“We were trying to take a positive spin on things and show the positive side of what is happening in bringing families together,” Blocker told me, recalling that once-upon-a-time when we thought in terms of households huddled together for maybe two weeks, max. He has abandoned the concept now.
Blocker is just one of millions of businesspeople, actual and would-be, attempting to navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of a global disaster. There are established brands, like Corona beer, that found themselves smarting from a suddenly unfortunate name. Others, like the Zoom remote-conferencing platform, are flying high as they fill an abrupt need. And there are dozens of profiteers and dreamers rolling the dice in trademark applications, from vaccine and test-kit names to “Warning: My Ride is Sicker than the Coronavirus” clothing. Like all efforts in branding, they’re attempts to both predict and shape the future — only now it’s an unprecedentedly uncertain future.
The formerly meaningless word “covid” had a limited commercial history before the pandemic. Its use as a trademarked brand name for a holographic security seal expired a decade ago. Today, Covid is the name of an Arizona maker of audiovisual cables and other equipment; president and chief executive Norm Carson calls it an “odd coincidence” among the pandemic “craziness.” Back in 1982, the company founders paid a delivery driver $50 for coming up with the name Covid. Originally, says Carson, the founders had called the company Vid-Co — short for “video company” — until they realized that this was a commonly used name. Meanwhile, Corona beer became the butt of dark-comedy memes premised on the notion of plummeting sales; its owner, Constellation Brands, issued a defensive news release saying that in fact sales were up.
They’re not the first brands to be blindsided by a redefinition, say marketing professors Douglas Bowman of Emory University and Tim Calkins of Northwestern University. A diet candy called Ayds was tanked by another pandemic, HIV, and Isis Pharmaceuticals renamed itself Ionis in the wake of a human plague of terrorism.
But are Covid and Corona really at risk? Richard Hanna, a marketing lecturer at Babson College, says the name association might be off-putting to customers unfamiliar with the brand but unlikely to sway current fans. Covid’s Carson affirms the same. “No one has been confused or has associated our company with this horrible pandemic,” he says. “We have not considered making any changes to our name, or that this will have any negative effect on our brand.”
Which companies become the big winners and losers, marketing experts say, will be based on how they act, not what they’re called. “How brands handle the crisis will affect their reputation for better and for worse,” says Carol Phillips, president of the Michigan-based marketing firm Brand Amplitude. “How companies are treating their employees will also factor in to who wins and who loses,” she adds, noting the controversy surrounding Amazon’s anti-viral precautions for workers. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Purpose-driven branding” — promoting a social-responsibility mission above immediate profit — is a hot trend that will be driven home by the pandemic, Bowman says. Still, the terms for the disease itself have their power and allure. “Marketeers, entrepreneurs, propagandists, you name it, want their brands and brand stories to go viral (no pun). This pandemic is an opportunity for some and a tragedy for others,” Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, emailed me. Heller is the author of “The Swastika,” a book detailing how that symbol, long used in marketing as an ancient sign of good fortune, was ruined by the Nazis, only to return on thriller-novel covers and punk albums. He said the covid-19 name is similarly “bound to be appropriated.”
“We’re in the midst of this cataclysmic event, so we’re supersensitive to the word and what it means now,” Heller says. “Give it 10 or 20 years and it might be the name of a beer or sports team.”
In the trademark files, they’re not waiting. “Coronavirus: Made In China,” “Class of COVID-19” and “We Beat COVID-19” are awaiting T-shirts, yoga pants and children’s clothing. “Coronavirus” was filed as the name for a heavy metal band by Cleveland college student Harley Ganiere. “As soon as I heard the term spreading like wildfire on the news, I knew I wanted to make it mine,” he told me.
On the actual disease-fighting side, a New York start-up called Fruit Street Health aims to start a $10 million COVID Ventures fund and a telemedicine platform called CovidMD.
“COVID Blue” was filed by a now-regretful Los Angeles real estate broker impressed with the cleaner air from the pandemic-lowered traffic. My Coronavirus Experience, a website from an Indiana lawyer, aims to record how brands treated customers and employers.
David Schricker of Peoria, Ill., filed for “COVID-19 Immune” wristbands as a way for people who have had the disease to signify their ability to volunteer with others. He says he thought about it while writing his will. “These wristbands just kind of came to me, and this immunity and what the potentials are,” he told me. “I think for a lot of us, we just feel like we’re on our heels. I don’t want to be a victim.”
John Ruch is a writer in Atlanta.