By Mario Diez, CEO, Peer39
The twin news cycles of COVID-19 and the ongoing protest movement have thrust advertisers into a crash course on understanding brand suitability, and likewise accelerated the modernization of blunt legacy content blocking mechanisms.
But these ongoing stories—the protest movement in particular—have led many brands to reconsider their ad messaging and PR approaches. Advocating for the equality and social change in turn now requires a more expansive focus on how brand, message and content connect. Given the prevalence of this content, brands can’t simply reactively block content as they’ve done in the past. Rather than look at content as “right” or “wrong” for a brand, advertisers have to assess their messaging and values, then decide if they are credible enough to appear next to the sensitive but important content that dominates the news today.
In other words, programmatic media buys are no longer about, just at safety or suitability, but now must incorporate brand authenticity. This step may prove the most challenging, given the inward focus and self-reflection required for a process that has become automated.
Advertising matches the values
In the past, brands might have questioned whether there was too much risk in putting out a statement or an ad campaign that was closely tied to social issues. That’s no longer the case, and it’s almost impossible to count the number of brands that have adopted a social-responsible message since late May. Selling a product with a social-conscious or civil rights message is no longer controversial or taboo, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. Agencies like IPG have already crafted guidelines in an attempt to tie brand safety to brand responsibility. The question has simply shifted from “should we do this?” to “how are we going to do this?”
The answer to the latter question starts with authenticity. The deluge of civic-minded ad messages has not been without criticism. More than 950 brands participated in the Blackout Tuesday initiative on June 2, but some were taken to task for grabbing onto a message without actually practicing what they preached. Adidas came under scrutiny for participating with a generic anti-racist message while simultaneously closing its stores across the country out of fear of potential vandalism or looting connected to protests.
The same week as Blackout Tuesday, Ben & Jerry’s issued a statement with the bold headline “Silence Is NOT An Option.” It very clearly laid out the company’s stance on the need to dismantle white supremacy and its outrage over the murder of George Floyd. The ice cream brand is hardly a stranger to social justice issues: its Justice ReMix’d flavor promotes the company’s work on criminal justice reform. That same week, Bank of America committed $1 billion over the next four years to community programs and small businesses that address racial inequality.
Content that matches advertising
Achieving authenticity is not an easy task. It takes a substantial and honest inward assessment. It’s also only half the battle. Once a brand is aligned on its message and can ensure that its ads speak to what the brand and its employees embody, it’s time to apply the lessons of brand suitability. If you’re going to buy ad space to promote these messages, what is the right environment for doing so?
Early in the COVID crisis, brands actively avoided buying next to news content, even as they adopted messaging that promised support amid these uncertain times. But COVID mentions were so pervasive that brands realized blocking all mentions of the virus left them with small content pools. These lessons were quickly applied to the protests – looting, fires, and police brutality are still considered unsuitable for many brands, but avoiding “protest” content altogether meant another missed opportunity.
This becomes even more important when brands are adopting and promoting social messages during the same periods of paid advertising. A brand that promotes change and equality in its ads but then actively works to avoid positive or sensitive coverage often may miss suitable environments where consumers would be more receptive to the message. You can’t adopt a message of support and then run away from the news as it happens.
Norms are changing. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable for these many brands to shift their messages and publicly acknowledge systemic racism. The concepts of brand suitability and brand authenticity are shifting as well. Brands can no longer only focus on the content and environment, but now must ensure the brand’s values add a level of authenticity to the message. We may not arrive at some kind of the new norm for these concepts until well into 2021, but laying the groundwork now will surely strengthen the balance between brand, messaging and content, one that rewards publishers, advertisers and consumers alike.