The New York Times has a story making the point that brands in the US these days have to be extraordinarily careful if they want to avoid becoming embroiled in political and cultural controversies … or, at the very least, have to be vigilant about the messages they send if they decide to choose sides.

Some of this has been reported here on MNB before, as when fans of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and/or Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore shot videos of themselves destroying Keurig coffee machines after the coffee company pulled its ads from Hannity’s program after he was seen as less than prosecutorial when interviewing Moore about sexual molestation allegations. Or, when companies such as New Balance and Under Armour came in for criticism from some quarters when senior executives at the two companies were supportive of the then-incoming Trump administration’s pro-US business proposals.

But there have been other examples. Jim Beam has been faced with calls for a boycott after actress Mila Kunis, who appears in its commercials, let slip the fact that she makes donations to Planned Parenthood under the name of Vice President Mike Pence as a form of “peaceful protest.” And the Papa John’s pizza chain had to go to the unusual lengths of telling white supremacists that it doesn’t want their business after it was embraced by such people when its CEO, John Schnatter, was critical of football players who kneel during the National Anthem as a way of drawing attention top what they see as racial injustice.

The Times story makes clear that some of these controversies are unexpected - as when a brand spokesperson makes a political statement that puts the brand in the hot seat. And some happen because company executives don’t take a deep breath and think twice before making public statements.

KC's View: So much of this is because the US is seen as perhaps being as polarized as it ever has been. Though I’d disagree with that … I’m not sure that we’re more polarized now than we were during the late sixties and early seventies. But, dissent now is being given voice through social media, which makes it seem more profound even if it only is louder.

It does seem sometimes as if everybody wants to pick a fight with someone.

Take, for example, the new - and completely predictable - kerfuffle over Starbucks’ new holiday cups, generated over speculation, mostly generated on social media and picked up in the press, that this year’s edition features two people holding hands, with one interpretation being that it is pair of lesbians.

The San Jose Mercury News writes that “whether they are or aren’t is a matter of artistic/social/political interpretation. The drawing –it’s part of a festive Christmas tree, snowflakes and holiday gifts design — shows only two sweater-wearing arms (one with bracelets) and clasped hands. The non-bracelet-wearing hand appears to be slightly larger.

“Starbucks had no comment on the gender of the arms/hands.:”

Starbucks, of course, has been accused in the past of featuring holiday cups that were not respectful enough of Christian holiday symbols. Last year, it featured a green cup that some interpreted as being anti-religious. And it would be naive, I think, to believe that the company was surprised by the debate. I suspect they’re actually happy about it, figuring that anyone who objects to two people holding hands probably weren’t big Starbucks consumers anyway.

In other words, Starbucks is willing to court controversy because it figures that it is good for the brand.

The lesson, I think, is pretty simple. Be vigilant about how you are positioned, and careful about the positions you take. Be extremely aware of when controversies may be overtaking you, and be nimble about responding. And finally, know that when you take a position, you’d better own it … and that backing down will almost never make you look better. (The exception to the rule is when backing down means criticizing white supremacists.)

The lesson is simple. Execution, however, is like walking through a political minefield.