Brand Safety Is Not the Place to Cut Corners in Your Marketing Budget


It’s a dangerous digital world out there today for brands, and marketers and advertisers cannot afford to put consumer trust at risk.


6 min read

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When it comes to brand safety, 75 percent of brands say they have experienced at least one brand-unsafe incident in the last year alone. It’s an especially staggering number when you consider the resources that are poured into building and promoting a brand. Unilever, for example, one of the world’s most recognizable brands with the second-largest marketing budget around, spent nearly $8 billion on marketing efforts in 2016.

Related: Don’t Let Alexa or Siri Speak for Your Company: Protecting Your Brand’s Voice on AI Platforms

But, despite the amount of time and money companies devote to growing their brand, few are taking the same precautions to protect their brand. And the ones that do, aren’t doing it particularly well. Even heavy-hitters, such as JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco and Lyft, have had brand safety scraps that resulted in full strategy shifts. JPMorgan Chase went from advertising on 400,000 sites a month to just 5,000 after discovering its ads were running alongside extremist content. In another instance, P&G shrunk digital ad spending by $140 million because of brand safety concerns.

Given how much change has taken place in marketing, advertising and digital technology in the span of only a few decades, it’s not entirely surprising that companies have yet to catch up. Advertising has expanded from being dominated by print ads, television, and radio commercials — entirely brand-owned, monodirectional communication tools — to include interactive consumer engagement tools and digital ads, whose distribution is outsourced to third parties. On the one hand, digital automation has made blanketing every corner of the internet as easy as clicking a few buttons, lowering the cost and broadened the scope of brand outreach. On the other hand, it has taken control out of the hands of companies, leaving their brands vulnerable. Which is why if brands are going to survive in today’s digital marketing and advertising world, it’s imperative they keep the following in mind:

Brand safety is a 24/7 job.

The benefits of programmatic ads — digital ads purchased automatically — such as cost-effectiveness, ease-of-use and scalability, are being undercut by their shortcomings: lack of control and transparency in placement, unclear returns and, most worrying, ad association with some pretty unsavory corners of the internet.

Marketers must always be on the lookout for where and how brand assets are being used, and should devote the necessary resources to it. Perhaps the most important thing for companies to remember when looking to avoid costly mishaps, is that no brand is immune when it comes to brand safety.

But, even with the associated risks, it doesn’t make sense to do away with programmatic advertising entirely. Instead, marketers should reassert control over their brand assets, shifting it away from third parties. At any given time, a brand should be able to locate, promote, or remove brand assets, including, and especially, advertisements.

Related: 10 Tips for Creating the Perfect Social Media Content for Your Brand

Asset control is non-negotiable.

Do you remember the game Telephone from childhood? Players sit in a circle and one person whispers a message into the next player’s ear — no repeats allowed. The message travels through the entire circle, and then the last player says the message out loud. By the time the message gets to the end, it’s usually entirely different from the original. The game offers a valuable lesson in how too many middlemen can cause meaning to be lost in translation — a lesson that is especially relevant for brands today.

Middlemen like third-party data providers and social platforms have become large players in the dynamics between brands and their consumers. But, while interacting with consumers on a personal level is unsustainable, brands can and should capitalize on today’s technological advancements and platforms that allow them to disintermediate the middleman and gather and respond to first-party consumer data and insights on their own, rather than outsourcing data work or skipping it entirely. Once brands have direct access to information about their consumers, they can enhance their products and/or services accordingly, while also tailoring their digital channels to better suit consumer needs.

Close the gap between brands and consumers.

User-generated content (UGC) is invaluable, as consumer trust is higher when content comes from other consumers. In fact, a recent study from Jukin Media in conjunction with the University of Southern California found that ads that utilize UGC “were perceived as more memorable, unique, engaging, authentic and relatable, than traditional video ads.”

However, when left in the hands of third parties, and without proper control in place, UGC can be extremely unpredictable. As a result, many brands are either opting out of UGC altogether, taking on significant brand risk or engaging in UGC initiatives that are limited because the brand is giving up the asset to third parties.

Instead, brands should strive to more actively take part in the UGC process, using technologies that help them mitigate brand safety risks while enabling them to tap into the strategic impact of UGC, engage consumers and maintain full ownership of the content, its distribution and the data that can be gained by it, thus driving continuous improvements for the brand. Brands that learn to do this well will provide a substantially better experience for their consumers and a competitive advantage for the brand, allowing them to leapfrog their competition.

Related: Why You Should Launch a Brand, Not a Product

What it all means

Brand safety infractions are a breach of consumer trust under another name. A recent study from McCann of 1,000 U.S adults found that 42 percent of respondents believe that brands today are less trustworthy than they were 20 years ago; furthermore a CMO Council study of 2,000 adult consumers confirmed that more than one-third of respndents “rethink purchasing from brands when they see them advertised next to objectionable content.”

The fact is, it’s a dangerous digital world out there today for brands, and marketers and advertisers cannot afford to put consumer trust at risk. In order to maintain consumer trust and protect the brand that your marketing team has worked so hard to build, companies need to put themselves back in the driver’s seat and take control of both their content and its placement.



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