Water Cooler: When Companies Get A 'Bad' Name—And It Isn't Their Fault

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Natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and other tragic circumstances, such as the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent strains of the virus, undoubtedly affect sales on at least some level, whether locally, regionally, nationally or worldwide. Companies that service customers and end users who are vulnerable to natural disasters or disease can do their best to plan ahead. But something that companies can’t quite plan ahead for is the event of their brand’s name sharing a similarity or likeness to that of an unfortunate circumstance. 

In the United States, we saw this happen recently with beer brand Corona during the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite there being no direct link between the virus and the beer produced by Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch, the company reported a drop in U.S. sales in February of 2020 simply because of its name. At this time, ad firm 5W Public Relations published the results from a nationwide survey of 737 beer drinkers, which found that 38 percent of Americans said they would not buy Corona beer “under any circumstances” at the moment, and 16 percent said they would not order Corona beer in a public place. Further, 14 percent of beer drinkers surveyed reported feeling confused about whether Corona beer was related to the coronavirus; a finding that indicates just how easily perception can be tainted due to name association in such circumstances. 

Although Corona beer has reported its sales have recovered, this is something we’re now seeing faced by U.S. airliner Delta Air Lines, Inc., following identification of the coronavirus delta variant.

In the event of such an unusual occurrence, and one that can be detrimental to a business, what options are there? Here are a few thoughtful actions that companies have taken in the past, and whether the outcomes proved fruitful.

A total rebrand. The most drastic of the three options, a full rebranding is sometimes necessary. In 2012, Livestrong Foundation, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit serving people diagnosed with and affected by cancer, officially changed its name from The Lance Armstrong Foundation when its namesake—professional cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who is known for winning the Tour de France seven times—admitted to taking performance-enhancement drugs. The organization’s decision to change its name to something that was more reflective of its mission, and which didn’t imply the work of a single person, especially following the scandal, was understood and acknowledged in media coverage in the company’s efforts to move forward. 

Slight changes to company image. In most cases, a total rebrand likely isn’t necessary, but small tweaks and changes may be beneficial to a brand’s image. In December 2015, Isis Books & Gifts in Englewood, Colorado, added “Goddess” in front of its name on front-door signage to reflect the ancient Egyptian goddess of healing and magic, which inspired the store’s name. The addition to the sign came after the bookstore and gift shop was vandalized due to a mistaken relation to ISIS, the acronym used to refer to the Islamic State terrorist organization. Though the bookstore was not associated with ISIS, adding the word “Goddess” to its front-door sign, and later to its website, was a meaningful move intended to dispel ambiguity over the name, and protect the safety of its workers and patrons. 

Positive action tied to the name. With concern about the delta variant, Delta Air Lines, Inc. decided to extend its message of sympathy—to a three-year-old girl with the same name. Kellie Gerardi, a project manager with Palantir Technologies and a bioastronautics researcher—who’s slated to be selected for a future Virgin Galactic space mission—playfully tweeted, “Petition not to call it ‘Delta Plus’ and instead move on to the next letter in this cursed variant alphabet (crying face emoji). Sincerely, the mother of a very sweet little Delta who once thought the airline would be the most annoying namesake joke.” Gerardi followed up with a tweet to Delta Air Lines, Inc., stating, “@Delta I feel like we should form an alliance on this matter”—and in a way, they did. In August, the airline sent a care package to the child, which included a pink Delta-branded backpack, a model plane, Biscoff cookies and a handwritten note which read, “Hi Kellie! We saw your tweet and just wanted to let you know that we think your daughter’s name is amazing. It’s the name for people who were meant to fly. We sent you a few things with our favorite name, so she can know how special she is. Wear it loud and #DeltaProud!” It was signed, “Your friends @Delta.” The story of the care package warmed hearts across the nation and was shared as positive news in the media. 

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Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.

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