Many brand owners with a strong online presence and a unique product offering may be worried about intellectual property infringements, the sale of knockoff merchandise, and the ultimate devaluation of their brand followed by a decline in sales. In this article, I will walk you through the biggest threats most companies are currently dealing with and offer you ways in which you can address these threats including using rotating residential proxies in order to perform data collection and implement brand intelligence in real-time.
The value and vulnerability of brand identity
Recent global developments have seen COVID-19 or coronavirus taking hold of our healthcare, economy, and even brands. One such brand which has been deeply affected by the mayhem is Corona Beer. Prior to the pandemic, this uber-successful Mexican brand was the epitome of fun and relaxation. Yet due to the similarity between the virus and the beer’s namesake, purchase intent hit a two year low among US consumers according to market research conducted by YouGov:
At the same time, leading search engine trend finder SEMrush has reported a spike in search phrases pertaining to both the beer and virus including ‘corona beer virus’ and ‘beer coronavirus’ to name a few. The source of these correlations is mainly user-generated but many experts wouldn’t put this type of negative publicity stunt past Corona Beer’s competitors who are keen on diluting a brand that has only been on the rise in recent years.
The fact of the matter is that brand creation is both a lengthy and expensive process. The stronger and more profitable your brand is, the more incentivized malicious actors are to take advantage of said brand and to irreversibly harm everything you and your company have worked so hard to create.
What can you do as a brand owner in order to preserve your brand value and prevent brand theft as well as brand dilution?
Brand abuse – the good, the bad, and the ugly
First off, it is important to understand what brand abuse is. Generally speaking, brand abuse is when an unauthorized party makes use of your intellectual property, name, logo, reputation, or any other marketable commodity to which you have an exclusive legal claim. There are different types of brand abuse that are currently prevalent across the internet, and which you should familiarize yourself with as a business owner, these include:
Rogue websites are created by a malicious third party who has identified your website (or IP address) as a valuable asset for generating high-intent web traffic. There are typically three ways in which these types of cyber criminals try to take advantage of your digital assets:
Domain Typo Usage – This is a simple yet effective technique in which variations of your website’s domain are used in order to direct traffic to a website that wants to ‘capture’ users trying to access your website. A simple example would be someone who types ‘Yaho’ instead of ‘Yahoo’.
Hostile domain creation – In this scenario, a third party may be using your brand name and web domain, the only difference is what country it is registered in. For example, most US-based companies have ‘.com’ at the end of their web address which they own exclusively. But someone could very easily use your exact web address and buy that domain in France, for example, using ‘.fr’ which is the suffix for web addresses registered in France.
Domain Cloning – This is very similar to ‘hostile domain creation’ except that the criminal parties try to duplicate or clone your website in your home market (e.g. the US) leading consumers to believe that they are surfing on your brand’s ‘official’ website.
Copyright infringement or piracy is another very common for-profit criminal activity. Generally, speaking copyrights are granted to artistic (think Disney illustrations) or literary works (think Davinci Code) which were either created or purchased by your company. In this case, using Disney as an example, a cyber criminal can print Mickey Mouse on merchandise and sell said merchandise online despite the fact that they do not have the copyright to these illustrations.
Similar to ‘domain squatting’ trademark squatting usually takes the shape and form of registering an identical, similar or transliterated version of your trademark either domestically or in a foreign country. One of the more well-known examples is of ‘Tesla’ in China. Chinese businessman Zhan Baosheng was able to legally trademark both the ‘Tesla’ name as well as the corporation’s ‘T’ logo behind Tesla’s back.
Chinese businessman Zhan Baosheng sued Tesla for roughly $3.85 million and demanded they shut down their showrooms in mainland China pursuant to a trademark infringement lawsuit he filed.
The implications of malicious brand exploitation
Now that you have a better idea as far as how brands can be harmed by pernicious activity, let’s have a look at the what or implications of these activities. Here are some of the most common negative effects brand abuse can have on a company:
Consumer trust and brand reputation
Your brand, logo, and designs mean something. When someone purchases a Louis Vuitton bag, for example, they are buying more than just a bag – they are buying a lifestyle, and a promise of quality. When consumers and suppliers are exposed to low-quality knock-offs it diminishes both brand reputation and consumer trust in the said brand. Your brand value is automatically diluted by such activity.
Trust issues aside, a major, albeit obvious result of brand manipulation is a sharp decline in sales that most businesses experience. Computer-savvy actors may be redirecting your usual web traffic and offering very similar items at a fraction of the price. If you have recently experienced a sharp decline in sales despite maintaining the same levels of marketing campaign investments coupled with signs of healthy business activity across the board, you may very well have fallen victim to brand theft.
A resource-heavy battle
Combating counterfeiting and brand dilution manually is a very resource-heavy undertaking. It requires a technical team to do keyword, image, and product monitoring as well as a full-stack legal team to fight your battles. This ‘army’ of employees requires a hefty investment on the brand’s part.
How to protect intellectual property?
All of this begs the above question: How does one take the process of protecting their brand against cyber criminals and malicious parties to the next level? Here are some best practices you can start implementing today:
#1 Educate customers
More often than not, consumers are unaware of what’s going on as far as knockoffs, counterfeiting as well as the theft of intellectual property. They honestly believe they are buying an original item or signing up for your legitimate service. The best tool you can implement against ignorance is education! Educate your customer base about how to identify false actors, impostors, and knockoffs. The more educated they are, the less likely they will be to fall for online scams.
#2 Social media
Social media impersonation has also become popular among brand impersonators. You need to fight fire with fire in this instance. Establish a strong social media presence and report unofficial accounts, profiles, and pages to those responsible for monitoring online social activity.
#3 Battle rogue websites and IP management
In order to be able to successfully maintain control over your intellectual property and perform IP Enforcement or content removal, you need to first be sure to register your intellectual property through patents, and trademarks otherwise you have no more claim over your intellectual property than the next guy. The same goes for infringing content and rogue websites, regarding the latter, consider purchasing variants of your main domain name both domestically and internationally. If you have done all of the above and have identified harmful websites, contact the site admins and request that they be taken down before proceeding with legal action.
#4 Sign NDAs and Non-Compete Agreements
Working with other companies is a business imperative, so is hiring skilled employees with deep knowledge of and experience in your industry. That does not absolve you from signing Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) as well as Non-Compete Agreements (NCAs). This is such a basic and relatively simple way to protect yourself against those who you are most vulnerable to, yet so many businesses overlook these crucial clauses and contracts in their day-to-day business proceedings.
#5 Use a proxy
Many businesses are unaware of the benefits proxies can present their organization as far as brand protection is concerned. They are not typically thought of as a relevant solution or course of action. What most people don’t know is that many leading brands in the world today are currently using proxies for brand protection services in order to protect themselves from brand abuse, brand dilution, and other malicious attacks on their brands and ultimately their bottom line.
But how do proxies help brands stay on top of brand fraud?
Bright Data, the world’s leading residential proxy service has been helping companies protect their online assets using a network of 72+ million IPs across the globe. A great example of this is one of Bright Data’s customers who uses our services to track online reviews and rankings across the web, as well as, scanning the web for negative or misguided brand mentions. We help them dispel misinformation (read: fake news) and provide them and their customers with a smart alert system regarding misleading search results (i.e. SERP scraping for malicious websites), domain name abuse, and unlawful product placement (e.g. scraping eBay and Amazon for knockoff goods).
According to US congressional records and debates on this matter, piracy has become a multibillion-dollar industry run by highly sophisticated thugs. Utilizing millions of real residential and mobile IP addresses you will appear as a regular customer when scanning the web and will be able to detect these fraudsters. As such, you have the ability to uncover the ‘real’ information being displayed by your detractors. This helps automate and simplify the identification process of the entities who are contributing to the devaluation of your brand and product offering.
Summing it up
The digital age has presented many new opportunities for brands and businesses alike. But the same advancements in technology that work in favor of legitimate corporations also present opportunities to hackers, cyber criminals, and illegitimate entities looking to make a dollar on the back of hard-earned brand building and brand recognition.