The Omicron Follies: Covid-19 Variant Names Offer a Lesson in Bad Branding

When the World Health Organization announced in May 2021 that it would start using letters of the Greek alphabet to designate Covid-19 variants of interest and concern, it hoped that the new labeling system would be “simple, easy to say, and remember.”

Over a year later, WHO’s Covid-19 naming has a lot of people asking: “what?” The designation of omicron variants as BA.4 and BA.5, which is now dominant (and deadly) has confused many people and hindered health officials in “selling” the idea that the public needs to remain vigilant. 

“It should have been a lot simpler, and a lot plainer,” says Laurel Sutton, linguist and co-founder of Catchword, the 24-year-old San Francisco-based naming agency behind company names such as Asana and Upwork. Greek letters, she points out, don’t mirror the phonetic order of the Latin alphabet–“gamma,” for instance, comes before “delta.” Many Greek letters already have established meanings: lambda is associated with the LGBTQIA community, and delta connotes change in mathematical equations. 

And that’s not even getting into the current communicative shift with BA.5. Because BA.5 is a subvariant of the original omicron strain that that started its rapid spread in late 2021, by WHO’s naming conventions BA.5 doesn’t rate its own brand. Basically, Sutton says, WHO has broken a lot of the best practices she follows when naming businesses and products. The United Nations-run agency could have benefited from hiring a professional marketer. “There is a better way to communicate,” she says. “And if they hire people to help them do it correctly, we can save lives.”

While naming decisions aren’t necessarily life or death in business, there are lessons you can take away from the WHO’s COVID-19 communications strategy. Here, the experts share their take.

Why Covid-19’s naming process was so complicated

In the pandemic’s early days, you might remember reading about the “Wuhan strain”–the original version of Covid-19 that was detected first in Wuhan, China. Shortly after, the “U.K variant” and the “South African variant”–eventually named alpha and beta–were first detected in the countries that their initial names reflect. Associating a virus with its place of discovery (key word discovery–not necessarily origin)–has long been standard, says South Africa-based epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, Caprisa Professor for Global Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Zika virus, he says, was named for the Ziika Forest in Uganda, where the virus was first isolated, and ebola virus was similarly named for the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even the 1918 influenza pandemic earned its colloquial name “Spanish flu” because of a breakout reported in Spain during World War I, in spite of the fact that the country was neither the origin, nor the epicenter, of that virus.

But as researchers continued to detect early Covid variants, Dr. Karim quickly recognized how this geo-naming tradition contributed to politicization and xenophobia surrounding the virus; with two other scientists he authored a paper, published in the journal Science in March 2021, recommending against a geographic naming convention for this very reason. “I’ll put it bluntly: it was racial,” he says. “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to naming viruses that way.”

So, WHO had to figure out an alternative. It landed on Greek letters, though that system has been imperfect. The organization even skipped some letters, it told Reuters: “nu” was too phonetically similar to the word “new.” And “xi” is a common last name, notably, shared by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which risked fanning the flames of sinophobia that had ignited at the advent of the pandemic. 

The reason BA.5 can’t simply be referred to as “omicron,” Dr. Salim says, is because the Greek letters are intended to capture unique variants–not their subvariants: “The best explanation I can give you is that when we say ‘omicron,’ we mean the Johnsons–mom, dad, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins–it’s a whole family, not one individual.” Mom and dad might act differently–one might be more contagious than the other–but they still exist on the same family tree. 

That has not made public communication easy. Dr. Salim isn’t sure what alternatives might have prompted better public health precautions, and notes that the current challenge is getting the public to remain cautious amid pandemic burnout. “I’m not sure what you can do–call it ‘devil one’ and ‘devil two?'” he says. “The public’s perception is also about what they want to hear. They don’t want to hear that people are still dying.”

The next Covid variant to arise will be named pi–already famous as a mathematical constant. To become the dominant strain, pi has to be more transmissible than omicron. If it’s also more severe than omicron, public messaging will be a challenge, he says. 

What the experts might have done instead

Sutton, however, has a suggestion: Just call it Covid, plain and simple. It comes down to knowing your audience, she says. “On the scientific side, you obviously need to designate these different variants. But to be really honest, the public doesn’t need to know about that stuff,” she says. “It detracts from the overall messaging, which should be, ‘Hey, let’s keep wearing masks. Let’s keep getting vaccinated. Boosters are also a really, really good idea.'”

J. David Placek, president and founder of the 38-year-old Sausalito-based marketing agency Lexicon Branding (known for naming BlackBerry phones, Subaru’s Outback and Forester autos, and the audio company Sonos) agrees. He points to the annual flu vaccine, which, every year, is formulated for a different variant. The public generally remains unaware of which precise variant the vaccine is tackling. If WHO wants to simplify variant names for public understanding, he suggests a simpler alternative: Just use numbers, as in iPhone 13. “It’s meaningful, it’s understandable, and it’s memorable,” he says. Not to mention that there are a limited number of Greek letters. 

Don’t be like WHO

The key to Sutton and Placek’s strategies is that they focus on the public–the customers– not the scientific or medical communities. This was, after all, WHO’s target when it unveiled its Greek letter naming system “to simplify public communications.” It was not designed to replace existing scientific names assigned by the database GISAID, open-source tracking system Nextstrain, and the nomenclature system Pango. When naming anything–a virus or a software update–knowing your audience is key. 

Sutton has frequently worked with companies on naming smaller components of larger projects. For example, her team branded Photoshop Elements, a “lighter” version of Photoshop that the company didn’t want to simply call “Photoshop Lite”. “When we take on these projects, we sit down and try to figure out, ‘What’s the most intuitive way for people to understand that? Where might we use numbers and letters? Where might we use actual names of things?” she says. “And it’s very dependent on who the target audiences is.”

What’s intuitive for an audience? Placek looks at the existing marketplace to see what the competition is doing. Then, you have an option: Roll with the tide or try something distinct if you’re trying to break out of your category. Consider cereal: “If you walk down the cereal aisle, you’ll quickly realize that most of that is fairly descriptive–even Cheerio’s is suggestive of its shape,” he says.  But if your company countered with ‘Blue Sky Cereal,’ people might simply walk past that because the name doesn’t fit in the set. “But if it’s some really interesting new cereal with lots of believable health benefits,” he says.  “Then maybe you do have to break set with the category.” (Ahem, Magic Spoon).

Successful naming walks a tricky line between innovative and intuitive, standardized and stand-out. When it comes to Covid variants, Sutton is doubtful that WHO has been successful in explaining the evolution of the virus to the masses. “Science communication, especially when it comes to health concerns, has to be simple,” she says. “It has to be things that people can understand and take in and act appropriately.”

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