See no evil, hear no evil

Industry Attitudes: Marketers have surprisingly informal approaches to online brand protection and only worry about the threats they can see, according to Marketing Week’s research. They should be more concerned about the ones they can’t, writes Michael Barnett.

Handbags

As online commerce continues to grow, so does the number of counterfeiters, fraudsters and brand hijackers lurking in the darkest recesses of the web. Yet few marketers appear to be losing sleep over these online threats, according to new Marketing Week research into their attitudes towards brand protection.

They should perhaps be suffering more sleepless nights, because as one marketing executive in the travel and leisure industry points out in response to the survey, “online counterfeits are becoming harder to track and monitor”. Nearly 20 times more complaints are now received annually by the Internet Crime Complaint Center than in 2000.

So are marketers being justifiably confident or recklessly complacent about the online security of their brands and their customers?

On many questions of brand protection, marketers as a group seem content to sit on the fence, but without admitting outright that they don’t know where they stand. Asked how confident they are that their brands are well protected from infringement online, half say they are quite confident, while 31 per cent say they are not very confident. Just 11 per cent are very confident, while less than 1 per cent are not confident at all.

A similar distribution of answers – clumped in the middle of the spectrum – is in evidence when marketers are asked to rate their own understanding of the issues around online brand protection, and that of their employer. On both questions the most popular answer is “quite good”, however only 13 per cent say their own knowledge is very good, and more than half rate it as average or worse. They barely deem the brands they work for to be more clued up than they are.

Even in spite of this relative modesty, the majority of marketers still insist – somewhat dubiously – that brand protection couldn’t be a bigger priority for their organisations. Just over half the survey respondents claim the topic is very important to their marketing strategies, and nearly a third say it is quite important, leaving only a small minority who say they take it less seriously.

However one survey respondent, a marketing executive, points out just what a complex task brand protection is, and how much constant attention it requires: “With so many different platforms out there that the public can use to view businesses, it is going to be important to keep on top of all of them, to ensure they are all up to date and that any external infringements are taken care of.”

In most cases it seems that the approaches brands take to online infringement are quite informal. Marketers were asked to indicate how their brands monitor, enforce and budget for brand protection, and most often, marketing departments take the lead in all three areas. A significant minority of respondents (34 per cent) say in-house legal teams have a role in taking enforcement action against infringements.

Lack of information

In general, though, confusion reigns among marketers when answering these questions. On their monitoring, enforcement and budgeting, around a quarter say there is no formal policy for each. At least a quarter of respondents fail to tick any boxes to indicate their budgeting procedures, suggesting that they aren’t willing or able to say who controls the budget, or even if one exists.

One managing director at a consultancy describes a situation that appears to be relatively common, especially among small brands: “Most of our clients are micro-businesses so don’t have a department to deal with these issues. They are just doing the best they can with the in-house resources they have, which are usually minimal.”

In many instances, it seems that companies believe occasionally searching Google using common brand keywords is enough to protect them. Other ad-hoc approaches specified by marketers include using Google alerts to indicate when a new result for the brand appears on the search engine’s index, and combing social media sites for mentions.

Answers from a marketer at a major financial brand indicate that processes are no more developed at some of the country’s biggest corporate businesses. They claim that the employer has no formal policy in place for monitoring, enforcing or budgeting for brand protection, despite having actually encountered seven out of 11 forms of brand infringement specified by the survey.

In fact, the marketer claims that the employer doesn’t just take an informal approach to monitoring, but does none whatsoever. The respondent rates the brand’s awareness of the relevant issues as very poor, reflecting the risks this brand could be taking – not only with its own intellectual property but with its customers’ financial details.

The most common form of brand infringement that marketers say they have encountered is unwarranted negative comment on social media. This has been seen by 39 per cent of respondents, twice as many as the next most common answer, false claims of affiliation by other organisations. These are also the two threats that are of the greatest concern to the marketers who haven’t yet encountered them.

Surface concerns

The fact that these are also two of the most visible and easily detected of the 11 specified forms of infringement suggests that marketers are more worried about what they can see than about what they can’t. Only 13 per cent have noticed counterfeits of their products illegally on sale, and 55 per cent believe the issue is not a concern, although this could be skewed by respondents who do not work for product brands.

At any rate, if their only monitoring efforts involve googling keywords, marketers could be simply unaware of thriving ‘black’ and ‘grey’ markets for their goods and services – especially as other websites could be using other, less predictable search keywords to take traffic away from the brand.

Marketers’ focus on the obvious is borne out by the measures that they consider to be their brand protection priorities. Reduced reputational risk is the number one objective, with 44 per cent of respondents scoring this five out of five for importance. Comments on social media appear to preoccupy marketers – ironically, since this is one area where active intervention is liable to make matters worse.

Ensuring that affiliate marketing partners comply with guidelines receives relatively little attention, as 62 per cent of marketers rate its importance as three or below on the five-point scale. This could be a significant oversight, since affiliates could well be using the same or similar search keywords as the brands they promote to attract traffic to their websites. Affiliates will charge brands a commission for every visitor they send to them, meaning that marketers could be spending money to bring in people from partner sites that they ought to be able to attract themselves.

Indeed, an online gaming site’s head of advertising argues that traffic diversion is “by far” the biggest issue of brand protection for the coming year, adding to marketing costs and detracting from potential revenues. “Without enforcement and stringent management, search engine optimisation spend will skyrocket, and our brand will be pushed down in the rankings.”

Unlike obsessing about social media, cracking down on this can have a quantifiable effect that impacts on both costs and sales. But it requires a more sophisticated level of detection than most brands are currently devoting to it.

How important is brand protection for your marketing?

Very important: 52%

Quite important: 32%

Not very important: 12%

Not at all important: 1%

Don’t know: 3%

Sponsored viewpoint: Simon Jackson, chief commercial officer, NetNames

It seems few marketing departments use a specialist to monitor infringements, preferring to do it in-house. That surprises me because of the effort, resources and technology that are required to monitor and control online brand abuse. Consequently, marketers only see the tip of the iceberg and not the spectrum of threats facing their business. For example, if a brand owns 200 domain names, in most cases there will be at least the same number that divert traffic to rogue affiliates, competitors or criminals whose intention it is to steal your sales.

Our research suggests that, on average, at least 20 per cent of a brand’s online traffic is being diverted away from its websites. Brand owners don’t usually own or monitor all the domains they need to (burberry — outletonline.com, for example), leaving the way clear for brand abuse.

In addition, the introduction of generic top-level domains (gTLDs), for example www.yourbrand.restaurant, means there will soon be another 1,390 potential domain extensions available to register. We are advising companies to expect a large-scale domain name landgrab and to agree a domain name strategy to secure the web addresses crucial to defending and growing their online business.

Online brand protection is also becoming more complex to enforce as the majority of infringing product listings originate from Asia and nearly three-quarters of counterfeit or diverted products relating to our clients appear on one Chinese marketplace. To action these infringements online, brand protection specialists such as NetNames must engage with the local marketplace and domain registrars to comply with each site’s often complex requirements, in the local language.

Most marketers encounter brand abuse on social media. This is because it is highly visible. Unlike counterfeiting, affiliate abuse or traffic diversion, discovering brand abuse on social media does not require a large degree of sophistication. However, abuse on social media is notoriously difficult to enforce against because people have a right to share their opinions via social channels.

Ultimately, the sophistication of cyber criminals has increased at the same speed, if not faster, than the growth of online sales. Detection, analysis and actionable enforcement are critical to protecting and growing a brand’s online business. Ultimately, if brands can’t see who’s attacking them online, it is impossible to take action to resolve the problem.

About this survey

  • This research was carried out in January 2013 among readers of Marketing Week and visitors to our website, MarketingWeek.co.uk.
  • Of the respondents, 63 per cent work in an organisation with more than 50 employees, 25 per cent work for organisations with more than 1,000 employees and 14 per cent work in companies with over 5,000 employees.
  • Marketers from a variety of sectors responded to this survey: 11 per cent are from not-for-profit organisations, 8 per cent are from public sector companies and 7 per cent are from technology companies.
  • All results in the article have been rounded up or down to the nearest full percentage point. Not all tables add up to 100 per cent, as more than one answer may be given.

Key findings

  • Most marketers are quite confident their brands are protected online, but only 11 per cent are very confident, suggesting that they’re sitting on the fence.
  • Similarly, only 13 per cent say their understanding of brand protection is very good and 12 per cent say the same about their brand. The majority rate their knowledge as average or worse.
  • Marketers are most concerned about the things that are most easily detected. Reputation is their key concern, and they think the biggest risk is from comments on social media.
  • Only 13 per cent of marketers are aware of counterfeits of their brands’ products being sold illegally online, and 55 per cent say counterfeits are not a concern for them.
  • Marketing departments are generally responsible for brand protection, however 30 per cent of respondents admit they have no formal policy governing how they monitor, enforce and budget for it.

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