Why Brand Responsibility Should Be Your Priority

By Robert Gibbs


Over the past few years, brands have wrestled with the question: What is a brand's responsibility to consumers and to the world? Based on the amount of ink dedicated to the topic, it's clear that brands have no easy answer. Whether you want your brand to serve as an advocate for social justice, climate action, or for nothing at all, you can't escape brand responsibility in 2022.

But what does "brand responsibility" mean exactly? There are multiple aspects of responsibility that apply to all brands, especially in the arena of digital advertising. I think of them as the 4Ps of responsibility in digital advertising: Place, Purpose, Permission, and Price. Let's take a look at each of them.

Place: Know Where Your Ads Will Appear

By now every brand manager knows that where you allocate your media budget has ramifications in society, and today's sophisticated consumers will not only notice where you chose to place an ad, they will factor it into their purchase decision. Thus it is incumbent on all brand managers to spend it responsibly (i.e. make sure your most basic brand safety controls are such that you don't inadvertently fund hate speech).

Not knowing where your ad will appear is as irresponsible as knowingly investing media dollars on a propaganda site (or with a racist podcaster). Why? Because the damage is already done, both to your brand and to society, whether you knew about it or not.

If you're a brand manager, brand safety and responsibility will require much thought and decisive management on your part. I have no doubt that Applebee's chose to run its ads on CNN because it is a trusted, premium news channel. And I have no doubt that CNN's sales team proactively showed Applebee's what a split screen ad unit looks like.

Meanwhile, we have no shortage of bad news in the world of late (for instance, Putin had been amassing soldiers at Ukraine's borders for months). So I can't blame CNN for the debacle that ensued, responsibility lies with the brand for every choice they did or did not make.

In recent years, we've seen an inordinate amount of unpleasant news dominate the headlines, from a pandemic to climate change. Placing any kind of consumer ad against the backdrop of global tragedies will make your brand seem tone deaf or even callous, so you need to navigate your media investment strategy carefully and persistently.

Here's a pro tip: Inclusion lists work better than exclusion lists. End of story. Any responsible advertiser should sooner sacrifice empty scale for the assurance of well-placed, relevant, and non-invasive ads. A brand-owned inclusion list is the only way to truly claim responsibility and control over every ad placement decision in a world where "anything that could happen, will."

Purpose: Are You Living Your Brand Values?

While a good brand safety strategy will ensure that your ad spend doesn't fund nefarious players, brand suitability is about taking steps to ensure your budget actively aligns with the publishers and content creators that share common values with your brand and your customers. If sustainability is a core pillar of your brand's values, it's a good idea to support publishers like Natural Life or Renew magazine, and not just because they're good places to reach your customers. Brand purpose is about supporting the ecosystem that promotes the ideals you want to live up to. Think of it as putting your money where your mouth is for media planning.

For some brands, purpose means taking a public stand on important issues of the day, such as social justice or freedom for Ukraine. If you sell to a marginalized community, social justice issues may be extremely relevant to your brand, and your customers will expect you to advocate on their behalf. Still other brands — Goya or My Pillow come to mind — opt to align themselves with specific politicians or contentious issues. This is the choice they made based on their own brand values, and the buck stops there, so owning all consequences comes with the territory.

Permission: The Tenet of Privacy

Put simply, are your ads intrusive, relentless, or in any way misusing (or over-using) personal data? Brand responsibility applies to the storage and use of every byte of customer data. Understanding the role of privacy in brand responsibility begins with permission; do you have all the controls in place to ensure that any data you collect (or pay for) to use in targeting reflects each consumer's local jurisdiction and personal preferences? Do you even know what data exists within your enterprise, who has access to it, and how it's used?

Then comes putting the data that consumers provide with your brand to good use. There's a popular clothing brand with whom I shared my data years ago. I've bought their products, clicked on their ads, set up an online account, yet still I receive their "dynamic" creative ads and emails trying to sell me women's clothes.

It irks me, not because I've never worn a dress (that's a story for another time), but because it tells me that the brand doesn't respect our inherent value exchange... the unspoken-but-written-in-fine print deal they struck with me: Share your data so that we can send relevant offers.

Lastly, it's important to consider when it is appropriate to use consumer data indirectly, such as for modeling purposes. There are a great many nuances you can learn about your existing customers, but it doesn't mean you should use it in one-to-many applications.

Audience modeling is little more than a cheap parlor trick that consists of layering assumptions on top of assumptions and creating an excuse for intrusive advertising that reaches the wrong consumer at the wrong time. Knowing when it's inappropriate to use or overuse consumer data is an essential part of a brand's responsibility.

Price: Cheap Ads are Costly to Your Reputation

Programmatic has delivered a lot of benefits, and even more promises, to advertisers, not the least of which is the ability to scale campaigns at a much lower cost. Why pay for a costly direct buy when you can reach the very same users in cheaper and less known media properties, the thinking goes?

It's a fundamentally bad idea to chase cheap inventory because it will inevitably result in your ads appearing on brand unsuitable websites. The same is true for "long-tail" placements. If long-tail placements are of interest to you, take the time to vet them ahead of time and add the ones that are brand suitable to your inclusion list.

I realize that many see programmatic as a way for brands to achieve scale quickly at the lowest possible costs, but that's as much a risk to mitigate as it is an inherent benefit of programmatic.
If I leave you with just one thought: Every brand has a responsibility to consumers, to consumers' families and to their children — so make brand and media investment decisions that help make the world a little bit better than how you found it.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Robert Gibbs is the CEO of NOM. As the CEO of NOM, Robert is responsible for running all facets of the business. He brings a breadth of experience in the digital media space. In 2004, he led U.S. operations for marketing & advertising agency Pepper Global (now branded as Iris) as Managing Director. In 2012, he joined Publicis Media to run client services for one of the industry's largest programmatic trading desks (VivaKi). Robert has since held leadership positions at Starcom, IPG and most recently as Chief Digital Officer at Media Assembly, before joining NOM as CEO.