A claim by a public relations firm made the rounds last week that suggested consumers are avoiding Corona beer because they’re confused about whether it’s connected to a virus with a similar name that is scaring much of the world right now.
Friday afternoon, Corona owner Constellation Brands issued a press release saying the idea that consumers are avoiding the beer because of the virus couldn’t be further from the truth.
“These claims simply do not reflect our business performance and consumer sentiment, which includes feedback from our distributor and retailer partners across the country. We’ve seen no impact to our people, facilities or operations and our business continues to perform very well,” said Bill Newlands, Constellation’s president and CEO. “Unlike many of our competitors, sales of our beer brands are focused almost entirely on the U.S. market. Our company does not have much exposure to international markets such as China that have been most impacted by this situation.”
Social media activity about the beer and the virus now known officially as COVID 19 triggered a viral reaction of its own: comments over the weekend from people wondering how others could be so stupid as to believe the beer was connected to the virus in some way.
For the record, the brand of beer and the type of virus behind the current epidemic share one thing – the word “corona,” which means “crown” or “halo” in Spanish and Latin. The virus microorganisms are covered with appendages that look something like the points on a crown.
Marketing experts say the brouhaha raises two issues: the ethics of some PR firms and the need for companies to be ready to deal with public relation crises that can arise at any time.
“When you zoom out, the big learning here is you have to be set up to respond in any crisis,” said Deb Gabor, owner of Sol Marketing in Austin, Texas, that specializes in branding. Crises can happen through no fault of the company, she said, but they can be damaging nonetheless.
“I just feel Corona is a brand that got swept up into the communications and mass hysteria about possible pandemic,” Gabor said. “Constellation didn’t cause this. It’s an unfortunate name association.” Gabor also noted that the flap comes at an unfortunate time, when Constellation is planning a spring release of its Corona line of fruit-flavored hard seltzers, trying to capture a share of a burgeoning part of the alcoholic beverage market.
Gabor said Newlands was right to start his statement by expressing concerns for the people who are becoming ill from the actual virus. And she praised the way that he reacted swiftly but didn’t attack the media for taking up and reporting on the claim about the beer being connected to the virus.
She said the statement did sound somewhat defensive, though, and she recommended Constellation take the opportunity to restate its values with the public and its consumers.
Both Gabor and Yascha Mounk, a Johns Hopkins University associate professor and author of an article in The Atlantic about the flare-up, said a press release from the PR firm that conducted the Corona survey provided misleading information. “There are so many problems with this little bit of research,” Gabor said, adding that journalists rushed to report the data without questioning it and without fully understanding its limitations.
In The Atlantic, Mounk wrote, “The original press release from (PR firm) 5WPR notes that in a survey of 737 beer-drinking Americans, 38 percent said they ‘would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.’ By presenting this finding in the context of other questions that are explicitly about the coronavirus, the press release creates the impression that Americans’ reluctance to drink the beer is due to the coronavirus.”
Gabor suggested that the figure for people who won’t drink Corona actually might be low, as any beer that is marketed properly is aimed at a specific target audience representing just a segment of all beer drinkers. Many beer drinkers may avoid Corona simply because they prefer a different taste or style in beer, she said.
After seeing some of the questions from 5WPR’s survey, Mounk said it was clear the questions were designed to elicit answers that could be used for viral tweets.
Gabor said she wondered whether public relations companies do things like this because they’re only focused on going viral, or because they’re specifically targeting a client’s competitors.
Mounk adds, “The strange virality of the Corona poll demonstrates that there are ruthless PR flacks who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth. It also shows that there are many journalists at supposedly trustworthy news outlets who are so desperate to rush to publication that they can wind up misinforming their public.”