Brand Protection

    Brand Safety and IP Infringement in the Digital Era

    Since the rise of digital marketing, criminal hackers have infringed a large and diverse number of brands’ copyrights, trademarks and IP, creating a skyrocketing need for a culture of brand protection.

    by Alex Bender

    Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles by marketing SVP Alex Bender about brand safety and brand protection from a senior marketer's perspective. Brand safety has always been part of a brand’s defensive marketing strategy, even before the label “brand safety” emerged, and the rise of digital marketing has empowered criminal hackers to steal money or information from brands, eroding customers' trust in them. Now, marketers must recognize the need to protect their brands, and build a culture of brand protection at every level of their organizations. 

    Fellow marketers, arise and smell the coffee! Cybercriminals are duping your most loyal customers and damaging your brand affinity in the process – and you don’t even know it.

    Marketing teams have long recognized the need to protect their brand’s reputation, trademarks and copyrights “IRL” – in the traditional, “real” world. But the digital era complicates things. Brand safety is no longer about just making sure advertisements appear in appropriate places. Today, brand safety must incorporate efforts to combat rampant brand impersonation and phishing emails that trick unsuspecting, trusting customers into engaging with malicious content.

    Even as customers show growing affinity for brands with ethical purposes and demonstrable social responsibility, brands are harder-pressed than ever before to fulfill their moral obligation to protect customers, maintain trust, and safeguard brand equity. It’s time for marketers to join forces with their organizations’ security professionals to work together to forge sustainable post-modern brand safety strategies.

    Brand Safety in a Pre-Internet World

    Brand protection efforts actually go back to the days of sword-forging Roman blacksmiths, who used nascent forms of trademarks to protect their crafts long before the concepts of trademark law, brand equity and brand safety emerged. In the last century, brand safety meant marketers regularly monitoring public media to track their brands’ associations with harmful content like bad press, poor product placement, content piracy and other forms of copyright and trademark infringement – all in the name of preserving the intangible economic value associated with their brands.

    Digital Marketing Inspires New Ways to Exploit and Hijack Brands

    Digital technology has revolutionized traditional marketing, letting brands engage with customers better and more deeply. Digital tech has also enabled marketers to focus on avoiding bad content, maintaining reach, delivering the right message, and providing relevant content at the opportune time.

    Brand safety encapsulates a broad spectrum of issues for today’s modern marketer. Staying well-informed of the many problems facing a brand is a constant effort, and given how rapidly the digital landscape has evolved, the pressure is on marketers to deliver results at scale without jeopardizing brand equity.

    But the bigger the digital footprint, the bigger the digital risks. Criminal hackers have used the digital realm as a medium to infringe upon a large and diverse number of brands’ copyrights, trademarks, and intellectual property in order to steal money or information from people whose very brand loyalty makes them unduly trusting.

    And trust is at the heart of many customer-brand relationships. In a 2015 study conducted by the Columbia Business School, 80% of consumers were willing to share personal information – their address, phone number, name, and date of birth – to earn rewards points, even if they were not required to.[1]

    Extrapolating from that data shows why customers can so easily fall for phishing attacks that exploit a trusted brand’s likeness – potentially damaging consumer-brand trust and tarnishing brand equity. Online brand impersonators are pirating your content and copyrights to take advantage of that trust and exploit your brand without your knowledge.

    Thus, marketers’ brand safety shields must correspondingly widen to defend against additional risks, such as:

    Domain spoofing and cybersquatting: Cyberattackers intentionally register domain names to mimic legitimate sources, copying brand imagery to trick unsuspecting victims and steal their credentials, drop malware onto their system, or harvest personal information that can then be sold.

    Phishing attacks: Emails appear to come from a legitimate brand, perhaps offering a flash sale or shipping information for a product never ordered but linking to a download or website that drops malware or steals their information.

    Social media impersonation: Bad actors can create social media accounts to impersonate brands, interact with customers, and make seemingly legitimate posts. In some cases, these social interactions might include links to spoofed websites. In others, impersonators might strive to tarnish a brand’s reputation.

    Search engine phishing: An estimated 54% of organic clicks go to the top three search results, and very few people make it past the first results page.[2] Bad actors can hijack search engine advertising campaigns and search engine optimization strategies to direct customers away from legitimate sources – causing your brand to lose valuable traffic and compete against your own branded keywords. Meanwhile, your customers might end up with counterfeit goods or end up on a malicious website that harvests their credit card information.

    Counterfeit sales: Studies have found that about a quarter of online shoppers, globally, have unintentionally purchased a counterfeit product.[3] And a 2018 survey from IFOP found that 47% of French consumers who had bought a trademark infringing product had typed the name of the product into a search engine.[4] As of early 2019, fake goods made up 3.3% of global trade.[5] Not only do fake goods present issues with trademarks and copyrights, they can lead to potential health and safety risks for customers.

    COVID-19 Has Accelerated Digital Marketing – and Increased Cybercrime

    The shift to digital marketing has been intensified by COVID-19, with many companies jumping to supplement – and even replace – traditional storefront models with digital ones. And customers are shifting to digital, too: digital sales grew by 18% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.[6]

    Naturally, the shift to digital commerce has brought in new waves of criminal hackers taking advantage of not only the digital environment, but global panic. In the first 100 days of coronavirus alone, impersonation attacks jumped by 30.3%, according to Mimecast research.  The retail industry was hit particularly hard by domain spoofing that aimed to steal from innocent panic-buyers looking to purchase necessities online.

    With stay-at-home orders in place, Mimecast researchers found over 500 suspicious domains imitating popular streaming platforms, enticing users with “free” subscriptions in order to harvest credentials. It’s highly likely people fell for the tricks, given the trust statistic from Columbia Business School cited above. Layer on fear, anxiety, unemployment and boredom, and people became even more likely to click.

    Brands Must Begin to Monitor Digital Infringement in All Possible Channels

    Given the surge of digital marketing – and the accompanying cyber risks for brands and their loyal customers – there is an undeniable need for brands to adapt analog defensive marketing strategies to their new digital world. The issue of brand-customer trust has been reshaped by data, phishing attacks, and the proliferation of counterfeit goods.

    But according to the World Trademark Review, “Considerable investment goes into designing hard-to-duplicate packaging, supply chain management, and other brand protection strategies in the physical world. However, a more comprehensive brand protection strategy – linked to your risk management framework and corporate policies – is needed to safeguard brands across both digital and physical channels.”[7]

    In other words, brand protection strategies can no longer simply protect the brand, they must protect customers and stakeholders in order to uphold a brand’s reputation. Notably, brands that fail to safeguard trust will likely face existential threats that will impact market value and customer loyalty, according to Deloitte’s 2020 Global Marketing Trends report.[8]

    Online brand protection solutions must constantly monitor the internet, and they must be able to shut down illegitimate brand impersonating sites, phishing attempts, counterfeit product listings, and social media spoofs before damage is done.

    The Bottom Line

    Brands have an ethical obligation to keep their customers safe, and a fiduciary obligation to safeguard their reputation. As phishing emails and brand impersonation attacks have become much more commonplace, with the repercussions growing more serious, it’s no longer enough for marketers to focus on simply avoiding bad content or providing valuable content to customers and prospects at the right time. Phishing email and brand impersonation might not cause the same level of sales displacement as counterfeit goods, but any time a brand’s likeness is exploited by cyberattackers, brand safety is on the line. Marketers should treat online brand exploitation with the same level of gravitas as they do brand impersonation in the physical world.


    [1]What is the Future of Data Sharing?, Columbia Business School

    [2] The Comprehensive Guide to Economic Damages, Nevium

    [3]2020 Brand protection in the digital world,” The World Trademark Review

    [4] The French and the dangers of counterfeiting, IFOP

    [5]Trade in fake goods is now 3.3% of world trade and rising,” OECD

    [6]Changing consumer, digital marketing and impact of Covid-19,” Deloitte

    [7]2020 Brand protection in the digital world,” The World Trademark Review

    [8] 2020 Global Marketing Trends, Deloitte

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