Brand safety is all about ensuring that a brand’s image and reputation are in line with what their consumers expect.
Nick Loui, founder and CEO of monitoring and social listening platform Peakmetrics, called to mind two big brands when explaining the concept to me in a recent conversation: Disney and Playboy.
“Disney, for example, has a pretty general audience, including a lot of families and younger individuals,” Loui outlined. “So, for Disney, they have certain types of brand safety standards to make sure that their brand is family friendly.”
And while you may imagine Playboy—on the other end of the spectrum—isn’t as concerned with brand safety, that’s definitely not the case. Most brands have given their consumers a clear idea of what they are and what they are not. Whenever there is tension between what consumers think a brand stands for and what a brand is appearing to stand for, brand safety concerns can arise.
But what are the threats that companies like Disney and Playboy are trying to avoid? How does a brand’s reputation even become compromised in the first place?
There are a few ways:
First and foremost, there’s advertising. “If you look at the history of brand safety,” said Loui, “it very much began in the context of advertising. It was making sure that where you were placing your ads was consistent with your brand. So, if I’m Pfizer, I probably don’t want to be on Infowars, where right next to my advertisement they’re talking about a COVID vaccine alternative.”
When it comes to advertising, placement is key, as well as making sure the ad content is on brand, and avoiding ad fraud, a practice that inflates ad metrics or misrepresents ad placements. This is problematic because it can undermine the integrity of and effectiveness of advertising campaigns.
Another major petri dish for brand safety issues is social media.
The opportunities for offense across the major social platforms are seemingly endless. You could fall victim to hacking; angry customers may flood your comments and put you on blast on their platforms; an influencer you partnered with in good faith may be making scandalous headlines; or there could be a data breach. The list (and real-world examples) could go on and on—and one thing is clear: It can be really bad for business.
While advertising and social media are two of the major contributors to an unsafe brand ecosystem, things such as counterfeit products, data breaches and privacy issues, supply chain problems, and more can put a brand at risk.
The online landscape is filled with potential landmines for brands, and the proliferation of AI is only making it worse.
But AI is also helping brands get more insight into threats, online conversations, and ad placements.
So is AI good or bad here?
When it comes to the spread of mis- and disinformation, the creation of deepfakes and other AI-generated content, an increasingly perilous online threat landscape, and data security risks, AI is a major player in hurting brand safety.
Take a recent example of deepfake news reporters being shared on numerous bot accounts in an organized campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Fake content shared by fake users was making it to real people and spreading disinformation. Jack Stubbs, vice president of intelligence at Graphika, a research firm that studies disinformation, told the New York Times, “This is the first time we’ve seen this in the wild.”
On the other hand, AI technology is one of the best tools in a brand marketer’s toolbox.
“Historically, you could have [monitored press mentions] manually,” said Loui. “Now, you’re looking at this world where you’re talking about tens of thousands of mentions across all these different pockets of the internet and trying to decide which ones are going to really bubble up.”
And that’s where AI comes in.
AI algorithms can perform automated content moderation (to remove harmful content quickly), sentiment analysis (to help brands understand the tone of their story as early as possible), brand monitoring and social listening (to monitor the internet for mentions), ad placement optimization (to keep ads from being displayed in unsavory places), and fraud detection (to detect fake accounts and general fraud). And that’s just scratching the surface of its potential use cases.
Loui’s platform Peakmetrics, for example, uses AI to scour the internet for any and all brand mentions. From there, the tool can highlight threats and emerging stories so you can address them as soon as possible. The tool collects mentions and stories, flags any risky conversations happening in dark corners of the internet (think 4chan), and can even perform competitive analysis.
While AI brings major benefits to brand safety efforts, human oversight and judgment are still impossible to replace.
Brands should continuously monitor and fine-tune AI algorithms, ensure human review to address potential biases or limitations of systems, and set clear guidelines and protocols.
When it comes to how to protect your brand, Loui has a few things to keep top of mind:
First and foremost, it’s important to have a handle on what stories about your brand are true stories coming from real sources. Not fake news coming from bots. Always perform fact verification and identity verification when handling brand safety concerns.
Loui flagged Twitter’s recent blue check verification changes as something that will make identity verification more difficult: “How do I make sure that the brand that says Nestle is actually Nestle and not some random person.” This requires new tools and an emphasis on educating society to be more resilient to the changes in the online landscape: People need to know how to check facts and identities to the best of their abilities.
Once you know you are working with real content ask yourself “What are the different beliefs that people have about my brand? What are the narratives that are getting put out there, whether it’s through my own strategies or just organically through people talking about me,” advises Loui.
Perform narrative analysis to understand what you’re working with.
Create brand standards.
Don’t just assume that the social media manager, the email marketing manager, CEO, and creative agency are all on the same page about what your brand does and doesn’t stand for. Create a doc, a presentation, or other internal education materials to keep everyone up to speed.
After brand standards are in place, work through a crisis response plan and playbooks around mitigating brand threats. “One of the things that we’ve seen is that the faster a company can respond to an emerging problem, the less risk it has of blowing up into a big issue,” noted Loui.
How do you map all of the online channels where your brand exists? Knowing where your paid and organic content lives is essential to brand safety. Take advantage of the tools out there that help you create advertising blacklists and whitelists so you’re in the right channels for your brand.
And be sure to set up channel mapping for earned media as well: You need to have an eye on all the conversations happening on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, TikTok—wherever. This way if something blows up, at least you were aware of it.
Finally, how do you take everything from above and organize the mentions, conversations, media, and more to better understand where risk lies? Again, lean into tools that have sentiment tracking or social listening and can flag potentially dangerous mentions. It’s fun to see people praising your content on social media, but not if the volume of praise is potentially hiding something more nefarious brewing underneath the surface.
According to Loui, the biggest challenge for brands right now is “understanding and controlling the narrative online about their organization.” More than ever, consumers expect fast, strong responses to controversy, and having a handle on your brand narrative is the only way to do that.
Here’s how to get started:
1. First of all, there needs to be company-wide alignment that brand safety is important and a priority for the organization. This is table stakes.
2. Make brand safety cross functional. “If you’re handling brand safety effectively, you’re getting ahead of it and creating cross-functional communication channels early on so that you don’t get to a point where it’s too late.”
3. When a crisis hits, within a few seconds legal, the board, and the comms team may all need to be looped in. Be proactive so you can move nimbly if the time comes (hopefully it doesn’t 😉).
“Gen Z understands the importance of marketing and personal branding and has high standards for brands to engage digitally and not make mistakes,” Loui said when I asked him where he thinks the future of the industry is going.
“You're now expected to be authentic to your community and to represent so much more than the product you're selling. You're expected to actually align to social causes that are important to you. And if you don't do that in a way that's authentic, or you mess up any part along the communication chain there, then you're at risk.”
Gen Z’s expectations as consumers certainly have changed the ways brands interact with culture at large, and their continued growth as a percentage of the consumer pie (and soon to be in leadership roles at companies) will certainly call for air-tight brand safety practices—and that’s a good thing.
“Generally speaking, there is that expectation of brands to be socially active, and you can see that they're getting caught in the crosswinds. And so there, you know, brand safety really does matter or at least having the protocols in place to understand how to respond and react in the way that makes sense for your brand matters.”