A Beginner’s Guide to Brand Safety

Recently, Nishma Robb, UK marketing director for Google Ads, admitted that YouTube might never be able to guarantee 100% brand safety, saying, “I don’t think that’s the reality of the platform.”

Of course, this doesn’t come as a shock. Major improvements have been made to YouTube’s algorithms, now catching 98% of extremist or violent videos. However, it only takes one video to sneak through the AI safeguards to cause a scandal.

Brand safety is a hot topic and it’s important for everyone, including agencies, brands, online publishers and technology providers. Here’s a quick beginner’s guide to answer your top brand safety questions.

What is Brand Safety?

Brand safety is what advertisers must do to ensure that its online advertisements are not placed somewhere that is viewed negatively and harms the image of the brand. For example, a Disney ad on an extremist site conflicts with the brand’s image of being the happiest place on Earth. This is a big no-no that is sure to spark the wrong type of attention.

There’s a lot of fake news and inappropriate content on the internet. That’s why it’s no surprise  brands need to be careful about where their ads land these days. Brand safety has been an issue  since online ad buying came into existence. In fact, in 2017, 90% of ad industry professionals rated brand safety as a serious concern and did something about it, taking steps to confront the issue.

Why is Brand Safety Important?

The most important reason why brand safety matters is because a brand’s reputation is indispensable. One misplaced ad that doesn’t align with the brand’s values and mission can ruin the company’s reputation. This is why advertisers and marketers must be extremely careful when determining where ads appear. Like Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

A study by cybersecurity firm Cheq and IPG Mediabrands found that consumers assume every ad placement is intentional, and are 2.8 times less willing to associate with a brand when its ads are displayed in unsafe environments, a big reason why brands are feeling nervous about where their ads appear.

What Are Recent Examples of Brand Safety Scandals?

YouTube has taken center stage in the headlines announcing brand safety controversies. In 2017, ads showed up alongside racist content and terrorist group videos, causing companies like AT&T to pull their advertising. Last year, things flared up when ads from over 300 companies were placed on violent or offensive YouTube videos. A few weeks ago, big companies like Disney, Nestle, McDonald’s and AT&T pulled their ads from YouTube when their ads showed up on inappropriate videos.

However, most companies who do pull their ads from YouTube usually come back, so much so that eMarketer predicts YouTube’s US ad revenues will still grow 16% this year to $5.34 billion. The platform offers too much value for brands, allowing them to target unique specific audiences.

YouTube has also taken aggressive measures by disabling comments and reviewing and removing thousands of videos. However, despite the platform’s best efforts, it’s likely there will never be a perfect fix to ensure complete safety.

How Can I Protect My Brand From Brand-Safety Embarrassments?

Like Robb said, you can’t expect a “100% brand-safe” environment. This means advertisers will have to find ways to prepare for crisis. To protect their brand from entering risky territory, advertisers can look to use innovative technology. These tools can analyze and identify which ad placements are safe.

For example, Advertising Week says one of the easiest ways to achieve brand safety is to deploy tools built for automated pre-bid media evaluation. As well, many social platforms and tech vendors are providing technology to give advertisers more data and information on their ads. This is all while YouTube and other platforms work hard to make their space as safe as possible.

According to Digiday, agencies are increasingly looking to buy directly from premium-quality content owners on YouTube. Placing an ad is more costly and time consuming. However, brand safety is guaranteed on these channels.

Brand safety will continue to be an important topic in the advertising industry. It’ll be interesting to see the new tools and technology that come into play as advertisers demand for greater control of the content they appear in. One thing is for sure – no one wants to deal with a bad reputation.

International House of Branding

IHOP is changing its name. Last week, the company tweeted (from its updated handle), “For 60 pancakin’ years, we’ve been IHOP. Now, we’re flippin’ our name to IHOb.”

In the week between the initial tweet and the official announcement, social media responded. The news definitely sparked my attention, and I haven’t stepped foot in an IHOP in over 10 years.

Many expressed outrage while others offered up guesses of what the “b” could stand for, and the IHOb account responded creatively to tease out the news and keep people guessing. Some notable predictions included breakfast, bacon, and even the right answer: burgers.

While the social media interaction was fun and sparked life into the brand, the big buildup to yesterday’s underwhelming announcement landed as flat as a pancake, in my opinion. I considered it misleading, as the company implied that the name change would be permanent, and instead it’s just a temporary ad campaign.

However, the PR stunt brought up a good point. It demonstrates how crucial branding and identity is to legacy brands. It also begs another relevant question…

When should you rebrand?

Rebranding makes sense when a company is shifting its services or has already made that shift – for example, offering more breakfast options than just pancakes. Apple Computers renamed to Apple, Inc. as they began to expand its product lines and sell more than computers. This was a natural move and made sense as the major brand identifier – Apple – was kept in the rebrand.

On a more personal level, this year yours truly changed our name from Ketner Group PR + Marketing to Ketner Group Communications. We’ve always been more than just public relations and marketing, offering services in social media, content development, and more, but we found it was time to change our name and logo to reflect that. But are we in the same boat as IHOP? Probably not.

Many food and retail brands never undertake such a public (or even private) rebrand, as the company name is the identifier for consumers. If they do, it’s a result of an acquisition, or done before they expand, like Starbucks did in its early years, originally named Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice. A smarter move for food and retail brands is a subtle logo change. And just a few years ago, IHOP did reveal a new logo. Last month, Best Buy redesigned its logo after 30 years. The font and colors are similar, and the yellow tag is still included to represent the company’s history. By changing its logo, Best Buy didn’t change its identity, but subtly alluded to how it’s adapting to an evolving retail environment.

IHOb is an example of how drastically changing one’s image, values or services can be met with hype, but also intense criticism. When undergoing a new logo design or rebranding – or in this case, just a burger campaign – brands should ensure that its essence is kept in the name.

Dr. John Murphy’s Universal Principles of Effective Communication

Last November, I had the pleasure of hearing one of my former professors at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. John Murphy, present his “Universal Principles of Effective Communication” at the Texas Exes Lunchtime Lecture series. While I’d heard a version of this lecture before, I was pumped to hear him speak again and be back in the “classroom.”

As I recounted my experience to the KG team, I was disappointed that my younger colleagues did not have the pleasure of taking ADV 318J with Dr. Murphy. In light of this, and the biggest advertising event of the year, the Super Bowl, having just passed, I’d like to share Dr. Murphy’s “Universal Principles of Effective Communication” and pass along some of his wisdom and a few classic examples he shared*.

Think Different

“Think Different” is Dr. Murphy’s first principle of effective communication. Here, the main objective is to do something different – either different from your norm or different from your competitors. A couple of examples that Dr. Murphy provided were the 1997 Apple campaign that coined the term “Think Different.” and this Chevy commercial in the spirit of “Lassie,” that doesn’t focus on the truck’s features, but instead, tells a familiar and captivating story.


We know this as KISS or “Keep it simple, stupid,” a principle that applies across the business world. It’s exactly what it sounds like; don’t complicate things.


Specifics sell. When communicating, whether through an ad campaign or a business email, it’s important to be as specific as possible. By providing unambiguous details, the consumer knows exactly what to expect, making it more likely for them to engage with your call to action. For this principle, Dr. Murphy shared an ad that appeared in a Houston newspaper listing a non-profit’s detailed, and specific, list of needed donation items.


Believability isn’t simply telling the truth, it’s doing it in a way that people understand. Therefore, the key is using familiar language and speaking in the way that your audience would. This may mean setting aside some grammatical and syntax principals to relate to the audience.


Furthermore, make sure you’re communicating to the right audience and don’t be afraid to call them out. Are you trying to reach millennials? Fathers? Milk drinkers? No matter who it is, by calling them out, you can be sure to grab their attention.


Now, we all know, especially in the age of social media, it’s impossible to get EVERYONE to like you. However, being likable is the first step in getting someone to buy something from you. Most of the time, consumers, and certainly businesses, aren’t going to purchase a product or service from someone they don’t like. A classic example is a car salesman in Michigan who sent every single one of his customers a card every month; on the back of every card it said, “I like you.” Clearly, this worked; he sold over 13,000 cars throughout the course of his career.


It’s okay to say the same thing over and over. Some of the biggest brand names have achieved great advertising success by sticking to a consistent strategy. For example, Nike continues to tell audiences, “Just Do It,” Motel 6 promises, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” and, the iconic Budweiser Clydesdales, who barely made the cut this year, have been a constant.

While Dr. Murphy’s presentation focused on advertising campaigns, the same principles can be applied to PR and any form of strategic communications. Furthermore, these principles can be used beyond the world of strategic communications and used in your everyday business or personal correspondence.

*All ideas and examples in this blog are credited to Dr. John Murphy.