A snippet in Private Eye earlier this year (8 July, 2011) showed how touchy companies can get about the use of their brand names. Following the unfortunate death of a festival goer in a toilet at Glastonbury (who also happened to be a political activist and friend of the UK’s Prime Minister), a number of publications reported that the body has been found in a Portaloo®. Apparently, this was not true; it was not a Portaloo®, but some other brand of “mobile toilet”. Portakabin, who owns the Portaloo® brand, had written to the publications in question complaining at this misrepresentation. This seems an unnecessary quibble, there was no suggestion the toilet had contributed to the death and no maligning of the brand per se. However, other misuses of brand names are not so innocuous.
A growing concern over the past decade or so has been the abuse of brand names online. This includes both the misleading use of domain names and misrepresentation and/or illegal use of brands in other ways. Back in 2000, the UK rock band Jethro Tull won a case against a cyber-squatter who had registered a number of domains including www.jethrotull.com and was trying to sell them on to those with an obvious interest. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) found in the band’s favour; ruling that the squatter “had set up the addresses in bad faith and failed to show a legitimate interest in them”.
While most well-known organisations now have control of the high-level domains associated with their brand, the growing number of available domains still makes it relatively easy for someone to mislead through the use of a slightly more obscure domain. This might mean that cyber-squatting is less prevalent but it does mean brand-jacking is easier. There are two reasons for doing this; to benefit by association and, more seriously, to perpetrate fraud. The later involves either selling fake branded products or convincing someone to give up personal information thinking they are visiting a legitimate branded web site, for example, that of a bank (usually attracting them in the first place with phishing emails or messages on social media sites). "It is essential, therefore, to ensure that all uses of a brand online lead to legitimate sources and the potential customers find your organisation and not the bad guys pretending to be you"
Of course, the selling a fake branded goods does not need a spoofed web site, this can just as easily be done via markets such as eBay. So, the need to monitor and protect brands is a far-reaching exercise. To that end, a number of services have been developed to help organisations achieve just that from vendors such as MarkMonitor, Envisional and PICA. Their services range through domain name monitoring, identifying online brand name misuse, spotting sales of counterfeit goods and getting rogue sites associated with phishing campaigns shut down.
MarkMonitor publishes a freely available Brandjacking Index report, which shows the prevalence of brand abuse over the years and focuses in on specific issues, such as diverting genuine enquiries for hotel bookings (spring 2011 edition). Its customers include manufacturers like Epson and Deckers, where it has helped stem the sale of counterfeit goods, and pharmaceutical giant Novartis, where it consolidated and protected its wide range of domain names.
A strong recognisable brand is an invaluable asset for any organisation; however, misuse can see strong brands rapidly devalued. The exploitation of brands has become much easier as the world has moved online over the last few decades. It is essential, therefore, to ensure that all uses of a brand online lead to legitimate sources and the potential customers find your organisation and not the bad guys pretending to be you. Failing to ensure this will lead to a loss of business and may cause rapid deterioration of your brand's value.