The omicron follies: Covid-19 variant names offer a lesson in bad branding

August 11, 2022
By Rebecca Deczynski


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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 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.” …



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