If I use the phrase “brand safety”, it might conjure up images of box-ticking exercises or watching an 8-minute video about how to lift a box in conference room 2. But this isn’t about workplace safety procedure.

It’s about something that should concern marketers far more – their company’s reputation (if anyone from Reevoo HR is reading this, I obviously take workplace safety very seriously).

Adtech – making your advertising ROI better, or riskier?

The rise of digital media has given marketers an incredible tool for getting their message in front of larger audiences – potentially even larger (and wider) than through traditional media.

This technology has advanced to a point where you can even target people who have a better chance of responding to your message, whether based on demographic information, existing interests, or previous behaviour. You can use what you know about your customers, to partner with publishers and personalities with influence in your target market. So far so good. Consumers expect you to try and reach them with a compelling, relevant message – in fact, they tend to appreciate it.

Ad spend is risky, as is any upfront investment, and it’s clear that CMOs are also starting to factor reputational risk into this calculation. No matter how good the ROI, some channels, markets, or endorsements might be too damaging to the way potential customers see you to be a good investment.

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Note: n=104 CMOs and marketing VPs; in the past 6 months<br />
Source: Teads as cited in press release, Nov 11, 2017

When using digital tools to spread your message at scale, how confident can you be that you really know where it’s appearing. And if you don’t know where it’s appearing, what might you seem to be endorsing? Concern is rising among CMOs that adtech platforms are placing their content in some unsavoury places, therefore putting their brand at risk.

A story broken by The Times in February 2017 showed that dozens of household brands were having their ads programmatically placed against websites and Youtube videos promoting extremist ideology. By the end of the same year, a survey of 100 CMOs found that 93 were looking to make strategic changes to improve transparency in this area, with more than a third going as far as to boycott or take money out of channels that can’t guarantee brand safety.

What is ‘safe enough’ when it comes to your brand’s reputation?

Even channels with youthful and highly engaged audiences like Youtube have come up short recently. The case of Logan Paul’s now-infamous video in Aokigahara forest should be more than enough to convince marketers that an apparently sound investment in a popular influencer, can turn into a dangerous liaison with an internet pariah.

The same goes for mainstream celebrities, when everyone’s just a controversial tweet away from being the least popular person online. With studies suggesting that endorsements in general might be declining in effectiveness among younger consumers, it might be time to consider their position in the modern marketing toolkit.

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A typical response to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advertisement

Faced with the two-fold risk of endorsement deals gone wrong and adtech fraud, it’s time to think about which channels and methods pose too great a threat to tolerate, and where the resources could be more safely allocated.

That’s why you should put your customers at the heart of your marketing strategy. They’re the polar opposite of celebrity or influencer endorsements – something I may have mentioned before. One person telling consumers to buy something is marketing, but a 95% approval rate from 10,000 verified customers is data.

A more compelling argument for your product should be a strong motivator for anyone to start asking customers for feedback – and it doesn’t stop there. You can collect feedback that an endorsement deal would never provide, have your most engaged customers answer questions from prospective buyers, or even collect stories about the ways your product fits into peoples’ lives.

That's why you should put your customers at the heart of your marketing strategy.

When you democratise your marketing in this way, you take away a lot of the risks associated with putting your product on a pedestal the way celebrity or influencer endorsements risk doing. A warts-and-all picture of your product, sourced from hundreds of real users, is more like holding up a mirror than showing someone glossy photos. It sets a more realistic expectation – one that you actually have a chance of meeting.

The reality is that marketers don’t really have a choice. Mistrust of their version of events is high across all age groups and demographics. Our research found that nearly half of men over 55 don’t trust what a company says about its own products.

At the same time, a whopping 90% of women aged 18-24 prefer photos from other holidaymakers over pictures from the company they’re booking with. Probably the most alarming indictment of misplaced marketing spend however, comes from the US, where 64% of viewers were unable to connect a memorable Super Bowl ad to the brand it was advertising.

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It’s pretty clear that some of the marquee spending projects of the past no longer deliver the ROI they once did, while the risks associated with public endorsements continue to grow. So the question for marketers becomes, when will the risks become too steep and the returns too small?

When the breaking point comes, customer-centric channels might offer the rewards and safety they’ve been searching for all along.

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Doing the safety dance: how to protect your brand