Corona’s 2020 experience is proof that brands are astonishingly resilient, and you must work damn hard to damage one when it is built properly - Mike Teasdale explores what’s happening under the surface.

Back in early 2020, the owners of Corona beer made a statement stressing there was no link between coronavirus and their brand. The statement was prompted by surveys which had shown that drinkers were being put off by the association. One survey revealed that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy the brand under any circumstances because of the virus outbreak, and another reported that there had been a spike in internet searches for “corona beer virus”.

A year on, and the picture is rather different. Latest data from Nielsen show that sales of Corona beer jumped by 40% in the UK during 2020, making it not only one of the fastest-growing alcohol brands but one of the fastest-growing grocery products last year.

What does this say about the nature of brands, and hence brand management?

Brand salience is key.

Strategists have always considered the degree to which a brand comes to mind at the time of a purchase decision very important, but in recent years it is now thought to be critical to success.

Whether that salience is hard-wired into someone’s brain through years of building distinctive brand assets, or injected at the point of purchase by timely marketing activity or press coverage, the key is to be as front of mind as possible when it matters.

Corona beer has benefited from both hard-wired and injected salience in the last year. They have powerful memory structures in place (amber colour, distinctive long-necked bottle, emblematic golden crown, wedge of lime ritual) and they have experienced a surge in name awareness courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic.

Share of Search maps to Share of Market.

Share of Search is a metric we should be taking more notice of. New research has thrown light on how a brand’s share of online search queries is not only a way for marketers to determine ad effects but also to predict future changes in market share. This notion that Share of Search maps to Share of Market is borne out by the Corona beer experience of the past year.

Share of Search maps to Share of Market because bigger brands generate more searches and because success in brand management is relative. Brands operate in competitive markets so a relative metric like Share of Search offers nuances that an absolute metric (like year-on-year growth) cannot.

By making use of the Google Trends dataset, Share of Search is a democratic tool that enables all marketers to access an accurate approximation of Share of Market.

Brands are largely bulletproof.

Corona’s 2020 experience is proof that brands are astonishingly resilient. You must work damn hard to damage one. Most consumers just don’t care enough about brands or their associations to be that bothered by negative events, even global pandemics.

There are exceptions of course. Anyone remember the AYDS brand of appetite suppressants? They were terminally damaged by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In their case, however, there were compounding factors. For a start, AYDS was all about rapid weight loss which had an unfortunate mirror in the main symptom of people suffering with AIDS. To make matters worse, AYDS had no consistent look and feel, no equities to fall back on in times of need.

For a brand like Corona, with its rich suite of distinctive brand asset associations, the increase in brand salience that came from the coronavirus pandemic has outweighed any negative image associations that also came along for the ride.

Implications for brand management.

What all this means for brand management is that it really doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you do something. Inertia is the enemy, not uncertain actions. 

So, generate the oxygen of brand salience and don’t worry about brand image so much because, by and large, you can’t hurt your brand. Brands are like armoured cockroaches in hazmat suits able to withstand any attack. If that doesn’t encourage you to take some risks, I don’t know what will.

What this also means is that you can’t shape your brand as much as you think. Brands exist in their own world picking up various associations as they travel through life. 

Brand image is a composite creation, not unlike a bird’s nest made up of all sorts of twigs and bits of rubbish added over time. You as brand manager are only one among many contributors to your brand’s image.

Think about that bird’s nest metaphor and you begin to realize that almost all brand purpose and brand positioning workshops you’ve ever been to were a massive waste of time. Turns out, you are never in charge of a brand, just a noisy passenger shouting directions from the back seat. 

It’s enough to make you want to grab a beer and drown your sorrows. Now, which brand should you go for...?