The Internet is all about opportunities, freedom and boundless communication. People and companies all over the planet are connected as never before. To put it simply, the Internet means new perspectives. Unfortunately, it is equally about risk. While a brand can reach people around the globe, it also faces major problems, such as online counterfeiting and piracy. Entrepreneurs and businesses should not undertake online activities with naivety. Without an integrated online brand protection strategy – one that looks at your online platform as individual segments – you are missing important factors that will help to protect your brand effectively.

A single listing containing a counterfeit item on an online marketplace is not necessarily your most immediate and highest priority. However, closer inspection of the seller may reveal a social media profile that has thousands of followers and web shops that rank on the first pages of a search engine. High-volume sales are involved, the brand’s reputation is at risk and your priorities must shift.

Some infringers definitely deserve credit. One could say that they are outstanding marketing experts. Counterfeiters know how to reach a target group. They have a wide presence on all conceivable social media platforms and marketplaces. They successfully maintain blogs and comment in forums. They have extensive email campaigns that reach thousands of people. They are search engine optimisation masters and their web shops have professional high page rankings. Nevertheless, the most important aspect of their marketing is pricing. Overall, infringers are hard to beat. To tackle these often highly professional and skilled frauds successfully, companies must redefine their online brand protection approaches. Attacking the problem in a one-dimensional way is no longer sufficient.

An effective strategy starts with the realisation that when it comes to counterfeiting and piracy, the Internet must be divided into four different segments – social media profiles, domain and web shops, online marketplace sellers and search engines. Each segment should have its own unique strategy to monitor and stop damaging offers. By connecting the dots between the four different segments, you can get an overview of all activities. This makes it easier to focus on the sellers that are most damaging. With an overview of what is happening online, it becomes possible to prioritise and immediately initiate the actions necessary to take down and stop the complete sales channel.

Four segments

Within a solid online brand protection strategy, the Internet should be divided into the following segments:

  • domains and web shops;
  • online marketplaces;
  • social media platforms; and
  • search engines.

Domains and web shops

Many consider rogue web shops and cybersquatters to be the most damaging segment of the Internet. Brand experts are trained to see when domains are selling counterfeit products at a glance. Can consumers tell the difference between genuine and counterfeit products as well? Web shops are set up to deceive consumers and gain their trust, while cybersquatters abuse the popularity of brands to gain personal profit.

Segment challenge and how it is connected: Infringers manage large networks of URLs, which often contain brand trademarks in order to get higher page rankings and increase traffic and sales. This is where the importance of segmenting the Internet comes in. A standalone website that is not indexed by a search engine or promoted through another platform is not that harmful. However, website owners use the other segments to generate traffic to their website and are successful in doing so. By taking action against the website and identifying the complete sales channel, it is possible to make a difference. The site will shut down or become invisible to consumers. It will lose traffic, sales and profitability.

Online marketplaces

Worldwide, there are hundreds of online marketplaces containing millions of products for sale. This is a place where demand and offer come together. Authorised retailers are competing with counterfeiters on the same platforms. Genuine and counterfeit products are published next to each other and consumers look for the most affordable choice. With this unfair competition, pricing strategies and premium brands are under pressure. China-based platforms are particularly well known for having a high volume of counterfeit products.

Segment challenge and how it is connected: On most platforms it is easier to place a counterfeit product for sale than to convince a platform to remove infringing content and block sellers. Infringers can easily create new accounts and thus the problem continues. Therefore, it is key to detect repeat infringers and high-volume sellers. Once detected, brand protection strategies must include a method for identifying and prioritising these sellers. The best way to start is by looking for ‘fingerprints’, such as product descriptions, pictures, phone numbers and referrals to social media profiles and web shops.

Social media platforms

Reaching a large group of consumers on social media is easy, fast and cheap. For many infringers, it is the number one reason for using social media. A profile can be shared, ‘liked’ and become popular overnight. Infringers are in direct contact with consumers. Sales are made easily. Therefore, it is essential to know what is happening and take immediate action.

Segment challenge and how it is connected: Many social media platforms are private and closed groups. As an outsider of such a group, it is hard to search and identify infringing content, let alone find the most damaging profiles. However, infringers trying to make serious money want people to know that they are out there. They will advertise on online marketplaces and other platforms to generate traffic and sales. With an integrated strategy that covers all of the segments, it is possible to identify and infiltrate damaging and private networks.

Search engines

If you are looking for a product or service, where do you start? Nine out of 10 times you start searching online, through a search engine. The first few pages of the search results are of great importance. What can you find in the organic results and who is placing paid ads? Rogue web shops mentioned within the first few pages are extremely damaging because they are mentioned right next to the brand owner’s site and authorised retailers. Preventing this from happening and ensuring that at least the first few pages are clean must be among the top priorities of any enforcement strategy.

Segment challenge and how it is connected: Search engines must be considered in your enforcement strategy. They index and refer to what is placed elsewhere. It is important to determine the visibility of web shops, profiles or listings and prioritise on the basis of that information. Your action should be two-dimensional. Get actual infringing content removed and report it directly to the search engine so that it becomes invisible.

Importance of a comprehensive strategy

Why is it so important to have a strategy in place that covers and analyses all of the segments? As a company at risk of infringers and pirates, it is important to collect 100% of the online offer of your products. Taking down a single listing from an online marketplace is easy. However, by identifying, prioritising and getting insights into the total sales channel of a seller, you can make a difference and better protect your brand. By collecting information on all products for sale online and identifying the largest sellers, a company can obtain detailed information on who is selling its brand.

Do you allow authorised retailers to be active on online marketplaces? If so, these offers are unlikely to be infringing. If these retailers advertise many thousands of products, then why spend hours a day trying to determine whether their offers are counterfeit? You should not only pinpoint the counterfeit products for sale, but also carefully identify the third parties selling the goods: are you dealing with a counterfeit seller, refurbisher, second-hand seller, grey importer or authorised retailer?

Effective brand protection strategies must have insights into the full scope of what happens online and use all available eyes and ears. With software, it is possible to collect all online offers. Further, by using your sales representatives – who are in touch with the market every day, talking with the people who will feel the damage of counterfeits the most (ie, retailers and end users) – you will get an extra flow of highly valuable information. Often, this information is only a snippet of what is out there. However, through correct data collection, you can reverse engineer that small piece of information and discover many infringing activities. If you do discover infringing activity, take immediate action and regain control of the market and your relationship with your clients. The best way to engage your company as a whole is to provide information on how to recognise counterfeit products and where to find authorised retailers on your website, intranet and internal communication. Create awareness and engage people by making reporting easy and simple.

Take down or investigate

Prioritised counterfeiters should be stopped as quickly as possible. Below are some of the ways in which counterfeiters can be stopped:

  • Report and block all posts, listings and profiles that are infringing your intellectual property and report them to the platform that manages the content.
  • Send cease and desist orders to website owners and hosting providers.
  • Notify payment service providers, registrars and registries.
  • Send a copyright infringement notice to the different search engines.

Sending a notice and taking down the web shop is not always the most appropriate action, particularly when there are indications of high-volume sales and large stock on hand. Removing the online content will not stop infringers. They have made a big investment and are making serious money, which is something that they will not give up quickly. To avoid detection, infringers will change their usernames, phone numbers and other personal details. They will go underground and communicate with clients directly, through undetectable means. Thus, in order to stop such infringers, it is often best to monitor and investigate them. Collect phone numbers, possible addresses and usernames. Conduct test purchases and build a case. Inform law enforcement, organise a raid or take other legal action. It is vital to obtain personal information about the suppliers. Bulk sellers and importers are rarely active online. They are extremely careful about who they do business with, particularly when they know that the brand owner is well organised and watching. To get to the bulk sellers and importers, you often need to start your investigation with the smallest seller. Reverse engineer the information in your database, investigate and generate a clean sweep by taking down the whole supply chain. Online brand protection is successful only with an investigative perspective in mind.

Intelligence is the most valuable asset you can get from online brand protection. It is critical to have access to real-time information and analysis. Companies need to know what is happening with their brands every day and it is possible to achieve this with online brand protection tools, such as monitoring and enforcement software that collects data. Today’s software solutions can filter out counterfeit offers from genuine offers by using advanced risk analysis and algorithms. They can provide insights into the largest sellers per day, where they are located and what platforms they use. Protection tools can also provide accurate data on what products are for sale and the price of these products, as well as seller reports, including detailed information about each seller, groups of domains that have the same website owner and overviews of web shops selling counterfeit items. On social media platforms, these tools can be used to identify profiles with many ‘likes’ and connections in order to detect and stop trademark infringements. Based on these facts, enforcement efforts and budgets can be allocated efficiently.

It is essential in an effective online brand protection strategy to monitor and segment the Internet into online marketplaces, web shops, social media and search engines. If you are not already doing so, you should start today.

Jan Maarten Laurijssen.

This article first appeared in World Trademark Review. For further information please visit www.worldtrademarkreview.com.