Omnicron founder Ondrej Havas, seen here at Ringo Starr's exhibition, knows about Beatlemania; now he is trying to avoid Covid-mania. Photo: Omnicron

New Zealand businesses named Omicron follow advice against trading under that brand while the variant sweeps around the globe

Auckland video production company Omnicron has been trading under that name for nearly 40 years, but now faces the arrival of a contagious Covid variant with an uncomfortably similar moniker.

“I was just out of high school and some friends and I were discussing some name options for our little enterprise,” says the firm’s award-winning founder Ondrej Havas. “And we came up with Omnicron, meaning ‘all’ and ‘cron’ as a short-form for ‘colour’. So, ‘all colour’.

“But we have a couple of brands. We will be not leaning so heavily on the Omnicron brand.”

That is a smart tactic. A Victoria University marketing professor is advising small to medium-sized businesses to “stay quiet until the storm blows over,” as few can afford the alternatives or rebranding or fighting back with a big PR campaign.

The film company is not the only one affected in NZ. In Tauranga, Omicron Holdings Ltd director Graeme Ward plans to use its subsidiary’s in-market brand, Bay City Fencing. In Hamilton, Omicron NZ Ltd hasn’t used that brand for a while, and will use its more descriptive brand, Murray Lye Landscape Design.

The Lower Hutt office of Omicron Electronics has already shut down, a casualty of the pandemic, and tax accountant Ernest Raina says they are now servicing clients from their Australian office.

Companies around the world have paid a price. Shares in Omnicom Group declined sharply on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, as news broke of the Omicron variant. Already struggling over the past year of Covid, the power station construction firm’s stocks dropped from US$68.94 to a low of US$66.26, but recovered a little yesterday.

“We have to be philosophical about it really,” said Havas. “At the end of the day, if anyone had a choice, of course we’d wish they’d named it something else. But it is what it is.”

Marketing professor Nicholas Ashill, from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, said the problem of the Omicron brand raised an interesting question. 

“It certainly highlights the importance of maintaining the reputation and value of any brand during a crisis,” he told Newsroom.

It comes after a tough few years for other brands. According to marketing media site Mumbrella, Delta Airlines chief executive Ed Bastian was reportedly reluctant to use the term “Delta variant” in a staff memo in August, calling it the “B.1.617.2 variant” instead.

And of course, Corona beer made headlines last year when a phone survey showed many Americans associated the brand with Covid-19. 38 percent of respondents said they “would not buy Corona under any circumstances now”.

Ashill highlighted the impact on Omnicom Group share prices over the weekend. “It is interesting that this drop seems to coincide pretty well with the communication about the latest Covid variant known as Omicron. Certainly there are similarities in the name.  

“For listed companies with similar names, there may well be consumer confusion and drop in share value but this is likely to be short-lived.”

Brands like Delta and Corona had bounced back, he said, but certainly illustrated the changeable nature and uncertainty of the Covid environment.

“What the current Greek naming does suggest is the need for brands to be on top of their game when it comes to crisis management,” he added. “With more mutations of the variant, we may well see more Greek alphabet names.”

“For any brand, there are essentially three different options: rebrand, confront the crisis head-on through PR and forms of social media engagement, or stay quiet until the storm blows over.

“However, SMEs have considerably fewer resources and capabilities compared with large firms so the first and second options are likely to be unrealistic. This leaves the last option.”

At the University of Auckland, branding expert Dr Bodo Lang was less concerned. He did not think there was a large downside to having the same brand name as one of the Covid variants.

“If anything, the name of the company is more likely to be memorable because of the unique association, particularly when the variant has just been named,” he argued. 

“One of the keys here is that consumers will be aware that businesses have had these names before the Covid variants were named, so there is no assumed intent to capitalise on a deadly virus.

“If consumers perceived businesses as wishing to profit off the back of a pandemic, then that would lead to strong negative associations and to social media backlash. And that is the last thing any businesses would want to endure in the midst of difficult economic circumstances.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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