As the spread of coronavirus continues, with more than 90,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, it’s rather nonsensical to associate it at all with the beer that shares its name.
Yet last week, when an extremely unscientific survey was released from a PR firm claiming that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy Corona beer, there it was as a top trending topic across social media, and being reported by major news outlets.
Since the emergence and spread of COVID-19, there has been a steady stream of memes tying the virus with the popular beer brand Corona. The name’s right there—there’s no escape. Let’s be frank: It may seem stupid to you, but the beer-related memes are simply a coping mechanism for the fears that come with a rising pandemic.
— Anasse Azzaoui (@AzzaouiAnasse) January 29, 2020
Being associated with an undesirable person, event, or situation simply because you share a name has long been a source of pain (or at least annoyance) for some, and many giggly jokes for everyone else. Just ask anyone in America who happened to be named Adolf at the start of WWII. Or those who just happen to share a name with any celebrity. Back in 2014, Taco Bell even rounded up a roster of Ronald McDonalds to launch its new breakfast menu.
Before this Corona kerfuffle, though, perhaps the worst example of unfortunate and unrelated brand name association can be claimed by a 1980s diet candy called Ayds.
In a statement to Fast Company, a Corona spokesperson said, “While we empathize with those who have been impacted by this virus and continue to monitor the situation, our consumers, by and large, understand there’s no linkage between the virus and our business. There’s a good amount of misinformation out there that doesn’t match the reality of the business or consumer sentiment. Sales of Corona remain strong and we appreciate the continued support of Corona drinkers.”
Wife (upon completing Fresh Direct order): I don’t understand why Corona isn’t on sale. If Americans are going to be this stupid then the intelligent people should benefit.
— Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC) February 29, 2020
Corona has avoided making any public comments or acknowledgment of the name similarities on social media. There’s no social-media manager taking over the Corona Twitter account to do an irony-soaked performance piece and trade quips about N95 masks with the Netflix and Wendy’s accounts.
As logical as that sounds, it cannot have been an easy decision. Ad agency sources I’ve spoken with say that there have undoubtedly been talks within the brand and its agency partners about if and how to address this situation. For the last 15 years, as social media has grown, brands have been told that they need to participate in the cultural conversation around their brands. As a result, brands are always on, with everyone trying to create their own Oreo moment.
Corona’s social presence could best be described as generic beer brand: It’s mostly standard comments about the weather, sports, and of course, its own promotions, but there’s no real distinguishable voice or personality. That’s a blessing in disguise, my sources note, making it that much easier and appropriate for the brand to remain silent on its current place in the cultural conversation.
If this was a virus named after Steak-Umm or Denny’s, for example—brands that have built a distinct social voice—it would be much tougher to avoid.
The perfect view is a crew of friends. pic.twitter.com/fWgQXzUKdZ
— Corona USA (@coronaextrausa) February 28, 2020
While individuals may make jokes, Corona’s rivals have also exhibited great restraint here. You can bet the Slack or WhatsApp chat groups for ad agency creatives working on other beer brands are filled with completely inappropriate digs tied to this situation that will thankfully never see the light of day.
In response to the problematic survey from 5WPR last week, Corona parent Constellation Brands CEO and president Bill Newlands said in a statement: “These claims simply do not reflect our business performance and consumer sentiment, which includes feedback from our distributor and retailer partners across the country.”
The company also pointed to IRI retail sales trends data showing that sales of Corona Extra actually increased by 5% in the four-week period ending February 16. So you know, scoreboard.
Perhaps the most valuable asset that any marketer can have is earned media—coverage and brand promotion achieved via free coverage and conversation whose value far outstrips any official media investment. Corona has found itself the unintentional beneficiary of perhaps the worst kind of earned media a marketer could imagine. Saying nothing goes against just about every natural instinct of any marketer. In this case, the silence is as refreshing as a beer with a lime in it.