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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Branding of a Pandemic: What Works and What Doesn’t

person icon holding the word Brand

person icon holding the word Brand

Vikram R. Bhargava and Suneal Bedi

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay 

This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 13, 2020, by Vikram R. Bhargava, faculty scholar of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and assistant professor of management & entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, and Suneal Bedi, assistant professor of business law and ethics at Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. Views are their own.

A successful business needs more than a good product: It needs good branding. While businesses understand the power of branding, scientists and public health officials underestimate how strong branding can promote their goals. Ignoring branding is especially unfortunate in the case of health crises, including the current coronavirus outbreak.

In business, most branding initiatives aim at maximizing product sales. The ultimate goal of public health campaigns, however, is to get large populations to behave in a way that would best promote public health outcomes. And effective branding can help.

Effective branding involves at least three important tasks: increasing awareness of a unique and unified identity, promoting accurate perceptions, and instilling a desire to buy the product or service. Unfortunately, the branding efforts surrounding the coronavirus have fallen short on all three fronts.

Increase awareness of a unique and unified identity. A classic way to increase brand awareness is to promote the brand via logos, slogans, distinctive color patterns, etc. These aspects of a brand are so important that many countries protect these manifestations of a brand via trademark laws. The best brands have unique names or pictures that allow consumers to easily identify the brand and its products. Think about Coca-Cola; not only is the name ubiquitous, the red and white color scheme is quickly and easily identified by consumers around the world.

So, what can we say about the brand awareness of the coronavirus? For one, there isn’t even clarity about what to call it. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the official name for the coronavirus disease is COVID-19. They also indicate that it was previously called the 2019 novel coronavirus. The WHO also comments that the virus is called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or, for short, SARS-CoV-2. Putting aside what scientists call it, a quick Google trend search shows that most people are using the search term “coronavirus,” others point out that coronaviruses are instead a broader family of viruses, and still others call it the Wuhan virus. This lack of a unified global brand for the virus can create confusion and harm the brand awareness consideration.

Promote accurate perceptions. In addition to a large awareness, good brands have clear, consistent and accurate associations. However, many of the brand associations surrounding the coronavirus have led to several inaccurate perceptions.

For example, some have come to believe that the mere fact of a person being ethnically Asian means that they are contagious, toxic or risky. A Fox News anchor recently asked a guest on her show, “Can you get the coronavirus by eating Chinese food?” More concerning is the recent uptick in ethnically Asian individuals being harassed or assaulted around the world. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has insisted on referring to the virus as “the Chinese coronavirus.” Apart from being a blatant attempt to racialize the virus, this is poor branding practice. It creates associations with the virus that do not advance the public health. In short, whether or not as a statistical matter, at present, more Asians are infected, surely having a brand that risks exposing people to violence and harassment is not in the public health interest.

Other mistaken perceptions include thinking that there is a vaccine available for the virus (there is not, at present) or that hand sanitizer is ineffective as a precautionary measure (it is effective). Less consequential, but equally indicative of the confusion surrounding the coronavirus, are reports of Google searches for “Corona beer virus.” This only reinforces the idea that the branding efforts have not created accurate and useful associations, but rather have continued to spread misperceptions.

Instill a desire to buy the product or service. A good corporate brand creates a desire in consumers to purchase products or services. With branding a virus, the aim is not to sell products, but instead to get the population to behave in a way that promotes public health. But caution is in order: What we do not want is a virus branding initiative that merely spurs any action. A branding initiative that creates undue fear or panic might promote negative public health outcomes (e.g., hoarding face masks).

A successful virus branding initiative instead requires instilling the desire to take appropriate action. The trouble, however, is that the public might not know what counts as appropriate action with respect to public health. What that means is that a virus branding initiative should promote the desire to become curious — that is, the desire to learn about what would be the appropriate action (this is akin to corporate branding initiatives generating intrigue about their product). Furthermore, it’s equally important to include clear directions about where to find accurate information to resolve this curiosity. From there, it’s up to the public health experts to inform the public what the appropriate course of action would be.

Finally, brand trust in the corporate context is an important factor in creating customer loyalty. Brand trust matters in the virus context, too. By not being honest about the state of the coronavirus (as many officials have been shown to be), citizens ultimately come to lose trust in the public health expertise on which global health now depends.


Mar 13, 2020

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