"Usually companies stay away from anything contentious," says Allen Adamson, managing director at branding firm Landor Associates and author of BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep it Simple and Succeed. "They want the focus and attention on their products and services."
As for Chick-fil-A, its reputation took a hit on the YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks consumer sentiment on 1,100 brands on a daily basis.
Before Cathy's statements, it ranked high with consumers. As the controversy expanded, the company's brand health has deteriorated.
In turn, that will likely affect sales, says BrandIndex Managing Director Ted Marzilli.
"Some consumers might be very supportive of the brand or (Cathy's) position, but when we look at overall consumers … this is going to have an impact," he says.
Gay marriage is a "political hot potato," he says, and executives "should be careful about dipping into the political waters. They should realize that when they are speaking to the press — even when it is a niche audience — they are speaking about the brand."
When General Mills' pro same-sex marriage sentiments were heard, demonstrators took to turning in boxes of Old El Paso taco shells, cans of Green Giant corn and other company products.
Janet Bezdicek, a suburban Minnesota mother of five, said she took General Mills Cheerios off of her shopping list.
"We're talking about a definition of something that's been upheld for centuries," she said. "To be challenged by a corporation, that's not appropriate."
Earlier this year J.C. Penney also felt backlash when it hired openly gay personality Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson early this year.
But despite criticism from conservative activist groups, the retailers stood by its decision and even took it as step further by featuring same-sex parents in its promotions.
"J.C. Penney really showed us a turning point," says Michael Wilke, senior U.S. consultant for gay marketing firm Out Now. "Not only did they stand squarely behind (DeGeneres) in a public way, but then they took the unprecedented step of coming out with those Mother's Day and Father's Day same-sex ads that they put in their catalogs."
Words go viral
Adding more pressure to the corporate office is this reality: Any executive statement or action that is remotely controversial can spread to millions in seconds via social media.
"Everything is connected and everyone sees everything," says Adamson. "In today's media landscape, there is a magnifying glass. Anything you say or do is prime time."
Even before the Cathy controversy, Chick-fil-A saw how negative news could quickly disseminate.
Chick-fil-A — which has used the ad slogan "Eat Mor Chikin" since 1995 — tried to stop a small business owner's trademark application for "Eat More Kale," a catch-phrase he had printed on shirts and stickers since 2001.
Thousands quickly rallied to support that owner, Bo Muller-Moore, after word got out and spread via social media streams.
For its part, Chick-fil-A is using social media to get its messages out as well. It didn't directly address the company stance on gay marriage, but last week it let its Facebook fans know that they are going to try to step out of the spotlight on the issue.
"Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena," it said in that statement.
Contributing: Catalina Camia, the Associated Press