Brand safety in a changing digital landscape

From Covid to cookies, brand safety has been impacted and reinterpreted during the coronavirus crisis

So profound are the changing dynamics in the online world - the increasing shift to digital and the ongoing disruption of the coronavirus - brand safety givens are being rapidly overturned and even discarded.

The coronavirus experience has shown the importance of taking a wide-ranging and considered approach to brand safety, according to Isobar strategy director, Lauren Hartwell. She told CMO in the early stages of the pandemic, brands took a blanket approach, avoiding Coronavirus content and keywords altogether.

"But as time went on, we saw many brands begin to understand the different layers of content that they could safely be associated with and, with this, many were more willing to spend on topics related to the crisis," Hartwell continued.

"The pandemic has led brands to reconsider this blanket approach to brand safety and consider how to be flexible - often at speed - in response to social issues."

Changing brand safety practices

 Hartwell explained to CMO brands should be thinking less about brand safety as a defensive strategy and "more as a critical part of their marketing plans that can ultimately have a positive impact on the bottom line".

It might be a challenge, but it's imperative brand safety practices keep pace with the changing online world, according to the Brand Safety 2020 report by GroupM. The report found a changing policy environment, political winds, events like the global coronavirus pandemic and the expansion of traditional media into the digital space all bring both brand safety opportunities and risks.

Where traditionally, most brand safety risk was limited to digital - programmatic and social - with established media digitising and reinventing themselves, opportunities to improve brand safety practices are appearing across new avenues. Combined, these factors yield new challenges for established media and old challenges for new media.

GroupM chief digital strategy officer, Venessa Hunt, noted some of the biggest changes in the history of the Internet and data usage have occurred in recent years, with GDPR, CCPA and the move away from cookies. And safety in the digital realm will take primacy.

“As all traditional media is being reinvented through digital and data applications, these changes will affect all media, not just those traditionally reported as digital,” she said.

GroupM's report outlines several key considerations in relation to brand safety practices. For example, policy shifts, such as GDPR and CCPA, are seeing old measurement methodologies such as third-party cookies fall away and the industry has an opportunity to collectively create better standards. The COVID-19 pandemic has established a ‘new normal’ digital-first lifestyle for the majority of the global population.

It comes as AANA, IAB and MFA call on the digital advertising community to embrace the new Australian digital advertising practices, which include brand safety, to lift trust, transparency and knowledge of the supply chain across the industry.

GroupM global EVP, brand safety, John Montgomery, points to the events in the first-half of 2020 alone, CCPA privacy regulations, Google’s decision to phase out third-party cookies, the US presidential campaign, coronavirus crisis and protests related to racial inequality as just some of the headwinds affecting the world

“Each of these events marks a unique opportunity to continue to challenge our brand safety practices. And, as people continue to evolve in how they consume content, there is always opportunity to push the envelope to create an even safer, more trustworthy online world,” Montgomery said.

In addition, the problem of fake news and technologies that create deepfake videos are growing more sophisticated and threaten to further erode institutional trust. Connected TV promises to command a larger share of budget in the coming years; however, measurement is fragmented across devices and publishers. Digital out-of-home is set to grow more advanced and complex as programmatic buying becomes more commonplace. Finally, gaming presents a huge opportunity in terms of audience, but brands must navigate a vast landscape of platforms, titles, player personalities and publisher relationships.

Brand safety rules in the new normal

Looking ahead at the changing digital environment, the GroupM report said the risks may evolve, but the underlying truths will always be valid: Independent measurement is critical, industry-defined standards and framework are crucial, and education and literacy programs are necessary.

BWM Dentsu Sydney MD, Brent Kerby, saw brand safety previously being concerned with keeping a brand away from inappropriate content; however, during this crisis, marketers need to be vigilant to keep their brand away from inappropriate behaviour that attempts to capitalise on the situation.

“Looking ahead, brand owners should exhibit hypersensitivity while continuing to adhere to the fundamentals of brand building,” he told CMO. “Great brands show up in consistent and meaningful ways, they back their consumer groups, and they keep high-quality company.”

Kerby also said that usually when we think about brand health, there are two major risks: Not staying in touch with the mood and mindset of a brand’s consumers, and aggressively scaling back investment in marketing.

“Relative damage is realised when your brand stagnates and competitors brands move forward. This means there is an absolute danger in not being active during this period, or cutting too deeply,” he continued.

From brand safety to brand suitability?

Brand safety, as a high-touch activity, requires constant monitoring and adjustment attention. "It is ever evolving and requires a dedicated resource to ensure your brand shows up appropriately online," Hartwell noted.

The strategy director pointed to the early stages of the pandemic - when things were changing rapidly and brands had to adjust their marketing strategies in rapid fire - as the way things will run now. She told CMO, marketing teams will need to keep this nimble approach into recovery.

"Long-term, concrete marketing plans are a thing of a past - brands need to plan ahead but allow for flexibility and change," she said.

As a result of the profound effects of the coronavirus crisis, Hartwell predicted we'll see a switch away from brand safety to the idea of brand suitability. "The previous approach to brand safety was avoidance of negative, potentially damaging content, but this blanket approach lacks nuance and pushes brands into overly safe spaces which can start to decrease their relevance," she said.

"
In recent months, as brands have settled into a new normal, many are being braver and speaking out about social issues. It has been shown that being present in a ‘hard news environment’ can deliver significant benefit to corresponding ads, with greater dwell time, more active engagement, and an increase in trust in those who advertise against more serious news."

"This shift to think about brand suitability will allow brands to think about finding the right, sometimes riskier, places for their ads to be seen to make the right statement and ensure relevance. However, it is important for brands to consider their overall brand strategy and define what brand safety or suitability means for them."

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