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Does coronavirus need a brand?

Matthew Panzarino

Stay with me here. As we enter the full throes of coronavirus spread in the U.S., it’s becoming incredibly evident that we cannot depend on the federal apparatus to clearly communicate any of the necessary information citizens need. From the CDC removing exact testing numbers from its site to the president saying it would just “go away” to the White House attempting to make information about the virus briefings classified

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to determine what the right level of panic is. Fear is a healthy response to danger and it helps the body get ready to fight by raising adrenaline levels and heightening awareness so that we can take in new information about our situation and process it faster. 

Too much fear without the proper information, though, and the mind goes blank. I went to the store last night and the toilet paper aisle was completely bare...but the dry goods aisle was fully stocked. 

The kind of hive-driven thinking that puts fear of a dirty ass ahead of starvation is exactly the problem that clear communication would address.

This would allow informed urgency to take the place of panic or complacency.

Now, more than ever, we need a crisply defined set of messaging and information about the coronavirus’ capabilities, spread, effects, treatment and mitigation methods. And I’m beginning to wonder whether we might take a cue from the way that cybersecurity vulnerabilities are handled now.

There have been "famous" worms and viruses in the computer world in the past, hell even the Morris worm had a name. But in the modern era, the OpenSSL security bug Heartbleed was one of the first to be branded and defined so thoroughly and so quickly.

It had a name, a memorable logo, it had a simple, clear website that outlined the causes and possible remedies for the vulnerability which could have led to a massive breakdown in the security and stability of the internet.

What does the coronavirus have? Confusion about the coronavirus being the carrier and COVID-19 being the disease and how to use each of those in the proper context. 

Instead of some central, clear resource, the teens are turning to meme accounts to try to figure out what the hell is going on. Which again brings up the way that information is spread on the internet today. Virality is about multi-modal comms. A meme works across Instagram and Twitter and TikTok and Snap and the web. So you need to provide something that is instantly recognizable across those platforms as a single origin source of quality — that’s a brand.

We know the prime faults at play here, the gutting of the CDC, a politicized viral mitigation process and subsequent massive delays in testing. 

But we’ve had time to make our own way.

We’ve known that a coronavirus pandemic is possible and even expected. Bill Gates warned attendees of a conference held by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine of the dangers of a pandemic in 2018 and the need to prepare ourselves as if we were going to war. The Gates Foundation and Johns Hopkins even ran an extensive simulation of a very similar kind of zoonotic coronavirus to the one that we’re experiencing today. 

The conclusion of that simulation, by the way, was something like 65 million deaths over 18 months. The virus in the suddenly very popular Matt Damon vehicle Contagion only killed 26 million people. 

The signs are all over that we need to find a way to punch through the communication failures and misinformation storm to craft a unified messaging platform that gets across the base nature of the virus and the ramifications if we don’t do something about it. 

The most effective piece of branding I’ve seen on the coronavirus and COVID-19 so far is a chart that shows, in graphic form, what the cost of not flattening the curve of contagion looks like. It has since been shared, remastered by publications and even turned into a gif

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Sadly, it’s the closest thing we have to a high-impact, clarity-driven call to action in this thing so far. 

There are also some other attempts, like a 17-year-old Seattle student’s live updated website with current statistics. And, of course, the excellent Johns Hopkins case-tracking dashboard. And yes, we’re running a COVID-19 info page to help you understand what it means for your business. 

But what we really need now is a set of reference works that help people identify, understand and follow along with quality information and direction on the coronavirus. I’m honestly not sure how to maintain it, or who should shepherd it (beyond not the CDC at this point), but states are one possible steward of this kind of brand. If state surgeons general banded together with a solid product and branding team I think it could end up making a real difference in the recognition of reliable sources of information about the virus.

Or, we could just keep up the ad hoc approach and get it from whatever random tweet we see next. Either or.