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How a Dash of Familiarity Makes Controversial Content More Palatable

One of my favorite Content Marketing World sessions this year came from The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who wrote the book Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction and hosts the podcast Plain English podcast

In his talk, The Secrets of Hit Making, Derek explained the power of familiarity: One of the best ways to ensure a welcome surprise is to infuse the experience with familiarity. He pointed to the success of sequels, adaptations, and reboots in movies as an example.

The idea originates with famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who described this principle he called MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) as a balance between human curiosity for new things and fear of anything too new.

As an example, Derek shared what happened when Spotify fixed a bug that let familiar songs into the automated playlist Discover Weekly, which was designed to help listeners discover new music. Discover Weekly listens declined. As it turned out, having one or two familiar songs strengthened the value of the discovery playlist.

Derek explained why with this Loewy quote: “To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.” 

I love that idea for content and marketing.

And it got me thinking about another counterweight to apply to the balance of familiar and surprising.

Don’t take controversial content positions in a vacuum

Today, brands struggle with controversial positions in their content. The more heated the topic, the more people the content may attract – to a point.

But, as controversy increases, the number of people who react negatively also goes up.

There’s no shortage of topics on the spectrum of controversy. They range from the profoundly serious (i.e., political issues, civil rights, healthcare, etc.) to the unmistakably silly (i.e., the hotdog as a sandwich – it absolutely not. It is a taco, see the Cube Rule and don’t @ me).

But I digress.

Some brands adopt a point of view in a provocative debate to inspire conversation, get a wider reach, and pierce through the noise of crowded media. They see it as a kind of steganography – a way to embed brand, product, or sales messaging within the body of content around a controversy.

The problems emerge, however, when the team behind it doesn’t see if the rest of the business (or the audience it wants to build) will support the point of view.

When I wrote about this problem earlier this year, I suggested that if content teams have to ask how they will defend a particular point of view, they should think twice about moving forward. You probably haven’t built company-wide support for that point of view.

Bud Light learned this lesson from the backlash around hiring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, then throwing Dylan and their marketing team under the proverbial bus.  

If you’re not sure you can defend controversial #content, you haven’t built company-wide support for the point of view, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

Consider balancing controversy with consensus

Just as Loewy suggested balancing surprise with familiarity, I suggest content and marketing teams balance controversy and consensus when approaching content topics.

Remember, the core MAYA idea is that human curiosity sets people up to respond positively to new things unless they’re too new or too far outside what’s familiar. Then, people react negatively.    

Research shows that the level of conversation a controversy produces depends on two countervailing trends. A low level of controversy makes topics more likely to be discussed. But when controversy increases beyond a moderate level, researchers found, the likelihood of discussion goes down because people are uncomfortable talking about the topic.

So, if your goal is to reach more people, generate more awareness, or pierce the noisy marketplace of ideas by taking a position on a topic, it makes sense to imbue your point of view with enough consensus to make people feel comfortable discussing or sharing it.

The goal: Take an authentic position that inspires the most people in your target audience to come along with you.

Imbuing your point of view with enough consensus helps people feel comfortable sharing your #content, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

This approach feels straightforward when it’s one person talking to another. But it’s harder to achieve when communicating as a brand.

The phenomenon called “group polarization” in social psychology describes how groups of people who may individually hold moderate points of view tend to develop heightened or more extreme positions when in a group.

In other words, teams are much more likely to soft pedal a point of view or go hard with it.    

This is especially the case with groups trying to be clear or differentiated in expressing a point of view. That’s what marketing is all about. (But again, differentiated doesn’t have to mean completely new.)

So, the team must get beyond what they think. It must develop what the business thinks.

How to strengthen controversial content with familiarity

I’m intrigued by the possibility of balancing familiarity and surprise with consensus and controversy. I won’t pretend that I have all the details worked out yet. Still, I found myself considering a framework to help content marketers make the surprising feel familiar while balancing a controversial point of view with just the right amount of consensus to bring your audience along with you.

I’m a visual person, so I drew a two-by-two matrix:

As you can see, the Y axis runs from familiar to surprise! At one extreme are topics that are so familiar that they’re either redundant or old news. At the other extreme is surprise, where the topic is too new and, lacking any familiarity with it, consumers probably won’t react positively.

The X-axis runs from consensus to controversial. At one extreme are consensus topics where there’s no widespread or conventional disagreement (the Earth is flat). At the other end are controversial topics where there’s complete polarization. No one agrees, and while there may be a level of curiosity about the topic, not many want to stick their necks out and share or participate in conversations on the topic.

This creates four point-of-view archetypes:

  • Who cares/old news: Topics in this category are very familiar to audiences, and there’s consensus on them. If you take a position on this kind of topic, very few will feel surprised or disagree with your take. But it won’t differentiate you or be shared extensively because no one will see it as innovative. For example, a brand taking a position on whether the Earth is flat wouldn’t likely earn any trust or broader awareness because that issue is already settled. Too much modern “thought leadership” falls into this category (parroting what’s already been said).
  • Unearned band wagon: This category includes topics that may be too new for many people to hold informed opinions on, yet a broad consensus still exists. At the extreme of this category, it’s difficult to differentiate because everyone’s saying the same thing. But audiences also may not react well because your brand hasn’t yet earned authority from this point of view. Think of the number of companies expounding on the idea that generative AI will take away many people’s jobs.
  • WTH? Unexpected extreme: Across the X axis, but still at the surprise end of Y, is a category where there’s absolute disagreement on a topic (and where your brand might be taking a surprising point of view). This is the situation Bud Light found itself in. The company hadn’t consistently communicated devoted support for the LGBTQ community to its audiences, so the audience felt surprised at its position. 
  • Popularized polarization: Then, there are familiar but controversial topics. If a brand ventures into this category, it’s usually because they’re already well-known for this particular viewpoint. Often, that means the content doesn’t merit sharing or confer any additional trust. Chick-Fil-A’s position on religion and its business practices is an example. What would be an extraordinarily divisive (and surprising) issue for some brands has simply become familiar and non-differentiating for that brand. So, they stay away from it in most customer-facing messaging. A similar example, but on the other side of that balance, is Patagonia. Their consistent and heavy messaging on environmentalism might be both surprising and unfamiliar coming from another brand. But they’ve been so consistent with it – that it’s now become a core piece of the differentiation of their brand. They’ve now developed both a familiarity and the right balance of controversy to differentiate their point of view. Thus, focusing on it works for them.    

The sweet spot for any brand is to avoid the extreme corners of each of the quadrants. Every brand will have different tolerances for how close to the center or where they may want to fall across either of the axes. And specific audiences may find some topics more surprising or less familiar than others.

Still, the quadrant provides a way to plot a particular point of view on sensitive or controversial topics. To use it, ask:

  1. Is the topic a settled debate? Is this a topic where there’s little argument, or no one cares about either side? Or is this a topic where you can generate just enough discussion to create a new debate, show the topic through a new lens, or position it in a surprising way?
  2. Is this point of view surprising coming from your brand? And, if so, have you earned your way into having this discussion? And how can you build on familiarity so people will recognize that your take is based on things you’ve talked about in the past?
  3. Do we need to introduce greater familiarity, surprise, consensus, or controversy? Remember, the sweet spot is closer to the center.  

This framework is a work in progress. I’ll continue to work on it if it proves to be valuable to you all. 

But one thing I know is that at the nexus is earned trust. That’s the factor that determines whether the right audience will participate when brands create content on controversial topics.

Earned trust determines whether the right audience will engage with your #content on controversial topics, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

If I trust you, I’m more likely to engage with you in a conversation on a controversial topic. I may question why you’re discussing that topic if I don’t trust you.

Of course, if your brand is right for many, you’ll have to be willing to be wrong for a few. Your brand’s distinct point of view will build the trust and affinity you want from your desired audience.

But if you overestimate that trust (and surprise your audience too much), taking a position on controversial topics comes with the risk of encouraging the wrong conversation for the wrong audience.

Remember, you may believe it’s important to say something. But your audience determines whether they want to talk with you about it. 

It’s your story. Tell it well.


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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute