Marketers' brand safety strategies should expand to embrace online brand impersonation in collaboration with corporate cybersecurity teams.

Key Points:

  • Online brand impersonation is rampant, and cybercriminals regularly trick brand-loyal customers into falling for scams, revealing sensitive information and downloading malware.
  • Brand safety involves much more than counterfeit goods and IP infringement in the physical world.
  • Customer trust and brand equity are at stake – and new security techniques are needed to gain visibility of brand impersonation risks

Before the age of the internet, dealing with pirated intellectual property was necessary for brands to protect their revenue – and protect customers from potentially dangerous goods, like counterfeit cosmetics and prescription drugs. Consumers were otherwise relatively safe; a bootleg movie or knockoff handbag may divert revenue but most probably didn’t hurt the customer physically or financially.

Today, though, is different. There’s a broad spectrum of brand safety challenges for the modern marketer. Digital tech helps marketers avoid bad content while maintaining reach, delivering the right message and providing relevant content in the moment. Unfortunately, it also enables malicious actors to impersonate brands, tricking many loyal customers into taking the bait for phishing attacks that steal their money and/or their identities, or deposit malware on their systems. And many brands have no idea this is happening in their name.

As brand responsibility grows more important, organizations must step up to protect their customers from malicious impersonation attempts – or risk losing them to the brands that do.

Brand Impersonation is a Rising Threat to Brand Safety

Brand impersonation is largely invisible to most brand marketers, even when it’s affecting thousands of customers. Cybercriminals regularly take advantage of current events for their online scams, and the rise of the novel coronavirus led to a staggering proliferation of online brand impersonation: it jumped up 30.3% during the first 100 days of COVID-19 and shows little sign of slowing down. There are other natural disasters being exploited at a regional level as well: brush fires in Australia, typhoons in Asia, wildfires in California and hurricanes in the Gulf states. We’re always one natural disaster away from the next online scam.  

Fear aside, when it comes to cybersecurity, marketers have focused on damage control during data breaches and other cybersecurity events. Problems like phishing, malware, and credential harvesting have been historically reserved wholly for cybersecurity teams who, conversely, have had little consideration for preserving brand safety. Both are pressing business issues, but they just haven’t been in each department’s respective wheelhouse – until now.

Why Brands Must Step Up to Protect Customers Online

Customers are more aware than ever before about how a brand incorporates social responsibility into their decision-making, and they use that information in their own purchase decisions. That’s why brand marketers are obligated to be proactive about online brand impersonation. Otherwise, brands risk surrendering control of their image and reputation to bad actors that cash in on their hard-earned trust and long-developed brand imagery. These bad actors may not always be selling fake products or services, but they’re regularly exploiting intellectual property to scam customers for their own gain.

While the surplus of 2020 natural disasters has made it easier than usual for cybercriminals to prey on employees’ fears, even when such disasters are not so prevalent brand protection remains of paramount importance. That’s because the typical employee is, in a word, unassuming. For example, in January when your so-called “insurance provider” sends an email to everyone in your organization asking for employees to update their benefits via an embedded link leading to a page that looks exactly like your real one.

Unsuspecting customers are often easily duped when a brand’s likeness is exploited like that for malicious purposes. It’s hard to detect slight deviations in a link or lookalike domain, especially if the cybercriminals have copied your brand’s actual imagery, language, and login page with precision. These spoofing attempts are harmful and can tarnish customer experience and trust, which can in turn hurt a brand’s reputation and bottom line.

And when the damage is done, it can be hard to undo. Authentic brand-customer experiences solidify brand reputation, whereas impersonation attempts use brand trust as bait to trigger phishing attacks that can lead to personal data loss, fraud, malware and even data breaches, depending on the target.

Brands that act now to develop a forward-looking brand safety strategy will be able to better connect with loyal customers and provide private customer experiences.

But how do you do that?

How to Defend Against Brand Impersonation in Your Brand Safety Strategy

To successfully minimize the risks of online brand impersonation – and come out successful if and when it does happen – every company’s online brand safety strategy must be well-thought out and encompass the following best practices:

Bridge the gap between marketing and cybersecurity teams: Collaboration between marketing and IT security professionals is key to online brand safety strategies in general, and brand impersonation in particular. Cybersecurity teams can help bring offensive brand protection strategies to fruition. Brand exploitation is a game of cat-and-mouse and the only way to keep up with bad actors putting up illegitimate sites is to use advanced online brand protection solutions that can scour the web 24/7 to find and take down the copycat websites that would confuse customers and lead to cyberattacks. Meanwhile, DMARC – an email authentication standard that, again, marketers likely haven’t heard of – can help put an end to many email spoofing attempts. But using DMARC email security well requires thoughtful planning and real action. 

Extend security awareness to all stakeholders: Brand exploitation is so rampant that it’s bound to exist beyond your field of vision, so it’s critical to educate and inform customers about what to look for so they can be prepared. And it’s not just about customers. It’s just as important to inform employees, supply chain partners, and other stakeholders because they can also fall victim to online brand impersonation attacks. And if they do, data breaches and ransomware attacks are possible – cybersecurity issues that affect customer trust.

Build brand equity: Show your customers that you care about protecting them and be transparent about how you strive to keep them safe. During times of uncertainty, providing the right flow of transparent information and consolation can be reassuring. The actions your brand takes along the way – combined with already established brand equity – can help you come out of a brand exploitation situation successfully.

Act now or fall behind: Cybercriminals are constantly improving their methods. It’s your responsibility to get ahead of the curve to keep your brand and your customers safe.

The Bottom Line

Strong brands have always defended against potential revenue loss from IP infringement, but today they need to be concerned about online brand exploitation, too. Though less tangible than counterfeit goods, any time a brand is impersonated, cybercriminals take advantage of the trusting relationship between brand and customer for their own gain – potentially leaving customers open to cyber threats and tarnishing brand equity. Online brand impersonation is a potent brand safety challenge that marketers should begin addressing today. 

 

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