Siegel+Gale brand experts opine on brand safety in the era of programmatic advertising

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The Times UK released an investigation into brand safety in February that sparked a movement of more than 250 brands pulling their advertising from YouTube and Google-partnered websites. Companies including Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, HSBC and McDonald’s, among others, are boycotting YouTube fearing that their brand advertisements are showing up next to extremist content. Five of the top 20 US advertisers, which collectively make up approximately 7.5% of US ad spend, have stopped partnering with Google, resulting in a $750 million loss. This type of financial impact calls for rapid change and innovation. Siegel+Gale’s brand experts offer their opinions on brand safety in the era of programmatic advertising.

On one end, Siegel+Gale strategists note the dangers of associating your brand with offensive content.

Eric Lin, Executive Director of the Pacific Rim comments, “Now more than ever, today’s consumers expect brands to act ethically and are drawn to organizations that reflect their own values. For brands, ensuring their advertising does not appear alongside objectionable or offensive content is an essential step in ensuring that promise is kept. The onus is now on media companies like Google, YouTube and Facebook to apply their own values and ensure their platforms do not give voice – or financial reward – to hateful content. The decisions to do so, hopefully, will be an easy one to make.”

Shelley Whiddon, Group Director of Brand Communication reflects, “A brand is more than the logo, the messages and even the actual product; it’s the consumer’s entire experience with the brand, whether elements of that experience were intentional or not. When I was 13 I got the stomach flu. The last thing I’d eaten was lemon chicken. I know the chicken didn’t cause my flu, but I associated it with something terrible. Lemon chicken’s brand has been ruined for me ever since. And I don’t care that it’s irrational. Consumer decisions are never fully rational, so brands must pay attention to what they’re being associated with—it’s part of the overall brand experience.”

And Alex Stark, User Experience Strategist agrees, noting that, “From a UX point of view, a brand experience doesn’t begin when the user interacts directly with a site or an ad, it also includes the journey and setting that led her to that touchpoint. Brands need to be careful with the circumstances through which a viewer is accessing their ads because association with content can feel like an extension of the brand experience, and perhaps drive an unintended negative association. For this reason, Johnson & Johnson and Verizon’s hesitation to advertise on a website that shows content their customers might find offensive is wise.”

On the other end, some strategists opine that the ban doesn’t make sense for various reasons, including the fact that those watching the extremist content self-select it, and likely don’t find it offensive. Additionally, to survive in today’s age of fluid brand engagement, brands need to loosen their control over the brand itself.

Katie Conway, Strategy Director comments, “If we’re thinking about the circumstances of someone engaging with this content, they’ve most likely chosen to view it. In that regard, if they’re choosing to watch this type of content, they’re likely not going to think negatively of a brand that advertises alongside it. To me, this boycott feels like brands trying to take a stand a la travel ban reactions, except more self-serving. If this was about a brand living its values and wanting to take a stand, they would suspend all advertising on Google, not just advertising they think may potentially hurt their brand image. Which, again, likely won’t damage the brand since consumers self-select their content.”

Sofia Cokis, Strategy Analyst argues that “You can’t always control where and how people are consuming your brand. The relationship people have with brands isn’t changing, it’s transforming. Some of the basics still ring true – a clear brand promise, shared ales and aspirations – but these interactions and engagements are now fluid. Brands that will survive this era of fluid moments are the ones that have an inter-connected story across touchpoints and deeply engage their customers with meaningful value.”

Regardless of what these brands do, it’ll be interesting to see how Google handles this veritable brand crisis—and if it will win back the trust of its advertisers that contribute significantly to its bottom line.

These quotes were edited and condensed by Victoria Holbrook and Raisa Reyes. 

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