- by Stuart Fuller, Head of Brand Services -
"Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world" - Nelson Mandela
In one of our regular team discussions this week we tried to estimate how many of our current clients have a formalised brand protection strategy in place. A few years ago, a similar question was posed to a group of ambitious, global brands and the result surprised us - nearly 60% had no strategy in place to protect their intellectual property, their revenues or their reputations. Our view today is that we hope the number will be less when we ask the question, with brand holders acutely aware of the importance of being one step ahead of some of the risks that exist in the online world.
With Social Media networks adding fuel to the growing problem of cybercrime and counterfeiting on an hourly basis, surely there should be a more concerted effort from brand holders to be part of the solution rather than the problem when we are talking about a problem that drains hundreds of billions of dollars from global economies.
Of course, there will always be some reasons why a brand holder may decide not to have a formal strategy to combat the issue of brand and reputational damage in place. They may genuinely not realise they have a problem, although ignorance is no real defence in such cases, perhaps thinking their products, services or solutions aren't "sexy" enough to warrant the interest of counterfeiters but they would be wrong. I've seen every type of brand in every vertical targeted in some way in my near fifteen years in this industry. The audacity and creativity of some infringements is worthy of a small round of applause if it was a victimless crime. If you ever wanted to see how far the infringers will go then you only need to spend a few minutes searching on social media networks or online marketplace websites.
Some brands may simply choose not to do anything even though they are aware of the problems that exist online. This 'ostrich' approach will undoubtedly lead to longer term problems for the brand holder as cyber criminals will realise they are an easy target. Some brands may not have budget to deploy counter-measures against the cyber criminals who infringe on their brand and launch nefarious actions against customers, weighing up that the cost of acting far outweighs the cost of not. There may be an economic argument for that approach but it is also true that consumers will shun a brand if they are innocent victims because basic preventative steps have not been taken. In some ways this is the ultimate proof of guilt by association, albeit one that the brand holder may have little knowledge or control over.
However, by taking some very simple steps every brand can not only protect their revenues, reputation and ultimately their customers but also help in the war against cyber criminals. Action does not mean cost, although it does require a brand holder to stand up and admit they have an online issue. A growing number of brands have put in place a programme of education for their customers, looking to turn one of their greatest assets, the consumer, into advocates who will go that extra mile for them in the war against counterfeiters and cyber criminals.
Global brands including Canon, Ugg, J Barbour and Apple have adopted brand protection strategies that focus on education as a primary step. By stepping forward and highlighting not only the problems that counterfeits could cause but also the true costs to their business, these brands are putting their customers first. Most also offer an opportunity for customers to turn detective and report websites that appear to be selling counterfeit items, which by doing so sees them become more invested in the brand - a win/win situation for the company.
There is no reason why any brand can't create a very simple guide to spotting a genuine product and giving some relatively basic advice about some of the dangers that exist online. For instance, if we look at the Pharmaceutical industry where fake drugs are probably the most damaging counterfeited item both in terms of financial loss and safety to consumers, with a reported Black Market value of $200 billion annually, according to Havocscope. The manufacturers of counterfeit medicines do not care about the effects of the ingredients they use, nor do they lose any sleep over the fact in most cases the drugs are completely ineffective. If the drug companies could provide a simple online guide to things to check for on their packaging, the look of the genuine products or even a way to enter a unique code on the packaging to check their authenticity then not only will lives be potentially saved but also their reputation and revenues will not suffer.
A rudimentary education programme is something that most firms can implement very quickly - a specific webpage or perhaps even a specific domain name that could be used in social media messaging as well using a new gTLD such as .help or .support or even .guru that differentiates the approach from business as usual marketing activity. Such an approach can be implemented very quickly and at low cost, which means that return on investment will be high.
This is one simple approach that BrandShelter discuss with our clients as part of the planning for a new brand protection strategy. It may not work for every client - brand protection isn't a one size fits all approach, but combined with a defensive domain strategy, utilising blocking and locking, it can be quite effective to ensure that revenues are protected and reputations remain intact in the ongoing battle against the IP abusers.