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An effective, creative approach to brand safety in 2021

by Casey Schmidt  |  December 15, 2020

9 min. read
An illustration showing brand safety.

The growth of digital advertising possibilities creates risks that devastate brands and their reputation. As brands become more vulnerable to instant negative feedback and reactions, the need for brand safety is at its peak.

A yellow caution tape.

But there’s no need to live in fear. This focused, creative and easy-to-follow approach will elevate your brand safety without sacrificing your outreach.


What is brand safety?

Brand safety is a group of calculated procedures intended to uphold the integrity and image of a brand, particularly when the brand is practicing digital advertising. Brand safety often refers to how brands react to the location their ads land and what type of content they’re involved with.

Just as important as knowing what brand safety is, is understanding why it’s so valuable.

What are the dangers it prevents?

There are endless potential dangers brands face, especially considering the landscape of the digital world.

An infographic about brands underestimating brand safety.

There is also a high likelihood that new dangers will develop as time passes, creating situations where brand safety will need to be reevaluated.

However, here are some of the most prevalent and avoidable dangers brands face today.

Advertisement proximity mishaps

This refers to the idea that your ad space and advertising message could appear next to an image, headline or story that in some way contradicts your ad or is a strange pairing.

For example, if there is a story about someone’s pet cow dying, and how sad it is, it would be an unfortunate advertisement proximity if a ‘Got Milk’ campaign ad showed up alongside it on the webpage.

An example of contradictory advertisements.

There are times when it might be funny instead of awkward or crude, but even when it’s humorous, it still negatively affects your brand. Audiences aren’t very forgiving, either.

Negative brand associations

The next potential concern is that your brand will gain an unfavorable brand association. If brand safety isn’t evaluated and implemented, there’s a high likelihood that your brand could fall victim to negative associations by way of an advertisement being associated with negative material.

A person with negative thoughts about their head.

This is often the case when brand’s advertisements get mixed in with questionable groups with unlawful ideas. The association is hard to shake, and leaves audiences wondering why a brand would endorse that (even though it was just a mistake, not an intentional endorsement).

Now that you’re aware of how devastating the consequences of unprotected brands can be, let’s go into some of the most helpful tips available to ensure brand safety.

5 tips for better brand safety

It’s clear that you need some type of plan to tackle brand safety. These five helpful hints give you some unique ideas that are both effective and efficient.

1. Start off on the right foot

The best way to curb any potential brand dangers is to put yourself on the right track from the get-go. This process involves a comprehensive review and analysis of your brand, including its values. This helps you understand what types of situations you want to avoid.

A person walking up stairs.

After reviewing the brand, you’ll have a good idea of where your outreach might run into issues. Now comes the most important part, which is ensuring the settings of your campaigns on different advertising platforms are optimized for brand safety.

For this setup to be successful, consider the platform and their policy/history. Facebook and Twitter might have different built-in brand safety measures than LinkedIn or Instagram, for example. Once you understand the platform’s standard practices, you can adjust the settings and options to your liking.

2. Avoid brand safety software systems

Many brands make the mistake of believing they can remove themselves from the process of brand safety by implementing a software system designed to handle it for them. Unfortunately, this leaves them with an ineffective methodology, where a tool is over-correcting, under-correcting or incorrectly adjusting to accommodate brand safety.

There are two main reasons why a brand safety software system is likely to be detrimental to your brand. First, even the most advanced of these systems currently available aren’t the ‘smartest’ technology, and they cannot differentiate between simple changes and adjustments. For example, it’s not difficult for different websites to work around these systems restrictions through simple manipulation of blocked URLs and keywords.

Two workers writing code for software.

Second, the correction these tools make is commonly an over-correction which is devastating to your brand’s outreach. For example, the machine will mindlessly block your ads from appearing on sites that have common words it deems to be ‘bad’, but in fact don’t have to be a negative, or may have multiple meanings.

You can imagine how frustrating it would be if your ads didn’t show up in an otherwise perfect location because the content on that site included the word ‘alcohol’, which was flagged. However, the site wasn’t promoting the use of alcoholic beverages, but was in fact referencing rubbing alcohol.

It becomes clear quite quickly that these technologies are lagging far behind in what is acceptable for brands to implement to encourage brand safety.

3. Get as specific as you can for your brand

In the above example, I showed why a software system is ineffective at promoting brand safety. The reason these types of tools fail is they don’t adhere to the idea that brand safety differs from one brand to the next.

Just because one brand finds something offensive, doesn’t mean another brand will. And, just because one brand’s products and services don’t work next to certain content, doesn’t mean another brand’s can’t.

A target with an arrow in it.

Here’s an example to demonstrate. Apple and Microsoft have very similar brands, with products in the same industry. There is plenty of overlap there. However, if Microsoft found one of their ads on a site for an apple orchard, their reaction would be much different than if Apple found one there.

This example shows why it’s so important to tailor your brand safety measures specifically for you. Even brands in the same industry with near-identical products will have completely different processes, as you can see from the Apple example above.

4. Use analytics, intuition and data in unison

The key to a lot of brand safety preparation is balance. We can’t be everywhere at once, and we certainly can’t foresee everything. All we can do is take the necessary steps to minimize any potential damage while giving ourselves the best chance to extend our outreach.

To reach a happy medium and find balance in brand safety measurements, it takes a combination of analytics, intuition and data research. Bringing all that information together will help you make a final decision about what route to take.

A person analyzing computers and data.

For example, if one platform has the biggest outreach but also the most potential unwanted pieces of content, it will take extensive research and insight into how far your brand is willing to put itself out there on this platform. The same can be said for platforms that have zero inappropriate content but lesser outreach. Find your brand’s level of willingness to go one way or the other.

5. Involve yourself in the advertisement purchasing process

To ensure brand safety, it’s possible to monitor the purchasing process of ads. This allows you to get information from different publishers and check to make sure they’re safe, fair and in line with what your brand wants to promote.

An infographic about brands not participating in brand safety.

Think of this like cutting out the middle person in your entire advertisement purchasing process. You are able to go directly to the source and remove any uncertainty involving what types of publishers will be handling your ads. This is more time-consuming, but the tradeoffs might be worth it. It all depends on your brand, budget, schedule and how much of a risk you’re willing to take by trusting a third party to handle your ads.

The above tips are sure to guide your brand through murky advertising waters and keep it safe. Now let’s make sure you understand a similar concept, brand suitability.

Where does brand suitability enter into the equation?

You’ve probably heard about brand suitability, especially when the conversation surrounding brand safety is underway. Brand suitability is simply a subcategory of brand safety. It is a way for brands to be more fluid in their brand safety measures.

For example, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, which might suit most but not all, brand suitability implies a dynamic approach to brand safety. This approach includes being more specific and personalized in how advertisements will appear and where.

A person holding a cup of coffee with their name on the cup.

It makes for a more effective brand safety approach that leaves open the possibility of further outreach. The downside, of course, is the immense effort this will take over the long run.

Finally, let’s touch on how brand safety will change and need to be handled in the future.

Brand safety in the near future

I won’t pretend that I can predict the future any more than anyone else can. I can, however, look at trends and make predictions based on these trends, which help us prepare somewhat for a possible future.

The first thing to point out is the recent uptick in digital, especially because of the pandemic. It’s hard to tell if this move will be permanent, but it’s clear that it will stick for some brands more than others. As this is the case, the idea of brand safety becomes more immense and requires more thoughtful input.

A futuristic stairway.

The other thing to note is the trends concerning how people consume things like audio, video and other content. Brands didn’t have to worry about brand safety in terms of a record or cassette tape, but now that music is a largely streamed enterprise, safety comes into play with advertisements. It seems unlikely this trend will disappear any time soon, so continue to be diligent in this area.

Finally, there is a paradoxical idea that brand safety can harm a brand, since safety measures can block ‘safe’ advertising spaces accidentally. Though this is a possibility, the more involved you are in the brand safety process, the less likely this is to happen.

Closing thoughts

When considering the digital advertising industry, it’s clear that it’s anything but static. There are constant shifts that change the way users are targeted, and how the users consume content. In order to uphold brand safety during these changes, it must improve upon itself as much as possible.

Fortunately, the evolution of digital advertising has brought about responses from these publishers who are willing to provide options for brands to secure themselves. If you take advantage of the features available, your brand will remain protected.

If you want to read more about brands and the branding process, check out my complete branding guide.