Industries need to innovate to survive the coronavirus lockdown

Where possible, marketers should take a leaf out of the betting industry’s book, taking advantage of new virtual events and online markets, as coronavirus lays waste to business as usual.

The custom of putting a slice of lemon or lime in the neck of your bottled beer started with the Modelo and Corona brands at some ill-defined point in history. The supposed rationale behind these citrus plugs range from marketing, through product and into practicality.

Some evidence suggests that it was a marketing gimmick to give the beers a Mexican beach vibe when they were marketed to yuppie Californians in the 1980s. Another theory is that it was a complementary product device to align the beer’s taste more closely with German hefeweizen brews, noted for their citrus aftertaste.

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The final (and most believable) motive for forcing a lemon slice into your beachside beer was as a barrier – damming your sweet alcoholic nectar from the predatory investigations of the resident fly population.

For Corona at least, a fruit prophylactic has offered no protection whatsoever from its recent negative brand association. The Covid-19 virus, caused by a member of the coronavirus family, is currently spreading across the planet faster than an STI on Love Island.

This grim, pseudo-apocalyptic reality has quickly caught up with the business world – most obviously travel, restaurants, high street retail, professional sports and, as a direct result of the latter, sports betting. On the evening of 12 March, Arsenal FC’s manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for coronavirus and shortly afterwards, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi was also diagnosed.

Those that roll with the punches, innovate and make the best of a bad situation will come out on top.

The Premier League football season was soon suspended – initially for a matter of weeks, until 4 April – but it would be a fool’s wager to plan for that being the full extent. With sporting events from the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix to domestic rugby seasons cancelled or suspended, it looks increasingly like the Cheltenham Festival was last orders for sports betting punters before an extended period of involuntary abstinence.

Betting operators have already felt the squeeze in their respective share prices with dramatic slumps across the board. These drops mimic the very real impact the virus has had on major airlines including easyJet and Lufthansa and it seems likely that the wave of disruption will continue to flow through major businesses in coming weeks and months.

If you’re not working for Andrex or Charmin, best not rely too heavily on your bonus this year.

Virtual alternatives

Horse racing has been through similar chaotic scenes before. Foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, a run of decimating weather in 2007 and ‘Foot-and-mouth: The Return’ in 2013. In these instances, technology was the unlikely sidekick supporting betting operators when racing was off the cards, taking the quite surprising form of ‘virtual racing’. Computer-generated racecourses and horses used random number generator (RNG) technology to define the outcome of races against virtual form cards and odds markets.

Inspired Entertainment, the pub fruit machine business, was behind the bulk of the growth in virtual horse racing in 2007, salvaging what would otherwise have been a decrepit season for the likes of William Hill, Ladbrokes, Bet365 and SkyBet. In 2020 most operators offer some form of virtual sports betting, beyond horses and even into virtual UFC fighting. In the absence of live sports events, these markets are likely to benefit significantly.

Another relatively new betting vertical likely to see significant gains during the sports white-out is esports. Esports betting has been on a steep growth curve since Pinnacle took the first bet in 2010, and now betting on matches across computer games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and League of Legends turns over an estimated $13bn per year globally.

With live esports events at risk of Covid-19 ceasefires, tournament organisers like ESL can simply migrate the gameplay to online ‘arenas’ – thus mitigating any risk to players or fans.

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Unlike cancelled football, rugby, basketball and golf events, viewers are guaranteed via the hugely popular streaming platform Twitch, meaning that in the absence of nigh-on all other sporting entertainment, esports might be able to attract a captive audience of potential fans just itching to get a sporting fix in any guise possible.

With back-to-back tournaments available and a number of professional teams itching to keep their sponsorship dollars flowing, this could be the charge to explode esports betting into the stratosphere in the same way foot-and-mouth ignited virtual racing in 2007.

It is unequivocal that, between professional sports, betting and their supplementary industries, we’re likely to see some heavy hits – even some casualties – over the coming months. But once you filter through Fleet Street hyperbole it’s possible that businesses are soon to discover the benefits of new virtual markets, a fluid workforce and flexible work-from-home policies.

Additionally, business services companies should be able to capitalise on the rapid and essential shift in working conditions and communications requirements. For video conferencing brands, offering a massively reduced or free rate to acquire a significant global working-from-home customer base wouldn’t be a bad idea right about now.

As in any time of crisis, those businesses that bury their heads are likely to come unstuck, while those that roll with the punches, innovate and make the best of a bad situation will come out on top.

Harry is the founder of Brand Architects, a strategic brand and integrated marketing consultancy.

You can contact him at Harry@BrandArchitects.co.uk  or via LinkedIn & Twitter @MrHarryLang.

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