How Zika Delivered a Swarm of Nervous Customers to Bug Spray Brands

But is playing on their fears a good idea?

With public concern running high about the Zika virus (a recent Annenberg survey found that half of Americans are worried about it spreading to their own neighborhoods), the ominous disease has become a dark cloud over the upcoming summer travel season.

Unless, of course, you happen to be in the mosquito repellent business.

Brands like SC Johnson-owned Off! as well as Spectrum Brands' Cutter and Repel have been ramping up production since early February when the World Health Organization held an emergency meeting about Zika. A RetailMeNot study last month found that anywhere from 45 to 54 percent of Americans have gone out to buy insect repellent expressly over fears of Zika—traffic that has already boosted the sales of specific brands. According to IRI data, sales of Off! are up over 47 percent over this period last year while Cutter's sales have risen over 59 percent. NBC recently reported that sales of BugBand repellent had also doubled over last year.

Dollar increases like these would normally been seen as good news for a brand. But in the case of Zika, the picture is more complicated. While fears of the illness are obviously stoking sales, a marketing department may not want to be seen as capitalizing on a virus that causes microcephaly in newborn babies.

"There's no doubt in my mind that [these] brands will greatly benefit from securing an association with Zika," said consumer behavior expert and best-selling author Martin Lindstrom, "even though the brand owners have to be very careful not to lose control of the perceived benefits of the product."

Concerns like these are possibly why repellent brands are taking a measured approach to harnessing Zika for marketing purposes. Coleman repellents' website, for example, contains only a brief mention of Zika in the small print, along with a link to the CDC's site on mosquito-bite prevention. Go to the site for Cutter and you won't find a single mention of Zika.

"We never would use it as a scare tactic—the media will do that on its own, and people will be intuitively concerned," explains Andy Wundrock, svp, sales and marketing for Wisconsin Pharmacal, which makes repellents under the Coleman license. "We like to do the flip side and say, 'If you have concerns about this, we offer the products that help protect you.' Consumers are looking for peace of mind."

For its part, Sawyer Picaridin is willing to take Zika on a little more directly. The brand's homepage features the advisory "The Zika Virus has now been declared an international public health emergency," which then links to a page detailing the formula's efficacy on the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the virus. The company also issued a press release on Zika in February.

But Travis Avery, marketing coordinator for Sawyer products, explained his company is "pleased to offer a solution that helps with what's certainly a serious issue." He adds that Consumer Reports' April 16 ranking of the mosquito repellent sprays that worked best for Zika prevention—a study that ranked Sawyer as No. 1—won the brand a considerable amount of public attention.

Meanwhile, at Duane Reade pharmacies in New York, Off! is prominently displayed with signs that urge consumers to, "Reduce your risk of Zika virus."

Lindstrom observes that fear is a powerful motivator when it comes to buying over-the-counter products—especially if brands choose to stoke that fear. Advertisements for the antibiotic Cipro, for instance, led to a sales spike after the anthrax poisonings in the weeks after 9/11. But even if brands don't foster public anxiety, a nervous public tends to shop anyway. Sales of disinfectant exploded in 2014 when Ebola was all over the news, for example. Five years earlier, sales of sanitizing wipes and gels soared 70 percent amid fears of H1N1. "Fear-based messages," Lindstrom said, "spread faster than any other type."

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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