Brand Safety with Emmanuel Probst (Q&A)

Tue Apr 10 2018
Best Practices

How can you control what people are saying about your brand? 

We recently had the honor of chatting with one of the world’s most foremost experts on brand safety and branding, Emmanuel Probst, in order to answer this question. Probst is an author, a Professor of Market Research at UCLA, and a Director at one of the world’s largest market research firms. Keep reading for his expert tips on keep your brand's reputation safe. 


James: Emmanuel, tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you working on these days?

Emmanuel: By day, I help brands measure and optimize the impact of their advertising, across online and offline media channels. By night, I teach Consumer Market Research at University of California at Los Angeles. On weekends, I write about brand growth and strategy.


J: How did you get there?

E: I have been working in the market research space for the last 15 years, and have focused on advertising effectiveness for the last 6. My MBA in Marketing and Doctorate of Business Administration helped me get into teaching at UCLA.


J: So, brand safety seems to be the hot topic in advertising these days. First, can you please define brand safety for us?

E: Brand safety refers to keeping your brand’s reputation safe when advertising. That is, keeping your brand’s advertising away from inappropriate content. Think of content categories such as hate speech, firearms, tobacco or illegal drugs.


J: Why has brand safety become such a big deal?

E: In the traditional advertising world, it is easy to control where the brand appears: the advertiser or its media planning agency work directly with the publishers on placing the ad. Keeping a brand safe is a lot trickier with online advertising, as ads are often served through a myriad of third party entities that trade media inventory at scale, sometimes with little to no concern for publishers and content.

J: Do you have a few horror stories for us?

E: I have way too many! The likes of BBC, Marks & Spencer and the UK Government had to temporarily suspend their collaboration with YouTube as their ads appeared next to illegal and hateful content.

Most recently and closer to us in the U.S, we’ve seen brands such as United, Enterprise and McAffee distancing themselves from the NRA, ending discount programs and removing their logos from NRA publications.


J: We’ve talked about paid advertising, but what about the earned? How can brands control what people say about them?

E: Brands can’t control what people say about them, period. Hence the importance for brands to control what they stand for and where they advertise.


J: Tell me more

E: Take the adventure retailer REI for example. It sells Bell bicycle helmets, CamelBak water bottles, and Giro ski goggles among other brands owned by Vista outdoor, a company with close ties to the NRA. In the midst of the recent school shooting in Florida, a REI Co-Op member launched a petition to urge REI to drop Vista brands. This petition gathered almost 25,000 signatures in a matter of days. From there, REI had 2 options: keep selling Vista products and face a PR nightmare or worst, a boycott. Or stand by its members by putting its relationship with Vista on hold. In a smart tactical move, REI went with the latter. A boycott of its stores nationwide would have cost REI way more than sales of a few Vista products anyway.


J: So in sum, you’re saying brands can barely control the ads they place and are at the mercy of consumers, who are empowered by social media…give me some hope here. What’s your recipe for success?

E: Although digital advertising seem unreliable and social media unsettling, I truly believe there has never been a better time to build brands. Today, you can turn consumer into customers, and customers into advocates even if you can’t afford Superbowl ads and national campaigns. Here is how:

1. Establish strong brand values

Millennials love brands that have a purpose. Make sure your brand holds itself to high ethical standards, relies on sustainable manufacturing methods and has a strong social message. Starbucks is committed to fighting hunger, Toms give shoes to impoverished children, Dove improves self-esteem of girls to name but a few examples of brands that do the right thing. Ultimately, consumers rarely buy products for their features. They rather rely on brands as a mean to achieve something and become who they want to be. For example, people that drive a Tesla do so to signal the world they are successful in life AND care about the environment. Most Tesla drivers have few things to say about the performance of the car.

2. Control the paid

When placing digital ads, work with trusted, reputable publishers or renowned Demand Side Platforms that commit to serving advertising within brand-safe content. If you work with a media planning agency, hold them responsible for that.

3. Retain the right social media influencers

When evaluating social media influencers, make sure their personality, values and tone align with your brand. Also, think beyond their number of followers (those can be bought, so they don’t mean much) and look into their engagement metrics: the point of hiring an influencers is for them to deliver engagement for your brand, not just impressions.  

4. Co-create your brand with consumers

Get consumers involved in creating and shaping your brand and products. Leading manufacturer of power tools DeWalt relies on its 10,000 strong community of end users to provide feedback on product innovation (, packaging and marketing. Lego is another example of a brand that enables its fans to create, review and vote for products that will eventually hit the shelf.

5. Constantly monitor

Use social media monitoring tools to find out in near real-time what your audience says about your brand. Setup some alerts to address consumers concerns immediately. Monitoring social media is cumbersome and can be expensive, but it can prevent your brand from ending up on CNN or the front page of the NY Times for the wrong reasons.


J: I feel we covered a lot today. Any last word of wisdom?

E: Brands need to learn how to let go. That is, control the brand claim and what it stands for and surrender almost everything else to employees, influencers, superfans and others. They are the ones that will act as idea generators and create new territories for the brand. Also, keep yourself informed every day. Brand Safety, social media influence and digital advertising in general are never set in stone. Watching and reading about these topics for 15 minutes a day will make of you a better practitioner than any ‘expert’ who earned an MBA 2 years ago and hasn’t read anything since!  


Have any more questions regarding brand safety? Leave us a comment below!

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