an opportunity. In other words, should Corona leverage the negative attention and spin it in a positive way?
Times change. In the case of brands there’s simply too much value built into a successful name. But that can change overnight, if world events overtake the marketing department.
So what does a million dollar brand like Corona do? Some products have tried to shed their old names and start a new life:
- The Belgian Isis brand chocolate bar changed its name to Libeert.
- The Isis pharmaceutical company changed its name to Ionis.
- The Isis Wallet app changed its name to Softcard.
- Ayds ultimately changed its name to Diet Ayds — but it was not an appreciable improvement. That brand disappeared from shelves.
Corona is, of course, a bigger brand than any of these. The most likely course — and possibly the best one — for them is to wait it out.
“You sit still and wait for the storm to pass” said advertising legend Harvey Gabor, who’s been through this. Richard Nixon had a great line. “The memory of the average American is one week. Just sit tight”
Trademark professionals would advise to keep an eye on the way the name is being used and ensure against issues of dilution or disrepute in the marketplace. It’s important to make sure that no other brand is being opportunistic to use their name in combination with the virus to tarnish the brand. It’s unlikely that another beer brand would take such a serious global situation as an opportunity for a cheap advertising pot-shot, but the lines of parody can be blurry and it’s not unfeasible that the beer’s name could be implied with a relation to the virus. The brand will want to keep an eye on media mentions of the virus that don’t clearly distinguish between the beer brand’s name. Were coronavirus to start being written about without the ‘virus’ suffix, then Corona would need to act.
Is It OK to Make Coronavirus Memes and Jokes? Humour can relieve anxiety; it can also stoke tensions or spread misinformation. So, the answer isn’t simple. In fact, a South China Morning Post article details some of the memes that have already spread around the internet relating the beer brand to the deadly virus. One picture shows a bottle of Corona placed opposite a group of Heineken bottles with a facemask covering them. While it isn’t exactly a PR crisis, this obviously isn’t a situation that Corona’s PR and marketing teams want to be in. That’s not to say it can’t be turned into an opportunity, despite the tricky connotations. And herein lies the lesson: This is a great case study in making the most of difficult circumstances.
It’s also an important reminder to have an action plan in place so that your organisation is prepared to deal with any bad press that comes its way.
The brand will want to keep an eye on media mentions of the virus that don’t clearly distinguish between the beer brand’s name. In fact, Corona may be able to increase its brand reputation – provided that any attempts are not read as cynical and opportunistic. This could help build some equity in your brand in otherwise unfortunate circumstances.
If AB InBev (Belgium owners) don’t keep engaging with the Corona beer stakeholders, others in the media fill the vacuum. It also leaves the door wide open for speculation and innuendo.
At the end of the day it is evident that the beverage has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but it may be an ideal opportunity to turn negative association into positive by offering even just a fraction of their marketing spend, for example, to helping mitigate the spread of the disease. Just imagine all the goodwill and free press this will bring about…
So then what do you do if your service or product, and ultimately your brand, are on the receiving end of widespread negative social media attention?
- Be Proactive – be decisive yet thoughtful in your response — a brand’s reaction can mean the difference between a classy recovery and fanning the unwelcome flames
- Respond with Speed – An organisation’s survival in a crisis, depends enormously on the speed of its responses.
- Continued Strategic Engagement – The lack of engagement inevitably raises concerns about how transparent the company has been in handling this crisis
- Plan and Prepare – As soon as you realise your brand is going viral for the wrong reasons, commission real-time social research to uncover the hotspots of heated criticism
- Anticipate and adapt – The better you have anticipated the possible scenarios, the more prepared you are and the more confident you will be in implementing the changes
- Apologise if need be
- Take action and stay connected
- Adjust your marketing strategy – Brands need to adjust their media investments based on the moods and expectations of consumers.
This is not a time for the Corona marketing team to panic or for that matter any other marketing team that is faced with the challenges of today. Don’t throw your brand into a continuous stream of frantic tactics. A frantic response is not the way to build a powerful and resilient brand. It’s a time to focus on the purpose of the brand.
Businesses that are aligned behind a compelling purpose will inspire their employees, connect with their consumers, and earn love and loyalty that will persevere in times of change and times of hardship.
And ultimately ensuring the longevity of the brand.