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Brand Safety in an Era of Scrutiny

Brand Safety in an Era of Scrutiny

Elouise Kelly

Managing Director


There was a time when brands could hide behind clever (or not so clever) advertising, highlight a particular brand trait, choose a few media channels, and sales would follow.

If you as a customer had a complaint and wanted everyone to know about it, the best option at your disposal was to write a “Letter to the Editor.” Fast forward a few decades and customers now have a plethora of options. Our connected world provides opportunities for both customers and brands to complain, compliment, or simply talk to one another, but it’s sometimes tricky

to navigate and most times it’s the brands who miss out. Being exposed doesn’t always have to be negative, it can be an opportunity for brands to be honest and authentic while strengthening the relationship with customers.

Brands are no longer able to simply advertise. They have to be relevant, build trust, surprise and delight. They need to listen and be empathetic and make the customer the hero of the brand story. They also have to find the sometimes illusive customer at the right time and place. The tasks are immense. If brands are able to balance these requirements and get them right, then brand trust is sure to follow, leading to brand loyalty. This sounds fairly simple right? Well, a few recent examples demonstrate how this can be fairly complex, how some brands get it right and others keep getting it wrong.


In mid-2017 a disgruntled customer of insurance company MiWay, generated a social media post purporting an offensive and racist email from a MiWay employee. As can be imagined and obviously intended by the customer, the letter caused a social media storm with many MiWay customers threatening to cancel their insurance. The company instantaneously took to social media, confirming their awareness of the email and promising to immediately launch an investigation into the matter. MiWay CEO, Rene Otto was quoted as saying, “We are busy following the threads and will be able to prove that it’s false and falsified.” ( July 2017).

A week later MiWay was able to communicate the results of its investigation and not only prove

the email to be false, but also name the person behind it, and thereby reconciled the entire debacle amicably. How did MiWay keep their brand safe amidst such earnest scrutiny?

  • They responded immediately, acknowledged the problem and communicated a course of action;
  • During their investigation they kept communication channels open and provided necessary feedback as well as responding to customers, media and other stakeholders;
  • They acted swiftly, not dragging out the investigation and communicated an outcome as soon as it was available;
  • MiWay also acknowledged they could have handled the disgruntled customer’s complaint better. They met with the customer and agreed on a way forward, which was reported on different media outlets.


Unfortunately, most brands are not like MiWay. There are those who get it very wrong and don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. H&M is unfortunately a very good example of how a lack of insight, the inability to listen, and relinquishment of brand custody all factor in the creation of a negative brand story.

H&M, the Swedish fashion retailer with an international footprint, launched in South Africa toward the end of 2015. Although the Country Manager, Pär Darj, acknowledged they saw South Africa as an aspirational market with immense potential, demonstrating a very big fashion interest in the middle class (Business Report, October 2015), their launch campaign demonstrated what can only be described as ignorance of the South African market. Billboards and posters featured exclusively white models and when H&M was called out on its lack of diversity the response was uninspired, claiming it was “essential for them to convey a positive image” (@hmsouthafrica, Twitter 2015). What could they have done better?

  • Know your market and the customer you are targeting;
  • Localize and be relevant, reflect the environment in which you operate;
  • Educate and empower all your brand custodians, especially your social media managers;
  • Be humble, acknowledge mistakes and take tangible rectifying steps.

There is no denying the scrutiny brands face and it intensifies on a daily basis. Control of the brand has shifted from its owners and is being shaped by consumer opinion and perception. Brand safety cannot be assumed and every risk should be anticipated. A large component of the modern marketing journey is a about applying a holistic approach to brand management.

Advertising is only one part of a much bigger whole. Brand influence (especially along the customer journey), cultural relevance, integrity, responsibility, and engagement are some of the fundamentals which will keep brands safe in a very exposed world.