Businesses have gone online and in the process, have also made themselves susceptible to duplicity and identity theft on an unprecedented scale.
Now, fraudsters can create entire websites that look just like your own, and may even create social media pages claiming to be the voice of your brand. The worst part? If done right, consumers cannot tell the difference.
These sites and pages lead your customers to believe that they are interacting with you, and they may even make a purchase from some such sites attributing them to you.
Fake social media handles claiming to represent you can do a lot of harm if they choose to, as 62% of all customers interviewed for a CIM survey stated that they use social media as a tool to help them make buying decisions. They are essentially looking to social media for reassurance that they are making the right purchase.
Customers raise a complaint or an issue on one of ‘your’ pages, and receive a response that makes them trust you less. They read a few of the negative reviews left by paid reviewers on one such page and decide to veer away from you. Sure, websites like Fakespot help decide how many reviews are fake, but most customers may not go through a second round of checking.
For a retail business that depends entirely on trust and loyalty, isn’t that scary?
What is brand equity for an online business?
According to one, study, there are four core areas that are representative of your brand equity online: brand communication, site design, vendor characteristics, and product/service characteristics. In other words, when associating a page they visit with an existing brand, consumers notice, and depend on, four attributes:
- The language, tone and style of communication used on the site.
- The look and feel of the site, and how closely it resembles the brand site.
- If they make a purchase, how much their vendor interaction resembles the original vendor.
- If they make a purchase, how closely the product or service works like the original.
In many cases, consumers buy from a certain brand because it generates an emotional response in them—they may have walked into a coffee shop on a particularly bad day and had the best coffee of their lives, or they may remember shopping from a web store that had great discounts and very unique products just when they were preparing for a broke Christmas.
Their brains remember the interaction they had with your brand and how it made them feel, prompting them to come back.
In this context, it is easy to see why protecting your brand identity online is so important. Since consumers have an emotional response to shopping with you, the onus is on you to keep eliciting the same response in them every single time.
Why would a troll care about you?
To put it bluntly, a troll doesn’t care about you or your business. They may be competitors who employ dubious means to get attention, but in most cases, trolls are just mooching off of you, your brand, its value, and its revenue.
Why do they do this? Because eating from someone else’s pie is easier than making it yourself. Because the brand and identity you built over years of hard work can now be used very easily. Because in most cases of online trolling, retailers may not always know what to do.
When a troll using your identity steps into the picture, they negatively impact the fragile relationship of trust you share with your customers. And an irate customer has several ways of venting their disappointment online, thus affecting your brand’s identity in the minds of many more people in a single stroke.
How scammers and trolls can harm your brand
There are a number of ways that trolls and scammers can harm your brand online, from attempting to divert traffic to slandering your reputation to actually stealing your sales.
Traffic diversion schemes
Traffic diversion schemes are one way by which fraudsters may be targeting you. Using your brand name as a ranked keyword makes search engines throw up results to websites that are not linked to your brand in any way. For example, someone can start a new website called ‘Leggo’ with an extra ‘g’ and use it to do business. When a customer looks for Lego to buy their products, this result could pop up.
However, the customer doesn’t know this or may not notice the difference, and may click on the first result they see, be led to a site that sells fake goods, or worse, steals their personal information.
Also, since other people are using your brand name in their marketing effort, it dilutes the control you have on those keywords, thus giving you less than optimal returns on your marketing investment.
Here’s another example: You search Google for ‘iPhone 7’ online. Someone abusing PPC will have added ‘iPhone 7’ to their list of keywords to show up for a very irrelevant website. You are then led to a site that has nothing to do with the iPhone 7, but the person who placed the ad has made his money because you clicked on it.
SEO manipulation is considered a Black Hat SEO practice. Your brand’s name, logo or slogan may be inserted in another site’s header, meta tags or hidden within the HTML code. As a result, a vendor who is not affiliated to your brand, but claims to be, may actually end up ranking higher for a particular keyword than you do!
Cybersquatting and typosquatting
Cybersquatting and typosquatting are very simple, yet they could be a major threat to your brand. A fraudulent site may choose to use the name or slogan of your brand spelled incorrectly (thus avoiding trademark issues) and still end up being ranked higher than it should be.
Likewise, someone may ‘squat’ on a domain name that should ideally belong to you. For example, you may have registered the .com and .org domains for your business but not the .uk or the .ca. In such cases, someone else may purchase it first and ask you to pay a certain amount to own the domain. To protect yourself, you can scoop up these variations of your domain before that happens.
In one high profile case, fashion designer Tory Burch LLC won a $164 million lawsuit and shut down 41 cybersquatters with domains like toryburchoutletshop.com.
As an extension, fraudsters may create social media pages and handles that have the same look and feel as your original brand page. In some instances, these pages may have a larger follower base than your brand page, thus giving these pages leverage over yours in influencing customer opinion.
Counterfeiting and grey market sellers
Selling counterfeit goods is as old as retail itself. Using a variety of labels such as ‘first copies’, ‘refurbished’, and ‘remodeled’, retailers not associated with you may sell duplicates of your product that look just the same but function sub-optimally. In 2014, sales of bags marked Hermes, Burberry and Louis Vuitton caused a loss of $22 million USD in the Philippines alone.
To the customer who doesn't know that they have purchased a counterfeit, this represents a lack of quality in your product or service.
Amazon’s new brand registry system is expected to help deal with the sale of counterfeit products on the platform.
If you think knockoffs are limited to goods alone, think again, because entire brands can be replicated. As of 2016, knockoff retail stores of very well known brands such as Apple, Starbucks and McDonald's have existed across Southeast Asia. What’s more, they have even been building brand loyalty, albeit through questionable means. If you are a store with a global presence online or off of it, you should consider if any retail or web stores have cropped up locally using your name.
Grey market goods are extremely difficult to detect in a marketplace. More often than not, these products are obtained through theft, or are refurbished after damage, and sold as new. In such cases, the vendors fail to mention that the product is not covered under any warranty, thus causing distress to a customer when the need for repair arises.
Brand defamation is common and prevalent in the world of ecommerce. People are paid to abuse or slander your brand and products online, while subtly suggesting that the customers try a different brand or vendor for the same product.
Paid reviews are very common as well, and most of them do not adopt a neutral tone. To prevent this, Amazon has banned the practice of accepting reviews that have been incentivized in some manner. If you are the owner of a web store, you can choose to show and publish only those reviews that come from the accounts of certified buyers.
On social media, it is hard to stop negative reviews even if they come from fake users, but you can choose to respond to the review in a neutral manner, enquiring about when they purchased a product from you and what exactly they disliked.
Sometimes, some vendors may manipulate the customer into falsely associating the vendor with a certain brand. They can do this by projecting themselves as resellers, franchise owners or business partners, but they share no such relationship with the brand.
The worst of all forms of brand identity theft is phishing and malware exposure. Examples of phishing can probably be found in your email inbox's spam folder. Any form of communication that uses your brand name to gain personal details from customers, with the intention of misusing these details, is phishing.
Taking this unethical practice one step further, some vendors may use a fake website resembling your brand’s to install malware on the user's’ computer, thus exposing them to fraud.
In all of these approaches, there is a common thread. Most of these attempts reduce your marketing ROI, cause distress to your customers and slowly erode the trust people have in your brand. Over time, not acting on these attempts can expose you to several risks, the most important one being a loss of your customer base.
How to protect your brand from theft online
Fortunately, as the legal owner of a brand, there are several things you can do to prevent and deal with brand theft when it happens. Some of these options are legal recourses for when brand theft does happen, and others are preventive measures.
1. Trademark registration
For products, there is no better protection than that offered by a trademark. It does take time to apply for and receive rights to a trademark, but once you have it, any kind of infringement by others will be dealt with very severely. Here is a super helpful guide on how you can register a trademark.
Under state and federal laws in the US, a registered trademark gives you complete ownership, and this can further be used when someone infringes upon the registration. If you have products and designs that are your registered trademarks, you can sue anyone around the globe who uses them without your prior permission.
How do you register a trademark? First, find out if your product name is already in use in the same category and domain. You can run a web search, or if you’re based in the United States, you can check the USPTO website.
If the product name already exists, a trademark attorney can tell you if your product is different enough from the existing one to warrant usage of the same name. Do note that names that reflect the product’s usage alone, such as Bubble Bath Bomb or Foaming Shampoo may not be considered unique enough for the patent office to grant usage rights to you.
Then, you can decide if your product caters more to the local audience or the global public, and get a State or National trademark registered accordingly. Once your company is large enough, you can register your trademark internationally too, and a trademark attorney is qualified to help you do this.
Once you submit your application, it may take up to a year or more to get your trademark registered. The Patent Office may, in this period of time, ask you for more details, a different sample or even ask you to edit some of the attributes you mention.
2. Community management and verified social accounts
Having an active and verifiable presence on social media that includes a community management initiative can help maintain trust in your brand and combat fraudsters.
Use your social media channels as a medium for communicating with and keeping in touch with your customers, always striving to attend to their complaints and queries across platforms.
Facebook pages can be owned and operated by anyone under any name. However, the pages that actually belong to a brand can be verified and earn a blue checkmark next to them.
By having a public page for your brand, posting content on it on a frequent basis, you can earn that checkmark and be certified as the original brand owner.
3. Develop brand guidelines
Most brands rely on a style guide or a brand guide to maintain uniformity in communication.
When multiple people handle brand communications across platforms, a guide serves as a reference for communicating in one voice. Develop a brand guide that will be used by all consumer-facing personnel, today and in the future to keep your brand consistent across every touchpoint.
For inspiration, check out this example from Stockroom.io.
Keep the following in mind as you develop a brand guideline of your own:
- As the business owner, what do you want to communicate to your customers? At the very outset, tell your employees what you want them to tell your customers.
- Use the brand guide from a company or publisher you admire. Tried and tested guides are always the best, and they work.
- A brand guide is only ever a guide and not a rigid rulebook. Don’t penalize yourself, and your people, for not sticking to it every single time.
- Make your brand guide short and full of visual detail—this improves the chances of people reading it.
- Assign someone to regularly review the guide and replace elements that aren’t working with ones that hopefully will. This person will also be responsible for communicating changes to the rest of your team.
4. Define and use your logo consistently
A logo is the most important visual element of your brand identity. Even the simplest of logos has meaning and purpose, and is therefore a way for customers to connect with you. Will you ever forget Apple’s logo?
Since they have such a huge visual impact, you cannot go about changing your logo too often. If you do this, your customers don’t know what your brand ‘looks’ like, and are that much more susceptible to fraud.
When you design a logo, think about what message you want the logo to convey. What do the colors represent? Is the message quick to connect with? Does a similar logo already exist?
If you have more than one version of the same logo, define where each one of them is to be used, and why. As much as possible, stick to just one version. Use this logo on your stationery, social media pages, across marketing campaigns and on all of your products.
If you procure your products from a vendor and then sell them to customers, your packaging can still advertise your brand. Stamp your logo on everything—boxes, covers, labels, and shopping bags.
5. React immediately to brand infringement
If someone has copied your brand identity, try to figure out which country the perpetrator belongs to. Through your corporate lawyer or legal team, send out a Cease and Desist order. If the perpetrator does not respond to these requests, legal recourse can then follow.
Be prepared for a long battle ahead, especially if the perpetrator is operating from a country other than where you reside or where your business is registered. Finland, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore are among the top ten countries where IP laws are the strongest, and are taken most seriously. The United States ranks in at number 15.
6. Build a strong brand presence
A strong brand presence is its own best protection against imposters. For example, very few scammers would sell a burger under the McDonald's trade name, because most people know exactly what experience to associate with these products. The more you invest in the consumer experience across all of your brand's touchpoints, the harder it will be to imitate.
As your business continues to grow, be in constant touch with your customers, while also weeding out those who try and replicate your brand identity online.
Protecting your brand identity as you scale
Most early-stage retailers get preoccupied with sales and scalability, but building and protecting the brand identity is important at this stage to discourage and prevent fraudsters and trolls from harming your brand.
Now that you know the many different means trolls may employ and how to counter them, we hope that you will be able to implement the pointers listed above and protect your brand from identity theft.
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About The Author
Mohammed Ali is the Founder and CEO of Primaseller—a MultiChannel Inventory Management software that also helps sellers build brand credibility by ensuring that accurate stock information is reflected across sales channels and orders are fulfilled on time. When not running a startup, Ali is often caught lapping up the latest book in fantasy fiction.