Why, When, and How to Strategically Lean Into Controversy


We as a society today are no strangers to polarizing subjects. Witness the recent drama around the war on Ukraine, Joe Rogan and Spotify, gun control vis-a-vis mass shootings, and even the recently concluded Johnny Depp/Amber Heard courtroom saga, just to name a few. All of which begs an important question: how should brands react when controversy arises? 

We often see a knee-jerk reaction by brands who block content or pull their ads from programming or specific channels for safety reasons. But is it always the right strategic move to duck controversy wholesale?

What if, instead, a brand’s full perspective and core values drove a more nuanced response to controversy? If you know your why, when, and how completely, not only can you sidestep the risky aspects of a controversial moment, but you can also lean into opportunities that reinforce your brand’s authenticity while still achieving desired outcomes — and even creating a competitive advantage.

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Determine Your Core Values Now, So You Are Prepared When Hot-button Situations Arise

It can seem like a free-for-all when the latest controversy hits the media and social networks. Maneuvering through emerging narratives and sudden outcry can be challenging at best. There are two options when a situation like this occurs: scramble to develop a last-minute reactive plan or have a system in place to handle it proactively. If you have completely defined your brand’s perspective and true values, there is a clear direction to take when responding to the contention. 

Back in February, for example, more than 55 companies that sponsored The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify found themselves in the middle of a controversyOpens a new window and had to quickly decide how to react. We have seen how a situation like this could happen to any brand at any time in today’s world.

Typically, the inclination has almost always been to follow the numbers when dealing with division and only make changes if and when the numbers flip. The numbers were the reason those brands decided to advertise on the show in the first place, after all.

But as we have increasingly seen in the past few years, the traditional media performance numbers are not the only ones that concern brands. For example, a recent studyOpens a new window done by Ipsos showed that 70% of consumers “buy from brands they believe reflect their own principles.” Another studyOpens a new window by Vrity showed that “82% [of Americans] would pay more for a value-aligned brand, 43% of people would pay twice as much, and 31% would buy the value-aligned brand at any price.”

Sure, it is important to go where the traditional numbers are, but consumers want brands to better embrace their truth and stay aligned to their values and beliefs. More and more, consumers want to put their hard-earned dollars and attention toward brands that know what they are, what they stand for, and stick to their convictions. 

If it is true that a brand is the product of a thousand small gestures, as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner famously said, then when and where you show up in the market creates a cumulative effect over time — a “critical brand mass,” if you will.

The key to leaning into controversy is doing so only when it is authentic and consistent with your brand’s perspective and values

Let us take the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial spectacle, for example. While it is likely that most brands do not want to be associated with the sordid stories, content, and conversations around this moment, there may be nuanced elements that are target opportunities, though they are probably rare.

Milani Cosmetics is a prime example.

When Heard’s attorney, J. Ben Rottenborn showed the Milani Cosmetics Conceal + Perfect All-in-One Correcting kit and said this is what Amber Heard used to hide bruises, Milani Cosmetics was quick to respond.

The cosmetics brand pointed out in a viral TikTok video (over a million views and growing) that they did not start manufacturing that particular kit until a year after Heard was supposed to have used it.

Source: Milani CosmeticsOpens a new window

Heard’s legal team responded by saying they were just using that kit to represent the actual kit she used.

Regardless, the incident resulted in millions of views for Milani, with several viral tweets from customers stating that they now have customers for life. 

If your brand was a competitor to Milani Cosmetics, you could also have been primed to take advantage of this moment instantly had you targeted this opportunity as well with your own messaging.

Even the Russia-Ukraine conflict could hold target possibilities for the right brand, for example:

  • As a CPG brand serving mothers and children, are there opportunities to align with your consumers around all the stories and conversations about grassroots humanitarian aid efforts to send much-needed supplies to Ukrainian refugees?
  • As an electric vehicle manufacturer or dealer, are there opportunities to lean into all the stories and discussions about Russian oil imports and rising gas prices?
  • As an enterprise workflow solutions provider, are there opportunities to address data breaches and high-profile cybersecurity hacks head-on to show how the company’s own solutions work to mitigate any associated risks?
  • As a trusted financial institution, are there opportunities to lean into the chaos of news stories covering financial sanctions and the banks that have made the moves to cut ties with Russia? 

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These are the kinds of discerning opportunities that exist in almost all the controversial moments that arise today — opportunities to enhance brand equity and accumulate alignments with your consumers, all while otherwise staying safe and achieving desired media outcomes. 

While there is no hard and fast rule for how to handle controversy when it arises, it can and should be anticipated. Controversy is not just a thing that happens every once in a blue moon. We are living at a point in society where controversy is just as much an integral part of our everyday lives as anything else.

Brand marketers! Now is the time to discuss and align deeply on what matters to your brand. Anticipate the unexpected moments that are surely coming, own your stance, and watch others try to keep up.

Have you leveraged a controversy for branding earlier? How has it helped you? Let us know on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window .