Your brand identity is precious. It’s the product of hundreds of deliberate decisions and design choices — and getting consumers to recognize it, let alone form a positive relationship with it, can be a challenging and often costly process, achieved through numerous campaigns both online and offline.
So, it’s no surprise that you’d be thinking about brand safety — that is, how can you keep your brand’s image and identity safe on the thousands of trips it takes to grace the ad space of websites, the pages of newspapers, or the billboards overlooking cities?
When purchasing advertising space and putting your brand out there in the world, there’s always a chance that something could go wrong — especially in the age of programmatic advertising. Whether your ad is hosted in the wrong place, served to the wrong audience, or displayed in a way that wasn’t intended, brand safety is an essential consideration if you want to protect the hardwon gains that you’ve achieved with your brand.
In this article, we will explore what brand safety is, why it matters, and what you can do to ensure your brand is protected.
First things first, let’s outline exactly what brand safety is.
What Is Brand Safety?
Put simply, brand safety refers to the measures used to ensure that a brand’s reputation is not damaged when advertising. Different brands will obviously have different standards depending on the identity that they have cultivated — but broadly speaking, one huge aspect of brand safety is about making sure that advertisements do not appear in places that are at odds with a brand’s image.
When thinking about online advertising, many brands will want to ensure that their ads are not served on websites relating to pornographic, extremist, or hateful content — or associated with disinformation and fake news.
But other types of content may be deemed inappropriate, too. For example, some brands might want to steer away from political, religious, or other polarizing subjects, or avoid association with drugs, alcohol, and other controlled substances.
Some big brands like Apple, for example, are extremely controlling of where their brand appears and how it is portrayed — to the point that villains in films and TV shows are not allowed to be seen with Apple products.
However, brand safety is typically related to the process of purchasing ad space and the context around where and how those ads are displayed. It’s not isolated to the world of online advertising — campaigns like Stop Funding Hate in the UK have been pressuring brands since 2016 to cease advertising with certain publications.
But, due to the automated processes that dictate where ads are served online, this is usually the main focus of most brands’ concerns.
What Can You Do To Ensure Brand Safety?
As the issue of brand safety has become more pressing, the publishers and platforms that advertisers rely on to reach key audiences have made a number of changes to help. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all prime examples of publishers that have taken a look at their policies to avoid boycotts from advertisers — mainly following the spread of disinformation or controversial content on their platforms.
Infamous within the community of YouTube creators who rely on ad revenue to make a living, the 2017 “Adpocalypse” is perhaps the most well-known example of a platform making sweeping changes to appease advertisers and protect brands.
The term itself “refers to Youtube aggressively demonetizing videos that might be problematic, in an effort to prevent companies from halting their ad spending” and it followed a series of controversial videos from one of the platform's biggest creators Pewdiepie.
Twitter also reviewed its approach to brand safety with a focus on the three Ps — “policies, products, and partnerships”. In practice, this meant that the platform would clarify how it enforces the removal of content, introduce new features to stem disinformation or hateful content, and work with third-party accreditation organizations to help audit its safety practices.
However, there are a number of steps that you can take to make sure that your brand is protected when advertising.
1. Blacklist Keywords
One key technique that advertisers use to protect their brand is to blacklist certain keywords to ensure that their ads don’t accompany certain topics or news stories. British satirical newspaper, Private Eye, regularly highlights some of the humorous juxtapositions that have greeted readers on news websites in their “malgorithms” column.
Many of these examples could have potentially been averted if blacklisted keywords had been provided.
While blacklisting certain words can be a problem for publishers looking to monetize all their content, it allows advertisers to have more control over the content their creatives are placed next to — and can go some way to protecting their brand.
2. Opt For Direct Deals Rather Than Programmatic
By altogether avoiding the algorithm-driven uncertainty of programmatic advertising and making direct deals with publishers, you can help to protect your brand.
This is the old-fashioned way of buying advertising space — “a one-on-one deal between publishers and advertisers, cutting any middleman—ad network, SSP, DSP or any other ad agency”. However, this strategy also has its drawbacks, namely that it is prohibitively expensive and usually only an option for big brands.
3. Avoid Fraudulent Traffic
This one isn’t focused on protecting your brand’s reputation but rather on your advertising budget. Fraudulent ad publishers are a growing concern, with digital ad fraud costing brands $44 billion as of 2022.
Typically, the issue is related to engagements and impressions being artificially boosted by bot traffic rather than real humans. But fraudsters are employing increasingly sophisticated methods, such as click-farms to essentially steal brands’ marketing budgets.
To avoid it, brands can work with fraud prevention services — some of which can even flag fraudulent behavior and remove it from the count of impressions or engagements that advertisers are then charged for.
Why is Brand Safety Important?
Brand safety is a growing concern for marketers, advertisers, and brand managers for a number of reasons. But brand safety isn’t just about damage limitation — indeed, there are also some powerful benefits to taking steps to protect your brand, too.
1. It Can Safeguard Your Brand’s Reputation
As mentioned earlier, your brand can be one of the most valuable assets that your business owns. And where your brand is seen and the types of content that are displayed alongside it could assist in the development of unfavorable brand associations in the minds of consumers.
At best, this could mean that your brand is seen as unprofessional or untrustworthy — at worst it could be perceived that your brand actively supports extreme and divisive points of view.
Remember that by appearing in publications that publish controversial content, your brand is directly funding that content. By overlooking brand safety, you could end up being the victim of a vocal backlash if consumers take issue with the publishers you have partnered with.
2. It Can Help You Stay Competitive
Taking actions that keep your brand safe can also, by extension, help you position your brand in the market so that you’re competing in the right spaces for the right customers.
Also, having clear guidelines on the types of content with which your brand can be associated helps to maintain a strong and consistent brand identity. By going through the process of making these decisions, you can clarify what type of brand yours is and what its core values are.
3. It Can Help To Optimize Your Ad Spend
Brand safety isn’t just about protecting your brand’s reputation, it’s also about making sure that your ad spend is optimized, going towards valuable impressions and engagements.
A huge part of this is making sure your ad appears in the right place — that being a space that is conducive to a productive engagement with a target consumer. A news article about a tragic event would not be an optimal place to serve an advertisement because the content is likely to clash with the tone of most creatives. Additionally, the context may also mean readers are not in a situation to engage in a way that is valuable to brands.
So while you’ll want to avoid controversial content to protect your reputation, avoiding certain keywords and content types is also about optimizing where your ad appears to ensure it has the opportunity to resonate with consumers.
Furthermore, damage to your reputation could actually result in consumers choosing other brands over yours and as such, directly affect your business’s revenue streams.
Advertisers naturally want to speak to their target audiences in the spaces where they’re at their most engaged and, today, that means dealing with social media platforms and user-generated content on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. The unregulated nature of the content on these platforms has made brand safety more important than ever.
Because there’s a greater risk that your brand could be served alongside a controversial influencer, a piece of fake news, or extremist content — having a clear policy on brand safety is a must. Advertisers can then use this policy to create a strategy that is consistent with their brand’s values and optimized to create engagements rather than damage its reputation.