Brand suitability: Exploring the next generation of brand safety

Brand safety is big news. It is one of a trinity of major issues facing the advertising industry today, the others being fraud and viewability. But dig beyond the headlines and it is bigger news still – it’s time for advertisers to take a stand and look beneath the waterline.

News publishers risk being unfairly penalised and the industry is at risk of losing quality, independent journalism if advertisers are frightened to support them through advertising.

This, even as the UK's ad-tech market is helping fuel a boom in digital marketing. Double-digit growth is expected to push spend above £15bn in 2019, according to a recent Barclays Corporate Banking report.

It had, perhaps, fallen off the radar as fraud and viewability problems in programmatic took centre stage.

Then, last month, Google-owned YouTube was hit by yet another brand-safety crisis: advertisers including McDonald’s, Nestle and AT&T pulled or paused their ad spend from or on the platform after ads were found running next to videos that included inappropriate comments linking to pornography.

Of the three key issues that advertisers face brand safety and proximity to damaging content is the only challenge related to communication and reputation; fraud is arguably related to a lost budget, or a procurement issue and viewability to questionable efficiency. Consumers will judge brands if they appear to support dangerous or inappropriate content – but will clearly never know or care if an ad was fraudulently driven or was out of view. Perception of a brand by the consumer, positively or negatively, is influenced by the content it sits alongside.

It is why advertisers must consider the damaging impact that inadequate safeguards to mitigate against the reduced control programmatic threatens over ad placements will have on long term revenues and a brand’s values and positioning.

When it comes to brand safety, the stories that hit the headlines are really only the tip of the iceberg. Today, more than ever, advertisers who fail to consider brand suitability face long term damage. By focusing their efforts on avoiding the blatantly damaging ad placements portrayed in the media, brands are overlooking some important nuances. Brand suitability is about much more than avoiding running ads alongside obviously inappropriate content such as terrorism or hate speech.

It is time to take brand safety to the third level or ‘brand care’ level – one that gives far greater prominence to the meaning, context and potential implications of online content, specific to the actual brand’s needs.

It is time to take brand safety to the next level – one that gives far greater prominence to the meaning, context and potential implications of online content, specific to the actual brand’s needs

Damage control and fixing mistakes of erroneous ad and content association will inevitably be more expensive than setting up the correct strategy at the beginning. Marketers must look more deeply at what brand safety means to them and how the right contextual technology can help.

For instance, a campaign that does not consider the content and context of the URLs in which ads are served, and does not respect the brand’s needs and requirements, will impact a brand’s reputation.

An effective solution must be able to protect not only the brand from inappropriate content at the page level but also maintain delivery volumes and spending.

Ask yourself these five questions: what does brand safety mean for your company; who is responsible for ensuring accurate brand safety – is it the publishers or the buyers; what level of brand safety is appropriate for you; what is the value you give to brand protection; what is the trade-off between delivery and safety?

It is important to understand the levels of brand safety in play. Today, most brands will have achieved level one – ‘whitelists’ or ‘blacklists’ of safe or not safe domains, and many will rely on standard brand safety categories. These are a few common categories that identify questionable and inappropriate content, such as violence, pornography and inappropriate language at a page-level that would hurt the brand’s reputation if ads were served. As the headlines attest, this isn’t always achieved.

Consider, though, a third level of brand care, whereby vertical sectors or tailored brand safety segments are built, identified at the page-level.

This is next-generation brand safety – ensuring that the context is not only ‘safe’ but ‘suitable’; that it adds rather than detracts from brand value. Intelligent brand safety is crucial to avoid negative associations – and, importantly, enables an advertiser to target the placements most likely to attract the attention of their intended audience. The more personalised a brand safety strategy, particularly when linked to contextual targeting, the more effective it will be.

Brand safety should go deeper than simply ensuring ads avoid inappropriate or damaging content. Taking it to a granular level can only empower advertisers to avoid placement alongside content that expresses adverse sentiment to them personally or the sector as a whole.

Such an approach also promises to help safeguard quality, independent journalism. Real brand protection is better for advertising, better for the media and – ultimately – better for the consumer and society at large. It’s high time to consider the brand safety iceberg beneath the surface.

Finally, if you are using a verification partner, question its suitability and how it protects your brand. Some will use a technology and assume their needs are being met fully and transparently, but be unaware most have serious limitations; for example a ‘keyword only solution’ will not understand the real context and  another may only look at the URL itself and not the page content. Both of these situations are damaging not only for the brand as misclassified contexts lead to unsafe placements but they will also block safe pages impacting the brand’s reach, in turn unfairly penalising the publisher’s much needed ad revenue.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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