On February 28 2020, CNN published a tweet reporting that a full 38 percent of Americans — more than a third — refused to drink Corona beer under any circumstances, due to fears of coronavirus:
According to that tweet, almost four in ten Americans feared Corona beer because of unrelated news about a novel coronavirus strain known as COVID-19. Immediately and predictably, social media castigated Americans for purportedly being so ignorant, and in such large numbers:
It was not clear whether many of those openly scoffing at the stupidity of that 38 percent of Americans had read CNN’s article, which asserted:
Two surveys released [the week ending in February 28 2020] show that the Corona’s brand is suffering from negative buzz.
5W Public Relations said that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy Corona “under any circumstances” because of the outbreak, and another 14% said they wouldn’t order a Corona in public. The survey encompasses polling from 737 beer drinkers in the United States.
In another survey conducted by YouGov, the firm found consumers’ intent to purchase Corona fell to its lowest level in two years. The survey also showed that Corona’s buzz score, a metric that that measures favorability, has dropped significantly since the beginning of the year.
We first looked at YouGov’s information on the Corona beer/coronavirus polling. Although CNN said that Corona beer had fallen “to its lowest level” of popularity in two years, YouGov explained:
For one, Corona’s Buzz score — a net score based on whether US adults have heard anything negative or positive about the brand — decreased among those who have an opinion of the brand, from a high score of 75 at the beginning of January to 51 as of late February … YouGov data also shows purchase Intent for the brand is at the lowest it’s been in two years, though the summer-y beverage which is closely associated with beach holidays does see substantial seasonal fluctuation.
Methodology: Buzz score is based on an average daily sample size of 357 US adults with an opinion of the Corona brand on a 4-week rolling average. Purchase Intent is based on an average daily sample size of 2,110 US adults with an opinion of the Corona brand on a 4-week rolling average.
CNN’s reporting didn’t include YouGov’s note about seasonal interest in Corona beer and its “beachy” associations; it could also be the case that interest in Corona beer started to slide from January to February 2020 for other reasons, like the end of football season. It was also possible that some of the people surveyed did react negatively or develop a temporary negative association between Corona the beverage and coronavirus during times of frequent reporting on the latter.
But CNN’s key statistics did not come from any sort of formal or even in-house polling. It looked like CNN sourced the February 28 2020 story from a February 27 2020 press release from 5W Public Relations (5WPR) on February 27 2020. It’s not uncommon for public relations firms to attempt to get the attention of reporters with outlandish, attention-grabbing, or search engine optimization-friendly claims, which in turn result in viral stories about, for example, claims that 38 percent of Americans feared Corona beer.
In its press release, 5WPR claimed it “conducted a survey via phone of 737 American beer drinkers over the age of 21 on February 25 & 26, 2020,” adding:
5WPR’s survey found that:
• 38% of beer-drinking Americans would not buy Corona under any circumstances now
• Among those who said they usually drink Corona, only 4% said they would stop drinking Corona, but 14% said they wouldn’t order Corona in a public venue
• 16% of beer drinking Americans were confused about whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus
“There is no question that Corona beer is suffering because of the coronavirus. Could one imagine walking into a bar and saying “Hey, can I have a Corona?” or “Pass me A Corona,” said Ronn Torossian, Founder and CEO of 5WPR. “While the brand has claimed that consumers understand there’s no linkage between the virus and the beer company, this is a disaster for the Corona brand. After all, what brand wants to be linked to a virus which is killing people worldwide?”
The reason for this rather leading quote from the founder and chief executive officer of 5WPR himself opining (unscientifically) that there was “no question” Corona beer was “suffering” because of the stories about coronavirus may become more clear in light of the fact that 5WPR lists Anheuser-Busch among its clients, from whom Constellation Brands acquired the American distribution rights to Grupo Modelo — the company that brews Corona beer, among others — in 2013 (A-B InBev still has international rights to the brand):
We integrate all viable elements including social media, cause marketing, sampling, product integrations, events, contests and promotions, celebrity seeding and more to drive powerful outcomes for brands like L’Oreal Professional, Welch’s, KRUPS, It’s a 10 Haircare, Anheuser-Busch, All-Clad, Sparkling ICE, Loacker, LifeStyles, T-Fal, and many other established and emerging brands.
5WPR also did not elaborate about the wording of questions they asked the 737 “beer drinkers” they purportedly contacted for phone surveys, so we were unable to check whether they might have been created to lead those polled to certain conclusions in order to push forward a viral story.
For instance, mentioning “coronavirus” and “Corona,” as in the beer, together might skew results, as would a number of other ways of articulating the questions. Of the information provided, it was impossible to guess what those purportedly surveyed were asked. Moreover, 5WPR led with “38 percent of beer-drinking Americans would “not buy Corona under any circumstances now,” a figure meaningless without knowing how many of those people would buy Corona beer ever. If those were Budweiser or Heineken drinkers, for example, they might not buy Corona under any circumstances ever.
Even more illuminating was the second claim — that among drinkers of Corona, only four percent were turned off Corona beer — presumably due to coronavirus news, but that was impossible to know based on the carefully worded press release.
Once again, their last claim was that 16 percent of Americans were confused over “whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus.” That claim could suggest people were confused about the virus or made negative associations subconsciously. But without knowing what supposed respondents were asked, we can’t even say that figure was illuminating.
To put it another way, if the survey revealed few people had feelings about Coronavirus and corona beer, 5PWR wouldn’t have much of a story to peddle to CNN and other outlets. It was in the firm’s best interest to generate virally interesting stories, and “only 4 percent of Corona beer drinkers would stop drinking” it because of coronavirus was not a great sell.
Constellation Brands spokesperson Stephanie McGuane told CNN that sales of Corona remained “strong”:
Sales of Corona remain very strong and we appreciate the continued support from our fans. Our advertising with Corona is consistent with the campaign we have been running for the last 30 years and is based off strong consumer sentiment.
We examined the tendency of media outlets with digital arms to regurgitate PR and provide free advertising via viral and attention-getting claims back in 2015 in a fact check about another “shocking” survey. Incidentally, 5PWR discussed the difficulty in successfully pitching potentially viral stories to legacy media outlets to “lead more eyes to your campaign”; 5WPR’s other blog posts advised PR campaigns to carefully target journalists with active social media reach:
Any marketing director will admit that their primary focus is to consistently create content that will achieve viral status; however, far too many marketing campaigns are using “hit or miss” content strategies that may or may not produce viral content. There is a proven method that when appropriately applied can produce consistent and measurable results on a regular basis.
The use of media impressions has the capacity to create a ripple effect in public relations campaigns that will provide the consistent and lasting result that make PR campaigns successful. Using media impressions in PR campaigns creates a powerful marketing mechanism that allows businesses to effectively market their brand without constantly having to invest more revenue into their campaign on a weekly basis … Creating a viral campaign on purpose is not an easy task; however, the greater the initial reach of the content, the greater chance the content will have of going viral. One way to increase the reach of specific content is to partner with leading digital publications to help disseminate the content to a larger audience. This strategy can also prove successful with working with the leading bloggers in your industry. This baseline of content online will help lead more eyes to your campaign.
By their own metrics, 5PWR hit it out of the park with their Corona/coronavirus story. By noon on the day CNN published the story, within two hours, “38% of Americans” topped Twitter’s trend list — perhaps a result of carefully crafted pitches to match the carefully crafted polls and stories:
… it is extremely important to craft the content in a manner that it appeals to the specific audience that is being targeted. When this is done correctly, those who share the content will tend to share the content with others who will find the content relevant.
In sum, news organizations seem to have run with a “phone survey” press release from a public relations company that counts rival brewing company Anheuser-Busch as a client, and a claim that 38 percent of Americans stopped drinking Corona beer because of novel coronavirus became Twitter’s top trend. 5WPR’s partial purpose is to get media mentions, and CNN making the story viral surely helped. 5WPR also said only 4 percent of Corona drinkers were put off the beverage, but that made a far less clickable headline, which incidentally would help rivals of the brand’s parent company not at all.