Mexico’s beloved beer brand now shares its name with a pandemic. But what's the history of the golden brew and what does its future hold?
Grupo Modelo began producing Corona in Mexico City in the 1920s with a brand that's named after the Spanish for 'crown' and with the added attribute for English speaking markets that the name also refers to the sun’s aura. The crown that adorns the beer’s label and bottle-cap first appeared in 1963 as sales started to blossom and Corona became a national ambassador for Mexico in faraway places. In the 1980s Grupo Modelo began exporting Corona to the United States, projecting an image of “fun, sun and beach”.
Unlike branding for other beers, which merely invited drinkers to unwind, Corona offered escape - and gradually became a spectacularly successful and extremely valuable brand.
By the 1990s Mexico's secretary for commerce was boasting that “Mexico exports two fluids: crude oil and Corona”. The beer was the first product that asked Americans and others to pay more, rather than less, for something with a “Made in Mexico” label. That created a route for other Mexican wares, such as tequila, to be branded as “high-end”.
Over the last 30 years, Corona beer has conquered the world; by 2018, estimated Forbes, its sales reached $6.6bn. On the way, in 2013, AB InBev acquired Corona for $20bn and added it to its burgeoning stable of beer brands.
Then, in 2020, Covid-19 reared its ugly head and coronavirus struck the world. Bad news for everyone on the planet and equally bad news for a beer brand called Corona. As the coronavirus spread, amateur comedians flocked to the images of far-flung exotica posted daily on Corona’s Instagram account. Some sardonically urged the brewer to “please stop killing innocent people”. Others suggested that Corona change its name to something with fewer negative connotations, “like Ebola”. Corona’s social-media team stopped posting in mid March.
Worse was to come for Corona in April, when the Mexican government belatedly ordered the closure of all non-essential activities. Unlike making wine in France or beer in the United States, brewing in Mexico was declared “non-essential”. Within days the supply of Corona dried up.
We're particularly fond of Corona beer at OGN Towers and were alarmed to find that - just as the sun was kindly warming up the early Spring days of April - that shelves were bereft of the brand. We assumed it was because nobody wanted to buy the product due to its name association and that, therefore, supermarkets and off licenses had stopped buying it in. Actually, it was because the Mexican breweries were closed. But what will happen to the brand when the golden fluid starts being brewed again as its name is now a battlefield on which sun-kissed glamour and worldwide calamity collide. Whether “corona”, a year or two from now, elicits thoughts of beaches and limes or of hospital beds and quarantines, is potentially a question worth billions.
For now AB InBev are staying silent. Any public recognition of the association between the virus and the beer is a no-no. Do they wait it out or do they, perhaps, change its name? To change the name of such a powerful brand would be risky, undoing decades of hard work and destroying the beer’s sense of authenticity and history. But if damage to the brand is unavoidable, its owners could do worse than pick Coronita, the beer’s name in Spain (the result of a trademark dispute). It preserves the brand’s identity, and it might just be enough of a change to get drinkers’ imaginations back on the beach, where they belong.
We wish the brand the best of luck.