Online Brand Defense

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Owning your brand online

 Today it is commonplace to hear about brands getting hijacked online. Back in the day, the real fear was around “squatters”, or those folks who maliciously register domain names (e.g. steadyrain.com) with the purpose of attempting to sell that domain to the company/organization to whom that brand is related. 

As with all good (or bad) ideas, these same hijacking practices for domains, which will be revisited in our next article, have grown beyond the domain name portfolio management into many other areas of the Web. Squatters no longer just scoop up domain names, but now they are actively creating accounts at web-based email services, social networking sites, popular ecommerce sites, online services, and more.
 
These people then have the ability to affect your brand reputation online through the active use of these various platforms. They may have been seeking to misrepresent a brand, looking for financial gain, or may just, unknowingly, have registered your trademark and/or servicemark for personal use with absolutely no malicious intent. The use of names in and around your brand will at least cause confusion for your customers, can cause significant damage to your online marketing strategy, and can cause real harm to your brand.
 
For those who aren’t sure what this means, imagine your company decides to join a social network, sign up for an email account, or even a wish to purchase a domain name. You begin the registration process only to realize that someone else has already registered your company’s name. Not only do you have to deviate from your brand for that marketing channel, but you are unable to access the account for your brand because, simply, it is owned by someone else. To gain access to this account, will require the cooperation of the current owner, their desire to release the account to you, the potential for a payment being required by the current owner to gain access to the account, or, in the worst case scenario, the legal costs associated with forcing the current owner to comply with your right to the name. If this sounds like a huge mess and a lot of lost productivity and capital to solve this kind of problem, you now understand the importance of online brand defense.
 
Although there is legal precedent in these cases (at least around domain names squatting specifically), legal battles around these issues, especially trademarks and servicemarks, can be very expensive. Our approach is, to borrow a phrase from our good friend Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
 

What does this mean for your company?

Online brand defense has become a necessity in recent years for corporations wishing to maintain the online integrity of their brand through prevention. It is critical for your company to determine an approach to defending your brand online. There are various ways to take an active role in the protection of your brand on multiple levels. We have included some here for your consideration:
 
1.       If you are leveraging listening tools for your online public relations and/or social media campaigns, be aware of where you brand may be popping up online and if the accounts that are being used to post information about your organization are accounts that you have control over.
 
2.       Review your domain name portfolio management strategy and apply some of these same practices to other areas of the Web. Make sure that whether you have immediate plans to participate in the hundreds of online marketing channels that are available to you or not, you are obtaining the appropriate trademark and servicemark names to prevent misuse by others.
 
3.       By clearly and precisely branding online media channels that relate to your company’s identity, you will prevent brand confusion among your potential customers.
 
4.       By incorporating a strategic plan that encompasses protecting your brand online, just as you have done offline for years, means that you are not only protecting your company but also your customer from misinformation about your organization, products, and services. This saves both parties time, decreases confusion, and avoids misrepresentation.
 
5.       Be mindful that trademarks and servicemarks are not the only names that need to be part of your brand defense strategy. Defense of key brand words and phrases across the Internet may also be of great concern. Think of this strategy as the keyword domain name of the future.
 
6.        Additionally, you can protect your brand through online vendor management. This is typically seen as the second step to brand defense. By registering and managing accounts within social media communities, web-based email vendors, and other similar platforms, you will, ideally, be able to control your brand even at this level.
 

Why isn’t everyone doing it?

With the growth of online marketing channels, online communities, social networks, etc. this is a list that is, essentially, never-ending. As so many other areas of the Web, online brand defense is not a one-time to do that you check off and move on the next. Instead, it is a living strategy that has to be part of ongoing considerations within your firm.
 
When you take your business online, you are entering territory that hasn’t always been caught up to by the laws that protect you offline. As the Web is evolving and changing every day, it is sometimes difficult and expensive to become the organization that has the unfortunate opportunity of becoming a case law precedent. It is critical to remember that even if your business isn’t leveraging online marketing or communities as part of your marketing strategy, someone can still be misrepresenting your brand online and you may not even know it.
 
The key is to always think critically and strategically before any issues arise. Develop and have an online brand defense plan in place that is designed, specifically, to protect your brand online, which could save you money and/or time in the future. Are you actively protecting your brand online?