How Should Companies Deal with Such Baseless, Out-of-the-Blue Threats to Their Brands?
3/2/20 – – How do you respond when your brand gets pulled into an ugly situation with which you have nothing to do?
I call these out-of-the-blue occurrences “crises by association” — Kool-Aid being linked to the Jonestown cult’s mass suicide; the news media identifying TIKI Brand backyard tiki torches being carried by members of the Ku Klux Klan through the dark streets of Charlottesville; Skittles candies being associated with the killing of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood-watch volunteer; Ambien becoming a focus of Roseanne Barr’s racist Twitter rant against Obama administration advisor Valerie Jarret.
Constellation Brands, U.S. distributors of Corona beer, is navigating just such a no-fault-of-its-own reputational storm. Online chatter has linked the very popular beverage (brewed in Mexico, Corona is the largest selling imported beer in America) with the dreaded coronavirus. Baseless rumors are going viral faster than the disease. “Corona beer virus” was one of the most popular Google searches in February. And questionable internet surveys are suggesting that consumer fear is cutting into sales.
Not so, says Constellation CEO Bill Newlands: “We’ve seen no impact to our people, facilities or operations and our business continues to perform very well.” The company reported that “Corona Extra sales grew 5% in the United States in the four-weeks that ended February 16. That’s nearly double the trend of the past 52 weeks.”
Regarding the cyber-silliness, a Constellation Brands spokesperson told CNN Business, “We believe that consumers, by and large, understand there’s no linkage between the virus and our beer/business.”
While some self-proclaimed marketing experts are encouraging the company to protect the brand by more aggressively addressing this misinformation — including an ad campaign to set the record straight and even a name change — restraint and respect for consumer intelligence are usually the best strategies in response to crises by association, especially when the false assertions are so stupid. (I’m sorry, but anyone who gets taken in by this fake news should not be allowed to consume adult beverages.) As we discuss in Chapter 20 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Dealing with Collateral Brand Damage”), over reaction is the greater risk.
The company (showing more restraint than your humble blogger) is not using words like “stupid.” Nor are Constellation spokespeople dismissing the seriousness of the virus. CEO Newlands in his statement on the rumors says, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this terrible virus and we hope efforts to more fully contain it gain traction soon.” And Google search results today are dominated by third parties poo pooing the rumors.
Regardless of this self-correction, Constellation should consider delaying the planned $40 million launch of its Corona hard seltzer. Just as dismissiveness is not the answer, there are dangers to raising the decibel level of marketing while so many questions about the course of the virus are unanswered. The possibility of self-inflicted brand damage was demonstrated by the promotional phrase already used in sponsored tweets to build excitement for the new Corona seltzer: “Coming Ashore Soon.”
With the lingering possibility of a pandemic, Corona marketing folks should also stay away from such slogans as:
Spread the news — Corona Seltzer is coming to town!
Newsflash: Corona’s brewing a new hard seltzer — pass it on.
Corona Seltzer — the drink you’ll want to share with friends.
In addition to monitoring the online discussion and watching for significant sales declines, Constellation should in my opinion stay the course. The consumer and the internet are figuring this out on their own.
I did hear, however, that in early trials medical researchers are finding that coronavirus vaccines work best when administered with a wedge of lime or lemon.