The featuring of an interracial family spawned waves of hate speech and negative comments not only on the YouTube video, but throughout the web as well. While Cheerios did nothing wrong, the backlash they received showcased the brand’s ability to gracefully handle the situation when social media use goes awry. Because it’s impossible to predict audience reaction, always being prepared to respond to an unexpected crisis should be a priority for any marketer.

After the initial backlash, Cheerios’ handling of the “controversy” rallied support from customers who weren’t fazed by the interracial nature of the ad. Here’s what you can learn from Cheerios’ controversy handling:

  • Stop the bleeding immediately. While the majority of viewers supported the ad and found it delightful, there was a moment when “internet trolls” flooded the comments section on YouTube with hateful comments. Cheerios immediately blocked all comments – temporarily – as well as the ability to rate the video. By stopping the source of hate and controversy, Cheerios was able to redefine the topic of conversation: that Cheerios is a healthy breakfast choice.
  • Avoid a knee-jerk reaction. When the hateful comments began pouring in, Cheerios could have easily pulled the ad offline, as many of the comments suggested they do. However, Cheerios kept the ad up and continued pushing it across all platforms. After all, if there’s no fault on your brand’s end, there’s no need to pull the plug on a strategy. Instead, simply modify the plan (like Cheerios did with temporarily blocking YouTube comments).
  • Defend yourself. Again, if there’s no fault from your brand, then you should be pro-active in defending your reputation and actions. For instance, the vice president of marketing at Cheerios responded to the racist comments by saying that, overall, “consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad. At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all.”
  • Seek support from your existing customers. Thankfully, the overall response to the controversy has been greatly supportive. Cheerios’ Facebook page was flooded with comments of support – and soon the support resonated throughout the web. Now, the comments and ratings on YouTube are incredibly on the positive side of things.

Perhaps the underlying lesson from Cheerios is to be pro-active in defending your brand. Whether you’re thinking about the long-term marketing strategy or responding to unexpected controversy, proactively addressing the situation is the best way to change the course of the conversation.

As a result of standing by their ad, Cheerios’ online marketing efforts experienced a spike of 77%. Customers were also overwhelmingly pleased with Cheerios’ actions and dedication to defending their ad and promoting diversity. Consumers, especially Millennials, are likely to remember and reward brands that stand by their values even when unfairly criticized.