Patrick Hanlon. Picture: SUPPLIED
Patrick Hanlon. Picture: SUPPLIED

Alerts and news reports about Covid-19, probably the most infectious disease in the world, have spread around the globe faster than the coronavirus itself.

The social virality of this potentially lethal disease has been exponential. This is due not only to our human rubbernecking instinct and the pandemic morbidity of the disease, but also because the root code of the coronavirus narrative is essentially primal, attractive and collective.

We know that brands are formed around products or services, but the new understanding of “brand” is that these are communities of people who gather around the same central idea. This time the central concept is not Just do it, Think different, or #MeToo. It is Covid-19. Coronavirus. Pandemic.

Behind everything that we “believe in” exist a root code and narrative to create a “primal” brand. The strategic brand narrative includes a creation story, creed, icons, rituals, a specialised lexicon, non-believers and leader.

A close inspection of the Covid-19 storyline shows that it contains all seven of these elements, which not only helps this already newsworthy story make sense, but gives the virus added relevance, veracity and agency that also make it socially viral.

These elements are a must, not just for a flu bug but for anyone who intends to build powerful public movements. Even if you haven’t been keeping up with the steady stream of coronavirus reports you’re likely to be familiar with many of these story elements.

Let’s deconstruct

The first mention of “coronavirus” was in early January after 40 patients were admitted to a hospital in Wuhan, China. Within weeks the deadly coronavirus became a “brand concept” of its own, attracting followers and spreading by word of mouth faster than the virus itself.

Here’s the deeper creation story, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine: six members of a family travelled to Wuhan from a city in southern China. While in Wuhan, two family members visited a sick relative in a hospital. Four of the family members developed symptomatic infection, and the virus spread.

A Wuhan doctor named Li Wenliang identified the virus and alerted Chinese authorities, but was shouted down, and a short-term cover-up ensued. The doctor was later infected with the coronavirus and died (aged 34). Thank you for your voice, Dr Li.

The second piece of primal code is the creed, and covers coronavirus’s reason for being, which, dramatically, is to make you ill and potentially kill you.

The third piece of a primal brand is iconography — how do we identify it? The medical markers for coronavirus are simple: a CT scan spots abnormalities on the chest such as “bilateral ground-glass opacities”. Other newsworthy icons include Li, the “heat” maps we spot online that register the spread of the disease, even the microscopic photographs of the virus itself, blue surgical masks and the Purell hand sanitiser alert.

In the 1300s the Black Plague inspired icons like the Grim Reaper, beaked masks, songs like Ring Around The Rosie and other memes that exist to this day. Covid-19 has inspired its own rash of dark humour. The confusion between Corona beer and coronavirus is laughable on its own. A quick search online yields Snapchats, YouTube skits (example: woman who sneezes at train station gets pushed away, sprayed and offed for bad behaviour), one-liners, cartoons and more.

There are many rituals involved with coronavirus, including the progressive nature of the disease itself. According to The New England Journal of Medicine the most common symptoms are fever (98%), cough (76%) and myalgia or fatigue (44%). Other processes include person-to-person transmission, routine hospitalisation, daily news reports, social media postings and travel warnings.

Covid-19 has started a wave of new rituals, including washing hands (obsessively), buying disinfectants — from hand gels and wipes to sprays — and selling out at some supermarkets. The terms social distancing and self-quarantine add distance between people who are coughing or sneezing. In social media searching for daily alerts, news information and tweets have become rituals. Searches like #chinacoronavirus has recorded over 70-million views, and growing. South China Morning Post and other sites have the macabre daily count of people who are sick, those who have recovered and those who have died. The stockpiling and hoarding of groceries, water, wipes and medicines have also become new rituals, as has the avoidance of handshakes.

The specialised lexicon surrounding the illness — provisionally called 2019-nCoV or Covid-19 — includes: coronavirus, virus, victims, pandemic, flu, symptoms, flatten the curve, the daily case count, Wuhan and a plethora of hashtags dedicated to the “outbreak”, including #coronaviruschallenge, #coronavirusspreading and #coronavirusupdate. All of which have tens of millions of views.

Though few people doubt the existence of the disease today, the Chinese government initially had its own “Chernobyl moment” and tried to cover up the outbreak. Other nonbelievers may be sceptics, conspiracy theorists and those who host coronavirus parties.

A reader from China adds that another form of naysayer comes in the form of those who distrust the information released by the Chinese government.

Leaders include the World Health Organisation, the Center for Disease Control and the hundreds of medical professionals who try to identify, control and cure the disease each day. Li must also be recognised and celebrated as the person who lost his life trying to control this dangerously infectious disease — and for raising his hand to call out the serious threat.

The big take-out:

The big take-out: The strategic brand narrative around Covid-19 contains all the elements required of a primal brand: a creation story, creed, icons, rituals, a specialised lexicon, nonbelievers and leader.

What should you do?

This is a brand movement that you want to engage in only from a distance. By early April the coronavirus had affected over 1-million people worldwide, and the official death toll stood at about 70,000. The disease is virulent. In fact, reports The New England Journal of Medicine, “Covid-19 has already caused 10 times as many cases as SARS in a quarter of the time.”

The economic cost will be in the billions. A report from South China Morning Post, for example, claimed that over 3Mt of farm produce was left to rot in the fields due to farm workers being quarantined. The travel industry has suffered from cancelled trips, flights and hotel reservations. The cruise ship industry, in which hundreds have been quarantined and many have died, will suffer a setback. The events and hospitality industries have been hit. Other societal effects will be forthcoming.

Be smart. Stay at home. Wash your hands.

Patrick Hanlon will be speaking at the Future of Media 2020, brought to you by Arena Events. Click here for more information about Future of Media 2020.

  • Patrick Hanlon is the author of Primal Branding.


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