Social Media Media Brand Safety

Risky business: why brand suitability is the new brand safety

By Kevin Wong, Vice president for Asia Pacific

March 1, 2022 | 5 min read

In an age of mass digital consumption and YouTube’s dominance over traditional TV networks, marketers can no longer afford to use a one-size-fits-all approach to their brands’ safety, writes Kevin Wong of Channel Factory.


Last year, 1.2 billion users from around the world tuned in to YouTube every month

Despite a massive effort by Google and media owners to stamp out risky content, marketers continue to walk a fine line over where their campaigns appear. However, the baseline of brand safety has progressively become outdated as digital consumption ousts its traditional counterparts. As such, marketers and media owners need to redefine their safety parameters to serve their campaign efforts for this digital-first world. This means devising a media strategy anchored on brand suitability rather than brand safety alone.

Value alignment

Consumers, especially those from Generation Z, have become more discerning about what brands they want to support. Considerations such as social practices, ethics and environmental impact are gradually taking precedence before traditional factors of price point.

According to a study from Double Verify, 73% of consumers prefer to buy from brands more committed to social causes, while more than half form a negative opinion when brands run advertising content that misaligns with their values.

While brand safety – a blanket avoidance of any ’inappropriate’ content – is still critical, brand suitability allows brands to take a more nuanced and considered approach to where their content lands.

After two years of a repeating Covid-19 news cycle and anti-vaccine misinformation pervading the internet, brands have had to become shrewd about where their campaigns are published. In 2017, this was harder to achieve due to poor scrutiny and regulation of programmatic buying auctions.

Since then, media owners and technology companies have claimed the usage of advanced machine learning, artificial intelligence and semantic engines to mitigate problematic keyword blocking, preventing some of the worst instances of brand safety.

However, it has become increasingly clear that the above technologies are more basic than first realized. They are essentially blunt instruments that simply block ads based on keywords on the page. The use of blocklists within ad targeting tools provided by ad verification companies has led to an inordinate amount of acceptable content getting blocked.

For example, attempts to prevent ads from appearing alongside last year’s rampant anti-vaccine content have also hampered brands’ opportunities to advertise with premium news publishers and quality journalism — outlets that can enhance a brand’s value. Blanket content-blocking has also had the unintentional consequence of devaluing quality content from creators and influencers.

By putting these strict parameters on what content is acceptable and what is not, marketers risk losing out on a gargantuan opportunity for growth.

Focus on the right content

To assess the full scale of this opportunity, you only need to look at the numbers. Last year, 1.2 billion users from around the world tuned in to YouTube every month, consuming a billion hours of content daily. YouTube presents the biggest opportunity for advertisers to reach consumers in all of the target demographics. In addition, YouTube has seen a 43% increase in interest from consumers in 2020.

As part of the rapid shift in consumption habits, from traditional television sets to over-the-top content, YouTube can now be classed the largest ‘TV network’ in the world.

However, as YouTube has a high percentage of user-generated and influencer content, the risk of the brand running alongside unsuitable material is high. Unfortunately, a misaligned position can diminish a campaign’s success. Consequences range from a fall in purchase intent, a drop in consumer respect, and reputational damage.

So where do marketers draw the line? A poorly placed ad can leave consumers with a long-lasting bad memory of a brand. But, marketers using rigid brand safety filters also risk missing out on an exponentially growing market of digital consumers.

That is why considering a campaign’s brand suitability, rather than just its safety, should be prioritized: focusing on using the right content and not just excluding the wrong content. That means using contextual technology that assesses and customizes a campaign’s suitability for a particular media platform, rather than simply banket blacklisting keywords.

Given the massive shift in media habits, including streaming platforms, social media and e-commerce, brands will need to have their eyes cast over an even wider array of outlets for their campaigns.

Due to the significant amount of user-generated material on these platforms, brands will need to go the extra mile to make sure that their content is running alongside suitable content. This means more targeted and resonant ads that are carefully personalized to each viewer and platform. In the long term, this will be better for brand reputation, recall and sales conversion. Perhaps then marketers will have a reason to celebrate.

Kevin Wong is the senior vice-president for Asia Pacific at Channel Factory.

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