Here’s a familiar pattern. Consumers see a brand’s digital advertising running against unsavory content like hate speech, pedophilia, or violent extremism. Public outrage prompts marketers to boycott Facebook or YouTube because such content runs contrary to their supposed brand values. The industry is overrun with articles about the need for better brand safety tools and policies. The platforms respond with fixes. Advertisers return … and await the next scandal.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Marketers know that in a world of globalized competition, consumers are one click away from choosing a different product or service. Taking a stand can help brands appear righteous and earn consumer loyalty, which is why brand safety scandals necessitate a massive and speedy PR response. However, responding to or apologizing for such scandals can only be perceived as authentic the first time around—not the second time, and definitely not the third. The endless cycle of brand safety scandals reveals one of two things about today’s brands—they’re either lemmings, or they don’t really care about brand values.
The problem with lemmings is that there’s nothing special about their brands. After all, they’re basically saying that they’re advertising on toxic platforms filled with unsafe content because everyone else is doing the same thing. To those marketers I say, find the courage to reject the groupthink that fuels the cycle of brand safety scandals. Walking away from platforms that have repeatedly burned advertisers over brand safety concerns will make your media plans more challenging, but it will also send a clear message to consumers that your brand takes its values seriously—and by extension—its equity.
But let’s not be naïve. Not all marketers agonize over the challenge of executing their media plans within a complex digital ecosystem and living up to their brand’s values. Some marketers just don’t care about values and should simply stop pretending to care. When a brand feigns outrage, it’s executing a cynical and shortsighted strategy that risks future brand equity for today’s profits.
Business has been around for centuries, but very few brands last more than a generation—if that. The question all of us need to ask is whether we care to build an enduring legacy or if we’re just in it for a quick buck.
Personally, I wouldn’t bet on a short-term strategy. Apple broke into the personal computer space because it told consumers exactly what its brand values were—and lived up to them. Uber opened the door to a competitor because it paid lip service to its values, causing outraged consumers to become trend-setting brand loyalists for Lyft. So far, Facebook has weathered a slew of scandals and kept its share price high, but what happens when consumers conclude that the social network puts profits above its stated mission of building community and bringing the world closer together?
There’s a business case to be made for thinking long-term and living up to the values that build brand equity. Conversely, there’s a good business case for rejecting the short-term mentality that drives advertisers back into the arms of the platforms that continue to perpetuate one brand safety scandal after another. But do marketers really need to make the business case for doing the right thing? I hope not. If our values bend to groupthink and the bottom line, then we don’t have any values at all, and the inevitable consumer backlash will be the least of our problems. We can do better than brand safety; we just have to be genuine.