BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Sensational H1N1-flu coverage burned like a wildfire across the media landscape in April, then died in May when the bug didn't prove as deadly as feared.
But the flu hasn't subsided at all, and now a second wave of media coverage around outbreaks of the virus amid the return of students to college and grade school is driving new opportunities for back-to-school marketing by brands not typically associated with the season.
Suddenly, school-supply lists at districts around the country include hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes, the latter often by brand name -- Clorox or Lysol. Some districts that didn't even allow hand sanitizers on their property in years past because of the alcohol content are now encouraging students to bring them.
Back-to-school coverage on TV stations in Cincinnati last week, for example, highlighted teachers in some districts wiping down student desks every day with disinfecting wipes and carrying club-store tubs of the wipes into their classes on day one.
Clorox Co., which steered clear of marketing around the original wave of coverage last spring so as not to appear to be capitalizing on tragedy, has begun running search ads on Google and Bing against queries for "swine flu," directing searchers to a website detailing how many of its products are effective against H1N1.
Clorox also released a "College Survival Guide" last week via its public-relations firm, Ketchum. It can be downloaded at MomCentral.com and includes lists of "must haves," a five-minute-dorm-room-cleanup guide, and tips for helping reduce the spread of germs and viruses, such as getting vaccinated and regularly disinfecting items such as computer keyboards, cellphones and video games.
Clorox did see an increase in shipments of its disinfecting wipes last quarter, a spokesman said. "Obviously it's unclear how consumers are going to respond to concerns this fall and winter, but we are already working with our retail customers to make sure they have products and communications available to help consumers reduce the presence of the flu virus."
The initial wave of flu reports in April meant "stores were emptied of Lysol products" in many cases, said Rob de Groot, exec VP of North America, Australia and New Zealand for Reckitt Benckiser. And he said sales have continued to benefit, in part rebounding from a "soft flu season" in the first quarter.
But while Reckitt Benckiser's Lysol has added banners on labels touting the effectiveness of its products against flu and has run ads to the same effect, he said the brand really benefits from years of positioning as a virus fighter.
"Our long-term building of brands and having a distinct position in the market really pays off," he said, "because we saw much more lift than some of the other disinfectant sprays."
Marketers are also having the work done for them largely by federal, local and school authorities. Elon University in North Carolina, for example, put out a list of suggested items for students to bring this year that included thermometers, tissues, fever reducers, cold/flu medications, hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes. Chicago public schools are stocking hand sanitizers, Kleenex and disposable thermometers at every school and allowing students to wear surgical masks, though it is not supplying those.
News reports of hand-washing instruction at schools around the U.S. have the look of programs marketers have long run in developing countries to create markets for their brands.
Fears grounded in reality
What may give the new post-hype wave of hand-wringing and washing more legs is that it's grounded in reality. While the initial fears of a deadly pandemic along the lines of the 1917 Spanish influenza that killed millions have proved baseless so far, H1N1 is proving a widespread problem well ahead of traditional flu season.
Officials at Georgia Tech reported 200 cases of the virus last week, and officials at the University of Kansas identified 150 cases. If H1N1 becomes more widespread in the late fall and winter, as other flus have, this could be a far cry from the past two years of light flu seasons.
What's more, hand washing and surface sanitizing with consumer products may be among the only realistic lines of defense for most people. Even those who start vaccinations as soon as they're available in mid-October won't be fully protected by the two-shot regimen until early January.
There may not be much more gain for marketers to realize, because consumers already have stocked up so much. Sales of hand sanitizers rose 99% in the second quarter, to $43.8 million, according to data from Information Resources Inc. reported by Deutsche Bank, but they were flat for the four weeks ended Aug. 9, at $9.2 million.
Consumer search activity continues to show a post-hype bounce. Google searches on things such as "swine flu," "H1N1," "hand sanitizers" and "surgical masks" died down after a late-April spike but started steadily rising again in June.
The Centers for Disease Control helped fuel the interest Aug. 21, issuing an advisory for colleges and universities that included making disposable wipes available for cleaning surfaces and -- in an item that garnered far more media and social-media attention -- recommending infected people use surgical masks when kissing.
For its part, Kimberly-Clark isn't doing anything special to market its surgical masks, but others are. Amazon and other retailers are doing search ads for the products, and several people posted a link on Twitter last week where surgical masks could be purchased on Amazon.