What does the coronavirus mean for Corona beer? 

It’s never tasted quite so good. In fact, it’s never tasted good at all except when it has a slice of zingy lime squeezed into the top of the bottle. A Corona beer, that is. In the pub, my friend Dave, who wouldn’t normally touch the drink with a barge pole, was guzzling his down with gusto. We bought it because, well, the word Corona was everywhere. Sales crisis? What crisis?

The coronavirus may be sweeping around the world and causing untold misery, but marketeers, if they admit it, are darkly consumed by one question that fascinates them all. How will it affect sales? Good or bad? It is perhaps distasteful to ask, but the way you answer gives an insight into where you stand on a long-standing marketing debate – is salience or image more important to a brand’s success?

Salience – or awareness – is clearly vital as consumers need to know a brand actually exists if they are to buy into it. The more traditional brand management philosophy, however, holds that this is just the start of a beautiful relationship. The real job is to curate and burnish the image of a brand, to differentiate it from the crowd, to build loyalty based on a more emotional connection.

And then the Ehrenberg Bass Institute in Australia put the spanner in the works. Differentiation was overstated, it suggested, and the differences in perceptions that do exist between brands are a function of brand size (and all the backing that goes with it) and purchase experiences. Big, as is often the case, is beautiful, and lots of purchases help create a brand image. Not the other way round.

Image is everything…

If a brand is all about image and emotion, then sales of Corona might be expected to fall, even though there is no link whatsoever between the beer and virus apart from the name. Putting a bottle bearing the name of a nasty virus to one’s lips, for example, does not tantalize the taste buds. And a viral epidemic of Facebook posts revealing consumers were shunning the innocent Mexican beer supported this view. News organisations also chugged on the story. And oh what a great – if grim – story. 

The Facebook storm followed a survey of 700 US beer-drinkers over the age of 21 by the New York-based company 5W Public Relations. It revealed 38% would not buy Corona under any circumstances, but only 4% of those who usually drink Corona would stop. Remarkably, 16% were confused about whether Corona is related to coronavirus…

“There is no question that Corona beer is suffering because of the coronavirus,” declared Ronn Torossian, Founder and CEO of 5WPR. “Could one imagine walking into a bar and saying, ‘Hey, can I have a Corona?’ or ‘Pass me A Corona’. This is a disaster for the Corona brand. After all, what brand wants to be linked to a virus, which is killing people worldwide?”

Awareness is all…

The trouble with the highly contagious survey results was that they don’t seem to support the facts. Corona’s owners, Constellation Brands, Inc., provided a terse factual response to the Corona-has-lost-its-fizz stories and revealed sales of Corona Extra grew 5% in the U.S. in the four weeks to Feb 16, “nearly doubling the 52-week trend for the brand”. 

“It’s extremely unfortunate that recent misinformation about the impact of this virus on our business has been circulating in traditional and social media without further investigation or validation,” added Bill Newlands, president and chief executive officer at Constellation Brands. “These claims simply do not reflect our business performance.”

Back in the hypothetical bar where we are all in a tiss about what beer to buy, Mark Ritson, the UK-based marketing guru, has a very different view to Torossian. We don’t dwell on how a viral pandemic affects our relationship with each of the beers on offer. And so we may well end up asking for a Corona. “Not because of what it stands for or because of the negative associations it evokes,” Ritson points out in Marketing Week, “but just because that was the first beer that came to mind.”

The world of marketing, of course, is never black and white. It is not a case of image and difference versus awareness and salience. It is somewhere in the middle with both playing a vital role in a brand’s popularity and long-run success. A well-planned and executed content and advertising strategy will support both sides of the equation. If you are interested in discussing nostalgia and your content strategy, please contact us. Our team would love to talk to you.

For the moment, at least, Corona’s sales upswing continues as Dave and I crack open another ice-cold Corona and clink bottles. And then quickly add the limes…

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