Editor’s note: Robert Passikoff is founder and president of Brand Keys, a New York-based research firm.

Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I’ve used that quote over the years to talk about brands, brand names and brand differentiation. 

Magnifying glass covid 19 vaccine, letter cubes I’m using it again. But this time with a caveat. Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, unless smelling it kills you. It’s a thought that’s troubled me as friends, relatives and news pundits have argued the pros and cons of different COVID-19 vaccination brands. Scientists quickly developed successful vaccines– and that’s good. But the overall success of the vaccine in the market is related to the brand name, and how it is perceived (“smells”) by prospective users. 

Paying more attention

Brand names surround us. But in a pandemic, people are paying more attention to pharma brand names than normal.

Many components go into creating a successful brand, primacy of product, emotional engagement, etc. How a brand aligns with consumer values and expectations determines if it is deemed “good” – or “bad,” and ultimately whether it is embraced by consumers. Bad press may make for good news stories, but it also makes for bad brand engagement. Which is why brand names have so much force and effect in consumer conversations.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was first to market, followed closely by Moderna. The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen (J&J) version was supposed to be a game-changer because it doesn’t require the cold chain to keep from spoiling. Also, consumers were told they’d only have to roll up their sleeves for one shot. 

But, due to a production snafu, J&J had to destroy 15 million doses. Then in early April, J&J was under the microscope as the CDC paused it to investigate following a rare and severe type of blood clot in six people who received it. At the time of this writing, the CDC and FDA are permitting the vaccine to be administered again.

Looking ahead

In this initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout, individuals aren’t necessarily offered a choice between the vaccines. Will some consumers still be hesitant to get the J&J vaccine?

The FDA and CDC officials stressed the decision to pause use of the J&J vaccine was made “out of an abundance of caution.” I’m not a scientist, but I have done a lot of research. I would have used the words “just the right amount of caution.” 

The consumer war of words is bound to go on until everyone is vaccinated or COVID-19 is no longer at global pandemic status. Ultimately, we’ll see which brands come out stronger and which come out weakened. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “Words have meaning, but names have power.”