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Marketing Brand Safety Brand Strategy

It’s time for brands to reassess how they define ‘safety’ and ‘suitability’

By Ara Kurnit | Vice-president, managing director of strategy

November 25, 2022 | 8 min read

Concerns that challenging content will cast a negative shadow on brands cause many advertisers to take a hyper-conservative approach to brand safety. But fear of tarnishing a brand’s reputation may be unfounded – and may result in a missed opportunity to make a powerful brand statement, writes Ara Kurnit of New York Times Advertising.

Traffic cones

What is the difference between ‘brand safety’ and ‘brand suitability’? / Adobe Stock

Brand safety is a topic that has long been hotly debated in the industry. There have been many attempts to decode brand safety to help brands navigate what is ‘safe’ to align with.

In 2019, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) created a ‘brand safety floor’ and ‘brand suitability framework.’ The organization distinguishes between the concepts of brand safety – which it defines as content not appropriate for any advertising support – and the newly-introduced brand suitability: sensitive content appropriate for advertising supported by enhanced advertiser controls. GARM’s brand suitability framework assesses whether the risk is high, medium or low for brands aligning with certain types of content, creating a subjective set of guidelines.

While we commonly use the term ‘brand safety’ with clients, what we are almost always actually talking about is brand suitability. Brand stewards want to ensure the brand is seen in the right light, surrounded only by content that is unlikely to be distasteful. However, the subjective measure of brand suitability is often guided by misconceptions, and brands are missing out on opportunities to make powerful statements.

The counterintuitive draw of the controversial

As we have heard countless times, in the current environment brands can’t afford to play it safe. 62% of global consumers want companies to take a stand on issues they’re passionate about, and 64% see brands that actively communicate their purpose as more attractive, according to Accenture data.

This means that the exact content that brands are trying to avoid taking a stand on – including broadly relevant issues such as sustainability and fair employment practices – is the kind of content consumers expect brands to proactively engage with.

And while we’ve heard a lot about news fatigue, Americans aren’t avoiding negative news – in fact, they’re continuing to seek it out. Many of us have heard the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ referring to humans’ fascination with negative news. Articles that elicit feelings of hate in The New York Times (NYT) have actually been shown to have a positive impact on brands.

According to NYT research on the international fashion category, advertising that is aligned with articles that elicited feelings of ‘hate’ and ‘disappointment’ outperformed the industry by 25%. They are among the top-performing ad units by clickthrough rate, only slightly behind articles that elicit feelings of being ‘informed.’

There are many reasons for this, but those of us familiar with retail therapy know the psychological impact of browsing and buying – a well-documented phenomenon in scientific research. The burst of dopamine a consumer gets from an in-store purchase is the same as online shopping – and clickable advertising can be the fastest way to get there.

The case for motivation data

At the same time, as a culture we are soaking in a lot of stressful entertainment.

People want to see a realistic picture of the world. And with the rise of content showcasing challenging real-world issues, brands can provide support by creating spaces for people to learn, reflect and even share their own experiences. They can enable people to express the collective, emotional burden of an event to create a more unified, communal experience.

Certain types of content can make people feel frustrated and helpless in the face of everything that needs to be remedied in the world. While brands may be motivated to do something for positive change, ways to help can feel out of reach. Some organizations have been experimenting with motivation targeting, which allows advertisers to align their messages with motivations such as achievement and belonging. As long as it doesn’t feel opportunistic, brands can target motivations and satisfy needs by providing an outlet for action.

It’s safer than you think

An environment deemed ‘trustworthy’ provides more leeway for brands. In light of the recent challenges facing Twitter as the brand becomes less trustworthy – with hate speech on the platform increasing, for example – advertisers are exercising caution and pulling advertising to avoid damage.

On the other hand, if an outlet is deemed trustworthy, that fact has a positive halo effect on brands advertising there, regardless of where the content appears.

A study by MAGNA Media Trials in conjunction with Disney Advertising Sales revealed that consumers generally see news content as more valuable, trustworthy and interesting – and as such, ads in news felt 8% more relevant, 6% more valuable and 4% more trustworthy when compared with non-news content.

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Regardless of industry, staying silent on cultural issues can be detrimental to a brand’s audience. Attempting to distance a brand from the most challenging issues of our time is becoming increasingly difficult as these issues are central to the cultural zeitgeist.

Though it’s still frequently a topic of conversation, brands should reconsider their definition of what is ‘suitable’ and ‘safe’ when it comes to their messaging and marketing efforts.

Aligning with hot-button issues is expected of brands and can prove beneficial in certain situations. Brand stewards can rest assured that in trusted environments, fewer topics can be off-limit topics, and brands have a voice regardless of the leading stories of the day.

Ara Kurnit is vice-president, managing director of strategy, New York Times Advertising.

Marketing Brand Safety Brand Strategy

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