Coronavirus Won’t Hurt Corona, It Will Actually Boost Sales

By - CTL
March 14, 2020
A close up of a Corona Beer bottle

By Mark Ritson

Brands from Marmite to Peloton have shown negative publicity is beneficial if it doesn’t undermine your core image, which is why Corona will be fine but Burger King is heading for trouble.

Coronavirus: good or bad for Corona’s sales?

It’s a venal question given the current state of the pandemic and the tragic loss of life that has occurred, and will occur in the months to come. But it is, none the less, a fascinating one for marketers. Where do you stand?

Your answer very much depends on how you balance the importance of a brand’s salience versus its image. The traditional brand management approach of not that long ago led with image as the overriding driving force behind successful brand impact.

Consumers needed to know a brand existed via awareness, of course. But that was mostly a gateway, particularly in high-involvement decision making, to the associations that consumers then attached to the brand. Those associations then drove differentiation, desire, loyalty and the host of other behavioural lovelies that came with a strong brand.

Then – cue the ‘Imperial March’ music from Star Wars – came the Ehrenberg Bass institute in their black uniforms. Differentiation, particularly at the symbolic level, was overstated. Any evidence that people perceived Brand A as vastly different from Brand B could be largely explained by its size and prior purchase experiences. Purchase caused brand image, not vice versa. Ergo building a brand image was waste of marketing effort.

The big job of brand was to create salience, so a brand came to mind in buying situations. The more salience the better.

The mouldy burger debate

Where you stand between these two poles greatly influences how you perceive many of the incestuous, largely pointless conversations currently occupying our profession. The sudden furore surrounding Burger King’s mouldy ad, for example, was a perfect test of your branding beliefs.

If you’re a traditionalist and believe that image is important then showing consumers close-up images of a decaying burger is the height of stupidity. Your reaction probably echoed that of most consumers: what the fuck are they doing that for?

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If you buy into salience you might have been part of the majority of marketers who liked the ad. It was bold and risky and disruptive. Most importantly it got people talking about Burger King. That was the central argument that the mould lovers were making across social media last week: “It’s got everyone in the office discussing it – job done.” “I say ‘mouldy’ and you know immediately what I’m referring to.” Salience uber alles.

The mould lovers are, of course, completely wrong. It’s a stupid, self-defeating campaign for many reasons. Aside from making your product look like shit, literally, the campaign aims at an attribute – preservative free – that is hardly the main driver of those heading into a Burger King.

The idea that someone even cares about such things, while ordering their slushy and fries to go with it, is patently ludicrous. And even if it was the consumer’s main motivation, as usual Burger King cannot back up their “brave” advertising with any kind of product promise. Like the Ultimate Whopper campaign, aimed at vegetarians who then discovered the burger was cooked on a grill with meat, the preservative-free Whopper campaign is somewhat limited by the fact that most Whoppers around the around the world continue to be stuffed full of them.

There is a vague promise that they will have removed them by the end of the year or something. But what a shame all those marketers banging on about how great the new mouldy campaign is did not bother to consider whether any of it was important/deliverable/true.

Marketers spend far too long giving way too much credit to Burger King CMO Fernando Machado and his merry band of branding renegades. What fundamentally drives Burger King’s marketing is an inherent anti-McDonald’s focus, even when that counter-position makes little to no strategic sense.

About 10 years ago many marketing departments climbed boldly into their collective rectal passage and have stayed up there producing worthy, ridiculous, irrelevant shit on a regular basis ever since.

That’s why Burger King spends far too much of its marketing money hammering clowns, to the bemusement of consumers. Someone at BK central must have noticed the different social media stories about ancient McDonald’s meals not decomposing and sitting, apparently impervious to time, for years. We are the opposite of McDonald’s, thought someone in the team. We zig when they zag. So, let’s show our

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Description automatically generated her this makes any strategic sense or fits any kind of product truth or consumer need is irrelevant. It’s newsworthy, superficial and the opposite of McDonald’s. Call the agency!

To believe that the mouldy ad was good for Burger King means you have to take the salience argument to the outer limits of superficial plausibility. You have to sign up to a brand theory that says what I am saying is of no importance; the only thing that matters is the fact you notice me saying it and then pass on that notice to others.

Should we embrace inconsistency?

There is certainly plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis. The example I use most often is the surge in Marmite sales that occurred when Unilever tried to increase its price and Tesco, playing the price fighter, pushed back and delisted the brand. Media coverage of Marmite was negative, brand sentiment and purchase intention were similarly adverse. And yet sales of Marmite rose significantly – not despite all the negative coverage – but because of it. Salience drive sales.

It was a similar story with the ‘Peloton Wife’ saga at the end of 2019. This was truly an awful piece of advertising with all kinds of strange gender optics and uncomfortable consumer reactions. It certainly made the most hated list, and most discussed and shared of the year too.

Sure enough, several months later, Peloton’s management team were celebrating a good quarter and were quick to point out that sales during the advertising period had been impressive. Revenues were boosted, not battered, by Peloton wife and the opprobrium that followed her.

Given this apparent trend, should we smash open the doors of inconsistency and embrace the dark, velvet curtain of negativity to build brand? Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Does a giant close up of a mouldy, decomposing burger and ensuing consumer confusion and disgust derive a fantastic commercial return?

Of course not. And shame on anyone in their marketing echo-chamber who thought that it did. You’ve gone native. Spend more time with real people and stop being ridiculous in future.

Too many marketers are throwing the brand image baby out with the bath water of salience. Look harder at the Marmite and Peloton examples. You will note that the reaction to both brands was negative and that this negativity was the main driver of the respective sagas. But the negativity was not contradictory to the core image of the brand.

In Marmite’s case being a bunch of fuckers who wanted to charge more for their product because of Brexit made the brand unpopular, but hardly undermined or contradicted the core position of Marmite. Similarly, while Peloton Wife appeared to be incredibly submissive and her husband disturbingly dominant, this uncomfortable marital dynamic did not undermine Peloton’s brand values or product benefits.

These examples do not prove that any publicity is good publicity. They prove that any publicity devoid of any detriment to the core brand image is good publicity. Indeed, this, kind of publicity proves to be way better than anyone who came from the image-obsessed world of the Noughties could have predicted.

Back then we assumed you needed both awareness and image to build a brand. I still think that remains correct. But we are learning that you can also bolster a brand with awareness that comes with no apparent positive, deliberate brand associations.

Indeed, the freedom of just chasing salience might often prove superior to a more conservative, consistent focus on building awareness and associations all the time. Sometimes just superficial, recurring salience is enough.

Twenty years ago, marketing experts lined up to predict that the famous OJ Simpson police chase through Los Angeles in his white Bronco would kill the brand forever. When sales subsequently increased that year nobody could explain it. So they didn’t. The reality was that the salience boost for the Bronco more than offset any negativity associated with OJ. The image of the gleaming white SUV whizzing down Interstate 404 chased by 8,000 police cars was hardly a damaging association.

Empty salience games

That Bronco moment, Peloton Wife and the Marmite tussle do not negate the need to worry about brand image. They impel modern marketers to still aim, ideally, for increased salience married to a boost in brand image.

Very shortly Aston Martin will do just that with the advent of a new Bond film. The presence of a new Aston Martin SUV in the movie will spark a global boost in awareness and it will do it within the perfect brand image context of Bond – British elite performance.

But when that model blend of salience multiplied by image is not possible, salience games can work their magic all on their own, provided those games do not come at any direct cost or contradiction to brand image. I still think the old model of awareness and associations remains at the heart of proper brand management. But brand teams can also flirt with danger more often. They should embrace empty, often vacuous marketing stunts because – provided they do not hurt brand image – the salience impact on sales might be considerable.

To that end, I am mightily impressed with the JM Smucker company. It makes America’s leading brand of peanut butter, Jif. That status is a blessing and a curse; because although the team at Jif enjoy spectacular heritage, market share, economies of scale and distribution power, they also suffer from managing a heritage brand in a very traditional, very dusty category.

The company’s new campaign for Jif, launched last week, highlights the ongoing debate about how to pronounce the word ‘gif’. What has this got to with peanut butter you might ask? Nothing is the answer. But it is a stroke of superficial, empty branding genius.

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Peanut butter brand Jif injected fun into a boring category by playing with its image

Whether you pronounce your gifs with a hard or soft G, the campaign is working its salience wonders across America as we speak. Limited edition jars of Jif are being sold on Amazon for $10 using a neat bit of code play between the two brands. But the real value of the stunt is the media and social debate that the campaign has thrown up, which will keep the peanut butter brand front and centre for a few precious weeks in the mind of the market.

Does it do anything for the brand’s image? Nope. Will it drive salience? Yes. And – the crucial third question – does it undermine or contradict the image of the brand. No. Success and a not insignificant sales bump will follow.

When salience crosses swords with brand image

In contrast, examples exist where a massive boost in salience has come at the direct expense of brand image and commercial outcomes. Gillette’s customer-shaming ad in 2019 was an amazing way to get everyone talking about Gillette and toxic masculinity.

But while the ham-fisted, accusatory execution might have made worthy marketers and non-Gillette consumers feel better, it also made a significant proportion of the brand’s male, older and more conservative target market feel the masculinity that they associated with Gillette was now under attack by the brand. And many turned away as a result.

There were plenty of people predicting great things for the Gillette ad when it aired. An army of agile, politically correct marketers jumped up to proclaim the brilliance of the new campaign.

Half were Simon Sinek’s addled purpose-driven disciples, who believe brand purpose always works, irrespective of message, market or situation. Didn’t Simon tell us so?

The other half were salience junkies who turned on anyone who suggested a campaign that vilified its own target market was probably not a great idea. If people were talking about it, chorused the salience junkies, that had to be a good thing. Even if what they were talking about was just how much they hated it.

We will never know just how much of a bad thing that infamous execution was for Gillette. Obviously no-one in marketing wants to discuss it because it does not fit the dominant politically correct narrative that dominates our discipline. The fact that every other division at Procter & Gamble (P&G) grew sales that quarter except Gillette – and that the company made subtle and not so subtle attempts to move away from the tone and style of the commercial in later executions – provides all the evidence you need that this was ultimately a corporate mistake.

Clearly, one ad was not the reason for the $8bn write-down in Gillette’s value that followed. But along with P&G’s corporate explanations for the reduction – new beards and nimble competitors – we need to add the lunacy of a campaign that generated more coverage than any other in 2019, but did so at a significant cost to the brand image in the process.

Salience is a great thing until it crosses swords with core brand image. At that point, the giant wave of awareness and debate that a marketer was hoping to surf all the way to the shore rears up in a different direction and crashes down upon them in a most unfortunate and painful manner.

There can be, and often is, such a thing as bad publicity; from the moment 30 years ago that jeweller Gerald Ratner boasted that his products were “total crap” to the most talked-about movie of the Christmas holidays – Cats. Salience without brand image will do your brand good, salience that draws attention to a core deficit or contradiction versus your image can only do your brand harm. And the more salience, the more harm it does.

My bet is that this is what will happen to Burger King’s mouldy ad – albeit in a small and insignificant way. The actual campaign will disappear from memory in a few days because Burger King campaigns always do. There are too many other stunts to run for this one to stay on top of the tactical pile for long.

There is also much less debate and fevered discussion among regular normal consumers about the mouldy burger than there was about Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad. The salience spike will be smaller but still sizeable enough to do some short-term damage.

Succulent, flame-grilled, indulgent, fresh and delicious are at the heart of Burger King’s appeal. This ad, not just devoid of these things but counter to them, will do a small but significant bit of damage to sales. Especially if they keep the ads running. Which they won’t.

The scholars at Ehrenberg-Bass were right, as usual. Marketers overstate image and differentiation and have forgotten that brands quickly fade from memory unless we stay maniacally focused on keeping them there.

I still think the old model of awareness and associations remains at the heart of proper brand management. But brand teams can also flirt with danger more often.

They were also right that most marketers overthought and overindulged their brand strategies to the point of ridicule. Coffee brands that believed they were feeding the human spirit. Beauty brands that saw themselves on the brand archetype wheel of horsehshit as the ‘cowboy’ and the ‘prophet’. What? About 10 years ago many marketing departments climbed boldly into their collective rectal passage and have stayed up there producing worthy, ridiculous, irrelevant shit on a regular basis ever since.

But there is a balance to be achieved in brand management between these two extremes of over-exaggerated brand image and careless, empty salience. It’s clear that in the past we oversold image and underestimated salience. Today, we are in great danger of all becoming Burger King and mistaking many empty awareness stunts for a concerted brand campaign. The key lesson in all of this is that you can occasionally aim just for salience and ignore brand image, but not at its expense.

The Corona question

So, what of Coronavirus and its much-debated impact on Corona’s beverage sales? It’s certainly true that the new pandemic has bolstered the word ‘corona’ to all time highs. And, in a postmodern twist, those discussing the impact of the virus on Corona’s sales are further increasing the brand’s salience and therefore its impact on sales.

Associations with a pandemic are, at least seen from the traditional school of brand management, about as bad as it can get. OJ times a million. But remember that negative associations, provided they don’t contradict or contravene the core brand image, are actually nothing to worry about. They may actually help spread the message.

Peloton’s weird marriage vibe garnered 99% of its salience. Marmite’s arrogant insensitivity to our post-Brexit angst was the only reason sales went up. Negativity is not an issue. It might even provide the main salience boost, as long as it does not prick the heart of the brand.

So, is this really that bad for Corona? Well, every shit researcher on the planet is currently ignoring the most basic rules of survey design in order to find out something, anything, of interest. Most surveys appear to be showing very negative brand sentiment and a significant decline in purchase likelihood.

One company – that famed behemoth of scientific marketing, 5W Public Relations – has been increasing its own salience with a survey showing that 16% of Americans are confused about whether Corona beer has anything to do with coronavirus and that 38% of American beer drinkers who were surveyed said they wouldn’t buy Corona “under any circumstances”. That 38% figure was widely cited over the weekend by a global media, only too ready to write about the indirect damage that the pandemic will do to Corona’s sales.

The problem with this kind of research – if I can massively over-summarise, overstate and oversimplify Daniel Kahneman’s work for a sub-sentence – is that it is very much a ‘System 2’ measure of a ‘System 1’ situation. Ask people if coronavirus will affect their feelings for Corona and their reactions might be statistically significant but externally invalid.

The massive salience boost for Corona that is now happening will propel the brand to top-of-mind status for millions of beer drinkers for many weeks to come. That’s important because System 1 thinking is how most of us buy most of our shit.

We might bang on in focus groups in a fantastically System 2 manner about how our mothers, life goals and modernity influence our toothpaste decision. But as soon as we are out the door of the focus group facility we are back to the brutal invisibility of System 1 buying.

Earlier today someone asked you whether you wanted a flat white or a cappuccino. Within a millisecond you shot back “flat white”. You don’t know why. I don’t know why. You just said it. System 1. Drink your coffee.

And that’s how most people buy beer. Of this I am certain. When you walk to a bar the question is not ‘does this pandemic make you feel different about any of the beers on the following list?’. The question is: “What can I get you?” Or, if you drink in working-class pubs that have dogs and dartboards, a vaguely intimidating nod in your direction.

Either way, the answer that will spring to mind for thousands of drinkers in the current and coming months will be “Corona”. Not because of what it stands for. Not because of the negative associations it evokes. Just because that was the first beer that came to mind. The reptile brain wins again. And so – if this column is correct – will Corona

First Published in Marketing Weekly

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