Need to change business name to dodge a deadly virus?

3 examples of when a catchy name went truly viral

by | Feb 16, 2020

What happens when an established brand shares its name with a deadly virus? Does the company bite the bullet and change business name, or wait to see if the virulent new competitor dies off? Until it was officially designated as COVID-19, the virus that began in Wuhan, China was simply known as the ‘Coronavirus’. In the public’s search for information, Google reported a 2,300% increase in the search term ‘corona beer virus’.

These challenges have been faced in the past, and dealt with in different ways, so let’s take a look.

Evolve business name:  ‘Ayds’ Candy

Trademarked in 1946, Ayds was an “appetite suppression candy” and came in a range of enticing flavours including chocolate, choc mint, butterscotch, caramel and peanut butter. It used the active ingredient benzocaine to reduce the sense of taste, thereby reducing the desire to eat. Ayds enjoyed bumper sales in the 1970s and early 80s, and it’s future looked assured with its 30 year track record and global sales network – what could possibly go wrong?

Disaster struck in the mid-80s when the Grim Reaper came knocking on the Brand Department door. Growing public awareness of the terrible disease, known by the acronym AIDS, made their phonetically identical name difficult to promote, and the dramatic weight-loss experienced by AIDS sufferers compounded the negative association.

Instead of making the decision to change business name entirely, the company chose to evolve it: ‘Diet Ayds’ in the US and ‘Aydslim’ in the UK. But without the clean break that an entirely new name would have afforded, sales continued to decline and the product was eventually withdrawn from the market. The lesson? If your brand reminds people of a disease so serious that it goes on to kill 32 million people, a name tweak may not be sufficient.

Keep business name:  ‘Sars’ sarsaparilla

A five-syllable Spanish word can be too tough for a thirsty Aussie to manage, so a “Sars” is just the thing when you want to slam down a sarsaparilla. Although not widely available around the world, sarsaparilla is popular in the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. Saxbys and Golden Circle both have ‘Sars’ cordial and the ‘Sarsi’ brand is well-known in South East Asia.

So when the SARS outbreak occurred in 2003, it gave some brand managers a scare, and as the pandemic worsened, they began to wonder if they may have to change product name. In the end they needn’t have worried.

In Australia the mantra was “We’re not scared of SARS – we drink it by the can-full”. In fact, there were reports from New Zealand at the time that sales improved because people thought it may give protection against SARS. And in Taiwan, a country that reported 29 cases of SARS, the consumers were wise enough to realise the drink had nothing to do with the virus. The lesson? Don’t panic – you may not need to change business name. Wait and see because your brand will probably outlive the bug.

Change business name:  ‘Zica’ car

In November 2015 the Indian car company Tata announced the name of its latest car: the ‘Zica’. The invented name combined the first two letters of the words ‘zippy car’ and showrooms around the country were receiving the shiny new model and preparing launch events.

Although the Zika virus had been spreading in South America in 2015, it wasn’t until WHO announced it’s likely spread to North America that the rest of the world took notice. Zika is a tropical disease spread by mosquitoes and named after the Ziika Forest in Uganda. Brazil had experienced a strong El Niño* effect that year with rising humidity, so the Zika virus spread quickly.

Tata’s response was excellent. They decided to re-brand the car, to “empathize with the hardships being caused by the virus outbreak”, and announced a public competition to rename the Zica. In the end, the ‘Tiago’ was born, but the real lesson? Being proactive and changing the name shows off your corporate agility, social awareness and may even get you some free PR.

* In another case of mistaken identity, a California man by the name of Al Nino kept receiving abusive phone calls from strangers in 1998, because of the torrential rain the El Niño effect had brought that year.

It’s easy to look back, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, know what the best course of action would have been. But at the time, it’s really a case of waiting and seeing how damaging the virus will be, and gauging to what extent it will tarnish your brand. The worse the virus, or bigger the brand, the higher the stakes. Corona Beer will get through this latest Coronavirus but pass the popcorn if Neuropathic Immunomodulating Kylo-Encephalovirus takes hold.

Andrew Wills
Creative Director, Wills Brand Design

Wills Brand Design can help your business find a name that conveys your value, is ownable in your market, and able to be registered as a web domain. Read more about our Approach to branding, or Contact Us for more information.

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