Rash of pig flu-related marketing threatens to become an epidemic

As companies look to benefit from the worldwide outbreak of swine flu, they must beware of going beyond product marketing and spreading panic. By Joe Fernandez

maskSwine flu has been dominating global headlines since it emerged in Mexico last month. But one man’s disaster is another’s opportunity and the crisis has seen some brands using the virus as a promotional tool.

Cleaning brand Dettol and technology specialist 3M have both started running marketing campaigns to capitalise on the high profile of the H1N1 virus. There is even an iPhone app from IntuApps waiting for approval by Apple that shows where confirmed and suspected cases are located.

3M is pushing its range of anti-bacterial face masks, more often used in hospitals than on the street. A spokesman for the company explains: “3M’s approach has been more about educating the media about what masks are for and how they can be used.”

He adds that rather than trying to promote mask sales, the company has been trying to make clear the differences between masks and respirators. “3M has been pointing out that there is no government guidance that the public should wear masks anyway,” he argues.

But Fred Burt, managing director of brand consultancy Siegel & Gale London, says that while 3M’s promotion of its masks has been successful, it should avoid running any heavy ad campaigns to avoid seeming insensitive. Instead, he suggests the company should focus on PR and word of mouth.

“I would caution brands from advertising in order to capitalise on the crisis. It could trigger a consumer backlash,” he says.

Dettol, however, has decided to push its message that keeping surfaces clean can help defeat the virus. The company has turned its website into a hub of information about swine flu and taken out full-page ads in national papers.

Take advantageHowever, the Mexican government has warned companies that they should not attempt to take advantage of the nation’s swine flu panic and any advertising that is “unauthorised or that tries to confuse or surprise users, will be taken off the air immediately and sanctioned with the full weight of the law”.

One area where the problem of inappropriate marketing seems inherent is the online community. Companies offering special swine flu “kits” and branded masks have bought up terms to blitz Google with their search marketing campaigns; they are also dominating group discussions on social media sites.

Graham Titterington, principal analyst at Ovum, says: “The concerns are that users will become cyber-chondriacs and use the internet to find information which is false and could lead to even more panic than there was before.”

With so many rushing to cash in on swine flu, the UK government may be called on to follow Mexico’s lead and stop companies marketing without information guidelines in place. Until then, the rising number of cases of flu-related marketing could become an epidemic.

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