The Surprise Leading Threat to Brand Safety

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Over the past year, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have found themselves at the epicentre of a crisis which has had brand content appear alongside everything from videos promoting gang warfare to terrorist propaganda.

But while these kinds of toxic adjacencies have been at the core of the brand safety debate since the beginning, recent research looking at the state of the crisis 12 months on stipulates that this threat – while still totally valid – has been superseded by another much more widespread concern.

In fact, more than half of marketers now view adjacency to competitor branding as a bigger problem than vulgarity, hate speech, violence and nudity. 63% of industry professionals cite competitor adjacencies as the most common type of brand unsafe exposure they’ve experienced in the past year, for instance. This is compared to just 28% in 2017.

So, while the media has been preoccupied with YouTube’s latest faux-pas, the threat vectors around brand safety, it seems, have changed. And while this much subtler threat is not so widely reported in the media (‘’Warburtons and Hovis advertise on same page’’ is hardly a newsworthy headline), competitor adjacencies are now seen as more damaging to brands than toxic ones.

That is because they have the power to create small scale destruction with big consequences. The fact is, whenever a logo, image, video clip, or piece of text from a competitor appears alongside a brand’s campaign, that campaign – and, by extension, your brand – is undermined. Brands spend years building relationships with users; but when another brand intercedes that relationship, consumer loyalty is tested.

The fact that ‘Conquesting’ – a legitimate marketing tactic which involves deploying an ad for a brand next to content relating to a competitor – has been in practise for decades, means it should be no surprise that this kind of threat has been quietly evolving behind the scenes.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of this growing problem is the fact that it is one of the oldest problems in advertising. Competitor adjacency is a problem that has already been (largely) addressed across TV, radio and print at various points in those media channel’s lifecycles. But digital marketing is behind the times when it comes to navigating this thorny issue, with many marketers only now coming to realise the impact programmatic has had in magnifying this risk.

At the same time, there does appear to be greater awareness among industry players about what they can do to protect themselves online, than there was 12 months ago. Over half of the marketers we interviewed had success with blacklists in the past year, for instance. Major players like Bank of America, meanwhile, are taking the lead by hiring specialist brand safety officers to manage internal brand safety programmes.

But there is still work to be done. The eco-system is changing again, with visual content now taking centre stage in consumers’ lives, there is likely to be an influx of new threats emerging that marketers must be ready for. Currently, just 21% of industry professionals are using computer vision tools, for instance. That means a lot of potentially damaging videos and images could be slipping under the radar – something which is only likely to increase as visual media evolves.

High-profile crises involving social media have shaped the brand safety debate in the public eye. But our research showed that these companies have been among the best at tackling the issues, with 99% of industry professionals agreeing that Facebook and Twitter had improved their brand safety strategies over the past year.

Despite this, it is imperative that brands and marketers do not rest on their laurels. The threat of accidental competitor adjacencies may have been given little attention so far, but this only makes it more dangerous a threat. Competitor adjacencies tend not to be flagged by traditional brand safety tools that are geared identifying inappropriate online content. But with consumer trust and revenue at risk, their impact will soon be felt if marketers do not have the foresight to implement the right tools at the right time.

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