In recent decades, there have been cases, albeit not many, of the names of natural disasters or diseases coinciding with the name of a product or brand, bringing into question the old adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. The most recent example of this is the coronavirus disease, which has naturally raised associations between it and Corona Beer. The question is what consequences, if any, this has had on Corona Beer sales, and what approach the company can take to protect its brand and trademarks from any potentially deleterious effects.
Prior to the World Health Organisation (WHO) issuing the Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases in 2015, diseases were commonly named after their place of origin, e.g. the Spanish flu, MERS, Zika, and Ebola, or the species of animal from which the disease was thought to have originated, e.g. swine flu and bird flu.
Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security at the WHO, has noted that the naming of diseases after a geographic location or species has had unintended negative consequences by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors, including the creation of unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and the triggering of the needless slaughter of food animals.
With this in mind, the aim of the best practices is to minimize the unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and to avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups. The WHO advises that disease names should avoid geographic locations, people’s names, species of animal or food, and other references that could incite fear or place blame.
Although the coronavirus disease was named after the Latin word for ‘crown’ due to its characteristic crown-like spikes which can be observed when it is viewed under a microscope, the link to Corona Beer, whose logo is also a crown, is clearly coincidental, but is nevertheless present. The official name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus was announced by the WHO in February to be COVID-19.‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ stands for virus and ‘D’ stands for disease, while 19 refers to the year in which it was discovered(2019).It is, however, still colloquially referred to by many as coronavirus or simply ‘corona’.
The association of the coronavirus disease to the beer in the minds of the public is clearly evidenced by the growth in internet search numbers for ‘corona beer virus’, ‘beer virus’ and ‘beer coronavirus’, as revealed by Google Trends data. In addition, two surveys conducted in the US found that 38% of Americans would not buy Corona Beer under any circumstances and that consumers’ intent to purchase the product has fallen to its lowest in two years. It can, however, be argued that this association between the disease and the beer is specific to the English-speaking market because in Italian and Spanish, as in Latin, the term corona means ‘crown’ and would thereby be perceived by the public as a generic term which they would not automatically associate with Corona Beer.
Constellation Brands, the distributor of Corona Beer in the United States, has said that its customers understand that there is no link between the coronavirus disease and its product, and that sales of Corona Extra grew by 5% in the US in the four weeks ending on 16 February 2020, which was nearly double the trend of the previous 52 weeks. It also stated that these surveys do not reflect the company’s performance, and it referred to news of the negative impact of the coronavirus disease on the brand as misinformation.
Despite the company’s contentions, the effects of the pandemic on the brand may be far more nuanced than that. Take, for example, the steady stream of memes on social media which connect the disease to the beer, or the criticism of Corona’s slogan “coming ashore soon” in regard to its new hard seltzer as being in poor taste. There is also the possibility of competitors using the current states of affairs to their advantage by taking a dig at Corona Beer through the promotion of their own products. Until now, Corona’s competitors have mercifully abstained from such tactics, but nonetheless, the company’s buzz score, a metric that measures favourability, has dropped significantly since the beginning of the year.
In terms of managing the negative publicity, it appears that the marketing department of Corona has three options: it can either rebrand, which would have to include a name change (and a very complex global trademark strategy); confront the issue head-on; or lay low until the storm blows over. The approaches of companies in similar situations in the past have been varied, as were the results. The worst case was probably that of Ayds Diet Candy, an appetite suppressant which was first marketed to the public in the 1930s. By the1980s, their sales had been so negatively affected by the AIDS pandemic that the company attempted to salvage its product’s reputation by changing the name to Diet Ayds, which, for obvious reasons, did not have the desired effect, and the product was eventually discontinued. In contrast, the sales of an Australian company’s caramel-flavoured Sarsaparilla drink, abbreviated as SARS, went up during the SAR outbreak in the early 2000s because consumers viewed it as a novelty item.
In the present instance, Corona Beer is neither in such a precarious situation as Ayds Diet Candy had been, nor in such a favourable position as Golden Circle’s SARS. One major contributing factor to the downfall of Ayds Diet Candy was the association between the nature of the product, which was intended to achieve weight loss, and weight loss as a symptom of AIDS. Advertisements promoting weight loss which was attributed to “Ayds” understandably offended public morality. However, unlike Ayds Diet Candy, there is no direct correlation between the nature of Corona Beer and the coronavirus disease. Therefore, the current situation would not seem to warrant so drastic a remedy as a complete name change on the part of Corona Beer.
The second option is for the company to address the issue directly, but this would seem out of character for a company that has not previously participated in the social commentary expected of brands in the new era of marketing. Unlike companies such as Dove, who championed self-love and confidence through their ‘real beauty’ campaign, and Gillette, who showed their support for the MeToo movement through an advertisement tackling toxic masculinity, Corona’s commentary has been limited to the weather, sports, and the promotion of its brand. Moreover, as Jeff Beer pointed out in an article published for FastCompany on 04 March 2020 (“Why Corona Beer’s silence is the best possible response to coronavirus memes and discussion”), a clear voice or ‘personality’ that would be able to comment on social issues has not been established through Corona’s marketing, which is probably one of the reasons why they have not decided to comment on the pandemic.
The last resort, which is the one that Corona Beer seems to have opted for, is to remain silent and weather the storm. Apart from a statement by a spokesperson in which the company expressed its empathy with those affected by COVID-19, it has deliberately not addressed the likeness between the name of the brand and the name of the disease other than to say that their customers understand that there is no connection between the two. Given the unpredictability of the public’s response to a situation such as this and the likelihood that publicity surrounding the coincidence between the names will die down over time, a vow of silence seems like the most logical approach that Corona Beer could have opted for, particularly considering that they have found themselves facing a dilemma that most companies would rarely, if ever, have to face.