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The True Costs of Ignoring Online Brand Safety

Surround your brands with the right content

In 2017, JPMorgan Chase and Procter & Gamble faced the brand safety crisis head-on.

After its ads appeared next to offensive content, JPMorgan Chase cut the number of sites it advertised on from 400,000 to just 5,000 a month. P&G slashed its digital ad spending by $140 million over similar brand safety concerns.

Were these moves enough? This is the question that marketers need to ask. Now is the time to take a hard look at the true costs of ignoring brand safety.

How Did We Get Here?

Programmatic advertising was designed to automate how and where ads are placed online. By 2007, the industry was full of companies promising incredible reach and ROI.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the reality is very different. The problem is that automation means that marketers give up control over knowing where their ads are placed. This can lead to waste, but also something much worse: severe damage to your brand's reputation. Instead of running on premium publishing outlets that provide high-quality environments, ads often turn up alongside irrelevant, partisan and profane content, inflicting a black eye on the integrity of particular brands.

Marketers know better than anyone that building a brand's reputation is no easy feat. It takes time, talent and a lot of money. In some categories, such as consumer packaged goods, companies spend as much as a quarter of their overall budgets on marketing alone. Unilever, which has the second-largest marketing budget in the world, spent over $8 billion on marketing efforts in 2016. In the United States, total ad spending is projected to hit $201.32 billion this year, which is more than the gross domestic product of New Zealand.

With these kinds of enormous resources being invested, brands simply cannot afford to risk being damaged by bad ad placements. The type of short-term thinking that comes with programmatic buying can lead to a loss of money, reputation and, ultimately, consumer trust, potentially for years.

What Is at Risk?

Here are the stakes when a brand's reputation suffers damage. United Airlines faced a brand disaster in April after video emerged of a passenger being forcibly removed from one of its planes. Experts said it would take two to 10 years for the brand to regain its reputation. After BP's oil spill in 2010, its stock fell 55% and the company reported a $5 billion loss the next year.

There's one key reason why such crises are so deeply damaging. At its core, a brand safety crisis is about a loss of trust between the brand and its consumers.

According to a Gallup poll, just 18% of Americans trust big business. A study from McCann found that 42% of Americans believe that brands today are less trustworthy than 20 years ago.

Because building trust is so challenging, the last thing marketers should do is risk consumer trust with badly placed online ads. In fact, a CMO Council study confirmed that more than one-third of consumers rethink purchasing from brands when they see them advertised next to objectionable content.

The Real Solution: Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Every minute, over 400 hours of user-generated content are uploaded to YouTube. According to The New York Times, Google is "unable to totally police that amount of content in real time" using current technology. Even if it could sort through the sheer volume of content, artificial intelligence can't make good judgment calls about the quality and contextual relevance of ad placements. These types of judgments require the personal analysis only a human being can provide.

The solution is not going to be found with technology anytime soon. For now, the real solution is for marketers to focus on quality placements with trusted publishers. This proven strategy ensures a brand-safe environment. Only when brands partner with reputable publishers can they have full confidence in where their ads are being placed.

Top marketers are endorsing this approach. Unilever CMO Keith Weed said his company found that its ads are more effective when they run alongside premium content. MasterCard CMO Raja Rajamannar said, "I would much rather pay a little premium as a brand and go for verified sites."

What's Next?

Now is the time to address the true cost of ignoring brand safety. Your brand's reputation is too valuable to be put at unnecessary risk. By prioritizing quality placements over programmatic buys, marketers can protect their most important asset: the bond of trust between brands and consumers.