Tips and Tricks to create a Viral name

Naming strategy and controversy around Covid-19.

By: Nicholas J.W. Kühne

*please note that I will reference nomenclature used in history that may be offensive to readers. It does not reflect the authors attitude.*

One of the most controversial naming exercises of all time has to be the fight to name the largest current enemy of humanity — Covid-19.

Countries around the world are on a virtual war footing reacting to the Covid-19 outbreak. And when there is a new enemy it needs a name to match. In WW1+WW2 the Allies called their German foes ‘Boche’ and ‘Krauts’, in the American Civil War the Northerners were derisively called ‘Yankees and the Romans called everyone else ‘Barbarians’. There are multiple examples of this throughout history, where naming was used to heap derision upon the enemy to reduce their perceived physical and psychological strength in the mind of the populace.

So let’s look at a current timeline of the names given to this invisible threat. (Figure 1.) As of April 23rd 2020.

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SARS-CoV-2, Novel Corona Virus, Wuhan Virus, Corona Virus, China Virus, Covid-19.

Similar to a brand, the scientific community had already given the virus a bland yet descriptive appellation. There is a distinction between the disease : Covid-19 and the actual name of the virus: SARS-CoV-2, which is much more descriptive (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

So why has it so important to ‘rebrand’ the virus to Covid-19, and why this so much effort been put in to make this name stick?

We need to look at the folks responsible for the original naming of the disease in the first place; the WHO. Below is an extract from their website on naming conventions:

“The World Health Organization (WHO), in consultation and collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has identified best practices for the naming of new human diseases, with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” Link

Here is the important bit:

Disease names may NOT include:

Examples to be avoided Geographic locations: Cities, countries, regions, continents Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever, Lyme disease, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis Peoples names: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease

Species/class of animal or food: Swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox, equine encephalitis, paralytic shellfish poisoning

Cultural, population, industry or occupational references:

Occupational, legionnaires, miners, butchers, cooks, nurses

Terms that incite undue fear Unknown, death, fatal, epidemic

In the scientific community they used the scientific name according to the dictates of the WHO, yet in the population at large it was given a more descriptive and easy to remember name. How so?

We humans tend to default to the most simple explanation where possible, hence the media calling it the ‘Wuhan Virus’ to try and give it context. This is where the first issue arose. Giving the virus a geographic link is a no-no for the WHO.

The media started to backpedal on the Wuhan Virus name when there was an outcry from China, particularly as it created negative geographic connotations of the virus being linked to it. The Wuhan Virus was bad for ‘brand China’ and as a responsible brand owner they acted quickly and aggressively. We then saw the virus being promoted as the Corona Virus, but this was then swiftly changed to Covid-19 with wall to wall coverage from main stream media trying to undo the naming faux-pas they had made. But the damage had already been done and yet another name had emerged from the United States. Enter the China Virus.

The China Virus was a deliberate attempt to give the virus a face and a corporeal enemy to confront. This name was focused on the geographic location, similar to the Spanish flu (which incidentally did not come from Spain — read more here link ) but had layers of meaning built into it. The China Virus came to embody more than the virus itself, but all of Communist China’s failings (in the eyes of the Americans) rolled up neatly into a name that was easy to remember.

The China Virus was quickly repackaged again as Covid-19 once the United States and China had a rapprochement of sorts, and the China virus name all but vanished as you can see by the chart below. (Figure 2.)

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Figure 2. As of April 23th 2020

The chart also shows that ‘Corona Virus’ has the most staying power even as ‘Covid-19’ was on the rise. Why is this?

If we take a look at the name ‘Corona Virus’, it ticks a range of boxes those in the branding industry believe constitute a ‘good’ name.

Is it memorable? — yes

Is it easy to spell or pronounce? — yes

Is it able to transcend cultures and borders? — yes

Does it differentiate it from other brands(diseases)? — yes

This is not an exhaustive list but you get the point.

With the jostling backwards and forwards for control over the virus narrative, the nomenclature used for describing the subject reflects the importance all cultures give to names and how it shapes the narrative around how we see and experience the world. All of the parties involved in this current process are aware of the importance of naming and how damaging it can be if used with the wrong intent or malice. At the end of the day the virus continues to go about its business even if we create different names for the boogieman we think is out to get us.

Nicholas has 17 years of experience in global brands and brand agencies and is CEO of the data science consultancy, Metora in Kuala Lumpur and Wunderbrand brand agency. Twitter: @nickkuhne