Brand aid: What happens when your name is hijacked by a disaster or rogue entity?

29 February 2020 | 6 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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One has to feel for the makers of Corona beer. Over the last seven days, its stock value has dropped by 12 per cent while at the same time a poll has found that more than half of all Americans (52 per cent) either refuse to buy (38 per cent) or order a Corona in public (14 per cent) because of the association between the product’s name and the coronavirus outbreak.

These people are of course morons. But Corona, much like Boris Johnson’s sluggish response to its namesake virus, appears to be struggling with what should be done next in the face of its current predicament.

For instance, last week (24th February) the official Corona beer Twitter feed (@coronaextrausa) posted the following:

The dumb headedness of the branding and public relations team at Corona who thought that “Coming Ashore Soon” was a ‘good idea’ for a strapline at this precise moment in time, is palpable. Surely someone made the association between the product’s name and that of one of the most frightening viruses of recent years, and that failure to do would make them appear insensitive, ignorant of what is happening around them and naive? It would seem not.

Corona have now had the good sense to remove the ill-considered post but only following the social media backlash that ensued which won’t have done their reputation (or stock value) much good.

Indeed, this single post has potentially irreversibly damaged the Corona brand among a consumer base that until now was empathetic over the unfortunate name it now shares with something so tragic.

So, what should a business do if its name suddenly finds itself associated with an unfortunate set of circumstances that negatively shifts perception of how their brand?

Taking a leaf out of the history books

Corona is not the first brand to suffer such an unfortunate twist of fate. Tata Motors experienced the same situation in 2016.

The Indian motor company launched a multi-million dollar global advertising campaign fronted by footballing great Lionel Messi to promote its new ‘Zica’ model, which was expected to have its grand unveiling at the Auto Expo in New Delhi that year.

It never happened.

As momentum was building for the launch, so was the spread of the ‘zika’ virus which the World Health Organisation declared a global public health emergency. One of the major side effects of the disease is the increased likelihood of birth defects.

To show empathy for those affected by the disease and avoid the word ‘defect’ being associated with their new vehicle, which would inevitably adversely affect sales, Tata took the decision to change the name of the car. The naming process proved to be a masterstroke in public relations and brand management.

The company ran a social media campaign, whereby Tata encouraged people to vote using the hashtag #FantasticoNameHunt on one of three choices – Adore, Civet or Tiago (the latter won).

Retaining the Zica name would be potentially disastrous given the negative associations it had with the virus, and so changing the name was a sound move.

By clearly communicating its reasons for making the change in the first place, Tata won legions of fans who sympathised with their plight and felt enough of an emotional attachment to their cause that they wanted to play their part in helping them get through this challenging time for the brand.

Tata is not the first manufacturer that has been forced to change its name to protect its reputation.

In the 1940s, ‘SS Cars’ rebranded as Jaguar for reasons that are rather obvious. Sony too previously traded under a different name. Formerly ‘Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation’ the company was eager to overcome negative perception of the Japanese after the end of the Second World War.

More recently, Manchester-based ISIS Recruitment also found itself having to rebrand. Despite (obviously) having no connection to the terrorist organisation, ISIS Recruitment found themselves the victim of a spate of abusive messages on Facebook from people in the US believing them to have direct links to the terrorist insurgents… idiots.

What Corona should do now?

To ignore public sentiment and perception is at the detriment to an organisation’s reputation. Indeed, as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations puts it, “the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you is what defines the perception your customers will have of you and your organisation.”

In the real time case of Corona, if we were advising Constellation Brands, the brand’s parent company, we would focus on the products ‘fans’.

All too often, brands react hastily to sudden shifts in public sentiment. But in this instance, we’re dealing with a brand that has been around for 30 years with a consumer base that could be used to serve as brand ambassadors. No product lasts this long without a loyal following, so one approach would be to run a storytelling campaign featuring some of their customers.

Corona could of course opt for an advertising campaign disassociating itself from the virus, but that will do little other than make them sound like a public service broadcast. The campaign needs to be authentic and include real people whose shared experiences will likely resonate with the audiences the brand wants to target.

By storytelling their reasons for why they exist, the journey the brand has taken over the last three decades, and sharing their story across each communication channel (social media, blogs, magazines, newspapers, advertising), combined with using ‘fans’ who share their stories in a way that relates to the until-now loyal Corona consumer, the brand will not only give people a reason to buy its beer, they will also do much to drive engagement and more important – shift perception of the name itself. Ultimately, disassociating Corona the beer from corona the virus.

Whatever approach Corona does take, it is important to remember that if people feel uncomfortable with the association between a brand and a negative entity there is a real risk of losing the loyalty of many of the customers it has fought so hard to win and retain. ‘Wait and see’ what transpires shows indecision and is a risky tactic. The company needs to act… fast.

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