The growth of internet usage worldwide, while clearly an opportunity for brands, is also proving to be a useful tool for counterfeiters. Brand abuse on social media has risen sharply in recent years and is especially notable in the sale of counterfeit products. Red Points’ detection software saw a four-fold increase in counterfeit sports merchandise from 2015 to 2017.
What happens to brands that turn a blind eye to growing social media threat?
Loss of sales is perhaps the biggest fear brands face when it comes to protection against counterfeiting. If someone can come along and trick customers into buying a knock-off version of a legitimate product at a greatly reduced price, or simply offer them something that is clearly fake but is too good an offer for customers to pass up, then sales will take a considerable hit.
A brand’s reputation is at stake, as well as the trust that customers place in that brand. If customers doubt a product’s authenticity when they see it for sale online, those same customers will become anxious about purchasing such product at all. If a brand is known to be a target for counterfeiters, and that brand’s trademarked names are not viewed as a sign of authenticity, the brand’s customers will likely look elsewhere. This is the danger that brand abuse brings and is the reason why brand protection is vital.
Why brand abusers flock to social media
Why has social media become so problematic for brands in recent years? What is so enticing to brand abusers and attracts so much counterfeiting in so short a time? There are a number of reasons for this sudden diversification of counterfeiting strategy.
IP rights enforcement on online marketplaces
Online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and Alibaba Group have considerably improved their IP rights enforcement tools. Since earning a reputation for selling counterfeits on their websites, these platforms have taken steps to facilitate the protection that they offer to brands.
Amazon and eBay both launched tools which allow brands to easily upload IP documentation, and to use them to report and remove counterfeit products from the websites in a more streamlined manner than previously. Further, the Alibaba Anti-counterfeiting Alliance was set up as a way for companies using the platform as a sales channel to work together to fight online counterfeiting.
As these platforms tightened their IP rights enforcement, counterfeiters faced a decision: stick with these websites and continue to spam illegal listings or diversify. Those that chose to diversify have, in large part, found social media to be the perfect channel to sell fakes and have found success through the move.
Huge user base
It is no secret that social media has exploded in popularity over the past decade. According to Statista statistics, the numbers of active users of the social media platforms that should be concerning brand owners are as follows:
- Facebook (2.2 billion active users) – with Facebook Marketplace built into the world’s largest social media platform, the threat of brand abuse is enormous (eg, 46.3% of detections of counterfeit football shirts in 2017 came from Facebook).
- WhatsApp (1.5 billion active users) – the most popular messaging app on the market, built around an encrypted privacy platform, is seeing a growing problem of users buying and selling counterfeits within private groups.
- WeChat (1.1 billion active users) – the WhatsApp of China, WeChat’s add-on features (of which there are more than 500,000) allow users to register as a seller on online marketplaces, find customers and pay in-app with WeChat Pay, making the app a credible tool for counterfeiters and a threat to brand protection.
- Instagram (1 billion active users) – Instagram is so deeply infiltrated by counterfeiters that a 2016 study into social media and counterfeit luxury goods found that around 20% of Instagram posts by designer fashion brands feature comments that lead to counterfeit or suspicious items.
- Reddit (330 million active users) – the online content aggregator has an extremely active and diverse user base of anonymous accounts. It is home to certain communities that should concern brands, including replica fashion aficionados.
- Telegram (200 million users) – Telegram has become a favoured WhatsApp alternative for tech-focused users, but also for copyright pirates, since the app hosts vast channels of users which allow the downloading of a huge volume of copyrighted material, including novels, academic papers and magazines.
Consumers willing to trust social media ads
Findings from Red Points research into designer fashion, athletic footwear and wristwatches, among others, show that users are overwhelmingly willing to make purchases from ads, comments and posts seen on social media. The reason behind this has not yet been made clear, though it is apparent that consumers are widely unaware of the presence of fake products being sold on social media, as well as the potential harm that these products can cause.
Social media platforms provide free marketing tools, enhancing ability and opportunity to find the ideal audience. These segmentation tools allow audience filtering by geographical area, industry, gender, interests and other divisions, as well as paid targeting features for counterfeiting operations with money to spend. The tools are far greater than anything counterfeiters had access to before the growth of the Internet, and offer more aid than many of the other online marketplaces.
Privacy and anonymity
Social media platforms require little to no verification of personal details to create accounts. This means that accounts can be created quickly, usually requiring only an email address. When an infringer’s account is taken down for reported brand abuse, it is simple for the infringer to create a new account and start afresh.
Privacy features essentially turn sections of social media into dens for online thieves. Secret and private groups offering counterfeit products for sale can be difficult for brands or law enforcement to access. Many brand abusers will join such groups but not actually post on them. Rather, they will stick to directly messaging group members, as this is a more difficult way to identify counterfeiters.
The anonymity of these platforms also makes it extremely difficult for real-world legal consequences to reach brand abusers. Accounts will be removed eventually, but there is little long-term punishment for such activities and very little deterrent for those starting out.
Counterfeiters have taken to following posts from authentic brands and leaving links to their own fake stores and pages in the comments. Research from BrandBastion identified a huge number of Instagram posts for luxury brands containing links to counterfeit products for sale, many of which are a significant threat to the brands themselves.
The reason behind the effectiveness of this scam is clear: consumers following these pages see the high-end products and then immediately see offers for greatly discounted fakes. At best, consumers receive low-quality and possibly dangerous knock-off products; at worst, they are caught in phishing scams.
Despite Google’s clear policies, fake reviews remain a growing concern for brands online. Online reviews are extremely important for many brands, and a reputation can be tarnished overnight by competitors, disgruntled employees or internet trolls looking to harm a brand.
Privacy and anonymity play a significant role. A string of one-star reviews on Google or another such site is extremely difficult to identify as false, so in many cases, the brand must simply suffer the poor reviews and work on improving their rating with authentic, happy customers.
While profiles for anonymous individuals can be set up with little trouble, creating social media accounts impersonating a brand is much more difficult. However, it still happens and can cause a real headache for brands.
Many companies will have multiple accounts on a single social media site. These may be set up to interact with customers in different countries or who use other languages, for sub-brands or simply to interact with customers in different ways. Whatever the reason, these pages should be carefully monitored and ideally kept to a low number. The more official pages that exist, the easier it can be for impersonators to confuse social media users.
A more subtle version of this is username squatting – the social media equivalent of cybersquatting or trademark squatting. Accounts may be set up using any of a company’s officially trademarked names without actually setting up an impersonating account. These may still draw traffic away from legitimate pages and should be dealt with as seriously as fraudulent pages.
Despite these issues, social media is not a lost cause for brands, and it is certainly not an area of the Internet that can be ignored. There are strategies available to regain control of brand names and reputation on these platforms, even when the problem may appear overwhelming.
Commanding presence on social media
It should be clear to everyone that an authentic brand is genuine with a well-managed page on each major platform, making it as difficult as possible for counterfeiters to confuse followers. It is advisable for a brand to manage its own social media pages as well as possible:
- Be active and communicative – more brands are learning the value of interacting well with social media followers each day, and it can play a significant part in brand protection. Not only will it draw in more followers, thus developing overall brand value, but it will also make it almost impossible for social media users to confuse an impersonating brand with the authentic profile.
- Mark pages with the ‘verified’ label available on many social media platforms – the mark is seen as a small tick on Twitter and Instagram. If a single, dominant profile on a platform does not establish a profile as authentic, a verified account will.
- Link pages and profiles across social media, as well as official websites – for example, a Facebook user may also want to see a brand’s Instagram account. Ensure that this process is as simple as a link on each page.
If a brand sells online, these pages can also be used to direct traffic to online shops or online promotional pages. Even if a brand does not sell online, information about that brand’s authentic bricks-and-mortar shops and retailers can be posted on social media. The point is for it to be easy for customers to buy the legitimate versions of products and not to be tricked by counterfeiters.
Monitor and claim relevant page/profile names
On-platform reporting tools
Social media platforms have processes available allowing brands to report abuses of their intellectual property. They are not available at the level of eBay, Amazon and other online marketplaces yet, but these platforms are compliant. Finding and reporting instances of counterfeiting is where the bulk of online brand protection work is focused.
Brand abusers can create fake profiles on social media to remain anonymous, but brands can use these anonymity features to their own advantage. The private groups that serve counterfeiters so well can be infiltrated, and brand abusers on the inside can be found and properly reported.
As important as it is for companies to protect their brands on social media, it can be equally difficult to track how well it is being done. The value of brand protection can be hard to quantify and may sometimes appear to have little effect on brand value. However, there are ways to measure success.
Follower numbers and social media engagement
A commanding brand presence on social media is important. Improvements can be tracked through the growing number of followers, interactions and positioning on search results pages, while the health of a social media profile can be monitored. The better a profile is doing, the more difficult it is for brand impersonation to occur.
Increased market share and sales
Protecting a brand on social media will help to protect sales from being stolen by counterfeiters. However, this will be no overnight victory. If a brand is being targeted by abusers and counterfeiters, it will take time for sales figures to improve. The difficulty here is seeing sales grow as a result of brand protection, especially if a brand is looking to monitor the effect through social media.
It is impossible to protect a brand so well that counterfeit products, stolen media and IP infringements cease entirely. Brand abusers will not give in if there is a potential to make money from counterfeiting or victims can be found for scams.
However, brands can make it as difficult as possible for brand abusers to infringe their intellectual property. Each instance of brand abuse stopped on social media is a small victory, but part of a larger, continuing brand protection process.
Demonstrating to counterfeiters that a brand is well protected across all platforms will act as a strong deterrent. To find and remove every fake product and case of brand abuse online before it can affect a brand is nearly impossible. But a brand can show brand abusers that it is dedicated to protecting its intellectual property everywhere, and that infringements will be met with enforcement. If a brand proves to be enough of a headache, infringers will decide that it is not worth it and will turn to easier targets.