- by Stuart Fuller -
Whilst online intellectual property infringement continues to be one of the biggest risks to brands today, a number of organisations are simply not aware of the impact this abuse has on their customers, revenues and reputation. In most cases this isn’t a case of choosing to ignore the problem but because they assume that nobody would want to infringe against their brand.
This may because of the type of product and service they offer, the geographies they operate in or their typical customer profile. Unfortunately, cyber criminals are not so discriminate and will look to carry out their maleficent activities where they see any opportunity to profit on the intellectual property of others. Recent unusual cases of IP abuse have included the creation of a fake, five star hotel in Manchester and conferences that do not exist but have willingly accepted online bookings from unsuspecting customers. Unfortunately is the case of when rather than if most businesses will experience IP infringements and abuse.
Organisations could spend billions globally trying to eradicate IP infringements, with strategies used ranging from simple domain name monitoring to complex deep and dark web investigations. One thing that virtually all IP professionals will agree on is that every business does need some form of a strategy not only to monitor for abuse but to also to be clear on the actions that they should take when issues are identified.
Whilst most brand protection solutions are based around domain name monitoring, innovation in the digital space has meant that Social Media and Mobile App monitoring has now become as important for many brands. Unfortunately, there are few organisations who can really say that they have a budget big enough to completely eradicate the problem that exists for their own intellectual property which is why so many still rely on a "wait and see" approach to creating a brand protection strategy, only finding budget for monitoring solutions “after the horse has bolted” where an issue has already started to bite into revenues or reputation. Unfortunately, in most instances the damage has been done and the costs to repair a reputation tarnished by a cyberattack or a digital pirate will far outweigh the cost of putting in an initial solution.
Brand Protection solutions are rarely viewed as insurance or risk mitigation against intellectual property abuse by organisations but there’s an argument that they should be, being vital to ambitious brands in the digital world. However, there are some simple steps that virtually every organisation can do today, without the need for any budget to be allocated which provide both reassurance to customers as well as protection against reputational and financial damage.
Some brands decide not to monitor for online infringements, for a variety of reasons whilst some global brands, such as Barclays Bank, Ugg, Barbour and Canon go even further than a brand protection strategy, creating online content to help their customers identify IP infringement and a mechanism to report potential problems direct to them.
Such an education programme can be very low cost to roll out, although brands such as Barclays Bank and Santander have converted the messaging into above the line media campaigns to great effect. But there's other relatively low-cost actions a brand holder can take to keep on top of some of the more common brand infringements. Four such quick wins, that could be implemented in less than an hour and at zero cost are:
Quick win number 1 - Ensure that an organisation’s information and contact details on Google are correct. Whilst Google isn’t the only search engine that is used across the world, it is the default for the vast majority. Google now displays a lot of information on the right of the screen when you search for a specific organisation, including contact details. It is essential that these are correct as otherwise customers and prospects could be lost or even contacting a third party. If not the information is wrong then it is important to understand where Google is indexing that info from and get it corrected. Most people assume that if Google say it's right, it is right. Repeat for the other major search engines.
Quick win number 2 – When you search for a brand or trademarked terms, what sponsored ads appear at the top of the search page? Are they genuine affiliates of the organisation or are they simply bidding on key terms to divert traffic away? Whilst there are rules around not doing this, the search engines may only remove the infringing ads if there is a complaint from the brand/trademark holder so it is in everyone’s interest if a brand holder is on top of this.
Quick win number 3 – Most organisations today will use website user tracking software, such as Google Analytics. One of the most useful features of these packages is the ability to understand the search terms used that eventually result in someone visiting the website. It is highly possible that the search term doesn’t match any existing domain names that the organisation owns. In order to capture future traffic for more common search terms, the organisation should look at registering the most relevant domain names to the search terms. If you haven't registered those domain names then you may not only be missing out on genuine traffic being diverted to other brands but could find your valuable intellectual property abused and your reputation tarnished. If a cybercriminal knows a particular phrase gets search traffic they could register a domain name and point it to a website that they then use for click bait or to host malicious software.
Quick win number 4 – With Social Media now being an essential channel to market for many organisations, it is important for any brand to understand what the digital world is saying about them. Any organisation can quickly search Twitter for mentions of their company name, brand and trademarks to see whether there is any negative sentiment, reputational issues or anyone abusing their IP. Whilst Twitter works on a first-come, first-serve basis on usernames, it does respect an organisation’s IP in terms of infringements related to content, so any potential issues can be quickly addressed to them through the appropriate process.
These four simple tactics cost an organisation nothing, can be implemented quickly and could deliver significant financial and reputational mitigation gains with almost immediate effect. They should not be seen as one-off actions but part of an ongoing programme of brand protection for the organisation. Whilst this does not constitute a full strategy, it will allow an organisation to recognise whether they have an basic intellectual property infringement issues. In many ways, these four areas, whilst being relatively basic in their nature, could be impacting the greatest number of customers and thus causing a lot of revenue and reputational damage. And that is why there should be no reason or excuse for any organisation to implement them today.