We all know there is no link between Corona beer and the Coronavirus, but they have an unfortunate coincidence of sharing the same name. After 100 years of building a formidable beer brand, Corona is helplessly watching its brand name become a victim of a devastating global pandemic. Prior to Coronavirus, Corona Extra was the third-most popular beer in the United States. Coronavirus is becoming this century’s biggest catastrophic causing untold amounts of mental and physical mayhem on people, societies, businesses, and countries. Coronavirus destruction will live in the annals of history longer than any pale lager. Suddenly, Corona’s brand name is under attack with no clear direction of what they should do.
The first bad press Corona got in association with Coronavirus was from 5W Public Relations. They surveyed 737 U.S. beer drinkers and vigorously promoted their results: 38 percent of beer-drinking consumers would not buy Corona under any circumstances due to concerns about Coronavirus. They also claimed that 4 percent of people who previously drank Corona would stop drinking it — a rounding error.
PRWeek received the release but determined that “it was lacking in credibility…due to previous interactions with 5W and Torossian [CEO of 5W], who has courted controversy in the past and is not averse to a little self-promotion.” The 5W website shows no connection to beer consumers. But they got the results they were looking for. Mainstream media (like CBS News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox, Vice and New York Post) jumped on the story, focusing on the 38 percent stats without any further investigation. Constellation Brands CEO and President Bill Newlands, owner of Corona, had to address the situation head on. He stated that “these claims simply do not reflect our business performance and consumer sentiment, which includes feedback from our distributor and retailer partners across the country.”
We all know that Corona beer does not causes Coronavirus, at least I hope we do. But people are scared and drinking a beer that shares its name with the virus can make some people uncomfortable. Is this the beginning of Corona beer’s demise or just bad research?
Negative Brand Names
The world is over saturated with brand names, making it almost impossible to break through the marketing noise. Wine brand names have tried to break this barrier with negatively charged brand names. With wine brands popping-up on shelves everywhere like Frog’s Piss, Earthquake, Killer, Fat Bastard, Prisoner, and BoomBoom. Negatively charged brand names are cutting edge. They are notorious and risqué like Fcuk fashions, Heart Attack Grill, Monster Energy drink, Skinny Bitch apparel, and Raging Bitch beer.
While negative words can generate negative feelings, they also create marketing opportunities because they are different and memorable. However, research has shown that extremely negative brand names can create consumer avoidance. But humour and attitude based negative brand names can create excitement, savviness, sensuousness, hipness and daringness that appeals to Millennials. Negative brand names challenge conventions and stand out from the crowd, but I don’t think this is where the Corona beer brand wants to go. It prefers golden sandy beaches, turquoise waters and clear blue skies.
Brand Name Casualty
Every brand works hard to build positive associations through product performance, employees, advertising, promotions, sponsorship, events, customer interactions, and social and community engagements. Once a negative association starts to take hold, its hard for people to separate the two.
A similar unfortunate situation developed for Ayds (pronounce as “aids”) candy. They were a popular appetite-suppressant candy in the 1970s and early 1980s until Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was discovered. The horrible disease also caused massive weight loss in patients. To try to save the brand name, they changed it to Diet Ayds. The negative connotation was still too great to overcome. The brand eventually went out of business.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating hurricane to hit southeast New Orleans killed 1,836 people and affected over 15 million residents. At the time, the name Katrina was ranked the 246th most popular female baby name according to nameberry.com. Seven years later, the name’s popularity has dropped 696 spots to 942. Once a negative connotation is placed on a name, it’s hard for people to move on. Once a brand name becomes negative, its almost impossible to turn the tide.
As the saying goes “when times are good, people drink — when times are bad, people drink.” Beer and other alcoholic beverages sales continue to rise as people self-isolate and worry about their future. No sports, no clubs, no concerts, no events of any kind, yet Nielsen data showed that beer sales rose 34 percent year-over-year for the week ending on March 21. Sales of Constellation Brand products, owner of Corona, are up higher at 39 percent, led by the Corona family, which is up 50 percent. Impressive until you compare it against toilet paper sales which are up 160 percent!
Corona Beer Virus
Since the end of January, the hashtag “corona beer virus”, “beer virus” and “beer coronavirus” have continued to trend upwards on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Some followers support of the brand, while others mock the virus and beer with creative memes. As the Coronavirus situation continues to intensify and people are in lockdown, connecting with friends and family through video conferencing online is the new normal. Corona beer has become an online celebrity for all the wrong reasons. Kellan Terry, senior manger of communications at Brandwatch, says that young people tend to laugh at what they consider to be dystopian events as a coping mechanism online. Having your brand associated with a deadly virus isn’t a healthy trend with or without the name.
Then, corona’s next problem appeared. Corona launched an online campaign for their new Corona Hard Seltzer with the slogan “coming ashore soon.” Twitter followers quickly attacked the campaign as “bad timing” and in “poor taste” amid the spread of Coronavirus. Corona promptly removed the slogan.
Marketing alcohol is like marketing water; its not the taste that matters, its the brand image. In a classic blind taste study done in 1964, regular drinkers of certain brands failed to rate their brand as significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five types of beer scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite. There have been many other studies since with similar results. In 2018, the beer manufactures in the United States spend close to $1.5 billion on advertising. Constellation Brands ranked 2nd with a $368 million ad expenditure on Corona and Modelo. Beer brands live and die on their image. Corona brand marketing executives are likely increasing their own alcohol consumption in these unprecedented times.
Corona owner Constellation Brands has over 100 brands in beer, wine, spirits and, more recently, cannabis. Each brand gets its allotted marketing, brand support, and funding. So far, they have been lying low. If sales are good, why rock the boat? Reputation expert Andy Beal says, “The real threat would come if Corona were to dive in and capitalize on this by running some crass social media post.” In light of the seriousness of the situation, he cautions that “they should not make light of it.”
This isn’t about online social strategy (which Corona isn’t involved in). They do the bare minimum on social channels. Sitting on the sidelines and hoping this will eventually blow over isn’t a leader strategy either. The challenge is all alcohol brands make money on the image of people having fun. The Corona brand is all about sandy beaches, hot sun, and total escapism. John Alvarado, SVP of Brand Marketing for Corona Extra says Corona is “a carefree brand that encourages consumers to relax and enjoy life no matter the situation.” The Coronavirus is the antithesis to these positive vibes.
Today, the Corona virus is attacking the United States with the fierceness never before seen in our lifetime. The Coronavirus crisis is affecting millions of people’s lives and livelihood. Consumers will judge brands on how they helped and stepped-up through these terrible times. Stress can cause people to make inappropriate jokes to lighten the mood; right now, Corona beer is one of those jokes. After all the turmoil, deaths, and dramatic life changes, can Corona bounce back as the king of carefree and sunny times? Will the emotional shock associated with one of the world’s darkest moments destroy the Corona name? Can a brand name live with so many negative connotations? In these catastrophic times more alcohol will be consumed than ever before. Hopefully after the hangover of isolation is over, Corona beer will still live on.
Stay safe and healthy.