By Amanda Matusak, VP, Strategy
We’re not only living with a viral pandemic—we’re living with a pandemic of words. In marketing terms, we’re dealing with an uncontrolled brand launch. Quite literally, nobody “owns it,” so we can’t point fingers at any one person or organization.
What we’re witnessing with this pandemic is a collective, epic failure to control the narrative. And as anyone in brand management can tell you, if you don’t control the narrative from day one, then consumers will do it for you.
In the face of rapidly evolving scientific data, all of which is being shared through a political filter, the information problem actually started on a more fundamental level. It started with a name.
Ever since stories about the pandemic started breaking, it has been referred to as “coronavirus.” Its real name is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and the disease state is called Covid-19. But it was discussed in the news as a “novel coronavirus” for more than a month before the disease name Covid-19 entered the public’s perception. Still today, the vast majority of communicators default to calling it coronavirus.
This is a problem because “coronavirus” is a brand. By this, we mean that in the hearts and minds of people, it is a collection of experiences that frames their perceptions.
Humans love a good brand because it gives us a familiar frame of reference for understanding our world. In this case, though, it led us astray. Before we knew it, people had confused it with everything from beer to the seasonal flu.
Even today, it allows people to say that “warnings and precautions are just media hype” and “we’ve lived with multiple strains of coronaviruses forever; this is just the latest one.” Little bits of knowledge (for example, that there are multiple strains of the flu every year) have muddied people’s ability to accept new information about this new situation and are allowing a lot of people to rationalize a lot of bad choices.
Think about it. If we could turn back time and call it something else, something other than the name of its family of viruses, we would probably be seeing a very different reaction.
That said, there is a science behind how viruses and disease states are named. We are in no way saying that the scientific naming is flawed. We are saying that the brand name as presented to the public caused confusion. The science is solid. It’s the brand that was not controlled.
Words Make a Difference
Language matters a lot when you are trying to educate people about their health.
It’s a naturally emotional issue. It’s a private issue. Judgment and shame run rampant based on social norms. Case in point: we apologize for our allergic reactions to pollen.
In our work with Cradle Cincinnati tackling infant mortality, one of our primary messages for saving lives is teaching people about safe sleep for babies. This is hard. Convincing a new, exhausted mom that her baby cannot snuggle with her in bed where she can breastfeed while half asleep is hard to do. There are emotional and cultural norms all caught up in it.
In this world, one of the most challenging “brands” that well-intentioned healthcare providers frequently use is SIDS or SUIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome). Once just a medical acronym, SIDS has evolved into a common brand that inherently says “no matter what you do right, the baby can die randomly.”
This has consequences. Research has shown that it definitely works against us in the world of safe sleep.1
According to the research, if you talk to a mom about sleep safe to reduce SIDS, you’ve accidentally given her a loophole for ignoring all scientific evidence about why safe sleep matters. For her, SIDS literally means “when you don’t know why the baby died,” so who’s to say that sleep position matters?
But if you frame safe sleep as avoiding suffocation, the educational game generally changes, research points out. “Suffocation” as a brand is something understandable and preventable. The ABCs of safe sleep—Alone, on the Back, in a Crib—make a lot more sense when framed as ways to prevent suffocation and rebreathing rather than SIDS. It’s still not an easy truth to communicate. But when information is framed so that people can fully, impassionately understand it, it makes a difference.
Healthcare and scientific communications are always challenging for the public.
A brand by any other name is still a brand. For our work to have an impact, it’s important for us to be aware of the power of an existing brand in the minds of people no matter where that collection of experiences originated. Using that awareness, we can frame a brand in a way that avoids negative association or confusion in the general public and control the narrative, so the narrative does not control us.
1Moon, R. Y., Oden, R. P., Joyner, B. L., & Ajao, T. I. (2010). Qualitative analysis of beliefs and perceptions about sudden infant death syndrome in African-American mothers: implications for safe sleep recommendations. Journal of Pediatrics, 157(1):92-97.e2. doi: 10.1016.