Brand safety in digital advertising tends to be driven by big businesses, with 80% of agencies reporting that global brands prioritise brand safety more than their regional or local counterparts, according to IAB SEA+India research.

But making sure ads aren't served in unsafe environments is just as much of a concern for local businesses as it is for global brands, perhaps even more so as perceptions of brand safety are subject to regional nuances and strategies need to be tailored to local markets. Singapore has a relatively high rate of brand safety incidents at 5.6%, second to Australia across the APAC region, so local brands must be particularly careful to avoid getting caught up in brand safety issues.

Smaller, local brands spend years building up strong reputations and loyal customer bases that allow them to compete with global businesses, and they can't afford to have these diminished by an ad served alongside questionable content. And the impact can be significant, with 63% of Singapore consumers saying they would stop using a brand's products if they saw its ads next to low quality or unsafe content. A single brand safety incident could have a catastrophic impact.

There are a variety of ways local businesses can take matters into their own hands and implement brand safety strategies that are suited to their unique audience, as well as their region.

Granular controls: Keywords and blacklists

Keyword blocking is a common approach to brand safety that prevents a brand's ads being served alongside content that contains a particular word or phrase on a predefined list. For instance, given the current global crisis, many brands across APAC are adding words such as 'pandemic' and 'quarantine' to their keyword blocking lists, as well as the various names of the virus itself, to avoid association with negative or controversial content. Other techniques include blacklisting, which stops ads from running on entire sites if they are found to contain unsuitable content, and whitelisting which only allows ads to run on pre-approved sites once they have been assessed.

While these granular controls are vital and can be very effective at keeping a brand's ads away from certain content categories, they do have some limitations. No matter how thorough a brand is, there will always be categories, subjects or situations that get missed and undesirable placements that slip through the net. Equally, local brands may end up overly restricting the placements they have access to. For example, an entire local news site may get blacklisted due to one controversial article, when the rest of the site provides an ideal environment for that brand to reach and engage local audiences. To return to the earlier example, much of the content created around the Coronavirus pandemic is informative, engaging and brand safe – not to mention viewed by large audiences – so simply blocking all related keywords could mean brands missing out on valuable opportunities.

A holistic approach to brand suitability

As well as using granular brand safety controls to keep their ads away from unsafe content, local brands can also take a more holistic approach known as brand suitability. This involves proactively seeking content that is relevant to the brand's products and aligned with its values, rather than simply avoiding poor placements. This means the messaging of ads is amplified, reinforced and more likely to resonate with consumers. Advanced contextual targeting technologies such as semantic analysis and natural language processing can be used to ensure brand suitability, by scrutinising the text on a page to truly understand its meaning as well as the sentiment it evokes.

Native advertising naturally takes a more holistic approach to brand suitability than other ad formats, by making sure ad content blends seamlessly into the editorial environment and is relevant to the page on which it appears, leaving far less scope for brand safety issues. Native advertising also provides local brands with access to low risk, premium inventory, which has been vetted by ad networks to ensure it is of high quality. Publishers that embrace native advertising do so to enhance their valuable content and maintain a positive user experience, so are naturally more likely to provide a safe and suitable environment for local brands.

The push towards brand safety in digital advertising may be led by global brands, but smaller local businesses are just as vulnerable to brand safety issues and must therefore implement a robust strategy to guard against these. By combining granular controls such as keyword blocking with a more holistic approach to brand suitability, local businesses in Singapore can ensure their ads only appear in placements that strengthen, rather than threaten their brand.