Using Social Media to Combat Counterfeiting – Some Tips

As we approach the back end of 2017 it seems impossible that there might still be any brands out there who underestimate the power of social media. Brand recognition, consumer engagement, revenue generation; Facebook, Twitter and the rest have a hand to play in all of them.

But what about the relationship between social media and the world of anti-counterfeiting? Articles outlining the popularity of social media (popular factoids include mindboggling statistics such as the 6,000 tweets sent every second of every day, or the phenomenal 4 million likes posted each second by Facebook’s 1 billion daily users) and the money it generates have lead, understandably, to a raft of doom-laded prophecies about social media as a kind of virtual souk where cheap fakes are the only things on offer and both quality and prices have become a race to the bottom.

For many brands these Cassandra-esque predictions undoubtedly have a firm basis in reality. A quick scan through Instagram or Pinterest brings forth reams of identikit fakes shopped by eager consumers from individuals and seller groups who either dropship or import directly on a small scale basis. Increasingly these online sellers now also regularly travel to metropolitan centres such as Manchester or London to meet with suppliers who have furnished them with images of new stock on private Whatsapp/chat networks. As a brand or a brand protection professional it can be an extremely dispiriting process, and for the consumer it can be confusing and just as frustrating trying to negotiate genuine from counterfeit.

While we all know that it can be disproportionately difficult to target sellers on social media because these platforms allow for a great deal more anonymity and flexibility (the very reason they have moved over to these networks from standalone webshops or auction sites), actions are continually being conducted. The success of initiatives such as the National Markets Group’s “Operation Jasper” has shown that not only is it possible to remove offending images and listings but that prosecutions and seizures can also follow from investigations.

Most of the blogs and articles you see online only focus on the negative, on how to slam down on counterfeits as fast as the platform allows. This is understandable because most of the trade mark attorneys, law enforcement operatives and people working in the brand protection space who write these articles make their living by selling the solution to the counterfeiting problem; namely, enforcement. At Back Four, however, we believe that enforcement is only one part of the puzzle and that education and positivity can also play a huge role. If the proportion of counterfeit goods sold because of a consumer desire to deliberately buy something that is not genuine were eliminated then the proportion of counterfeit goods sold would be pretty near zero. People want to buy into brands otherwise they would not buy the cheaper more accessible versions of their products. If we reduce confusion, price discrimination, accessibility issues etc then many more people would buy genuine.

Working with football clubs on matters of anti-counterfeiting offers a completely unique perspective in this regard because the love, support and, occasionally, conflict created across the fanbase of a football club is more akin to the kinds of loyalty shown towards family and friends than towards any other kind of brand. So when football clubs speak to their fans and attempt to educate and inform about the issues surrounding the buying of counterfeit goods there is much more of a need to step away simply from hard line narratives about economics, links to terrorism or the use of illegal human labour, and more into the creation of inclusive stories which foster a better sense of community. Support works in two reciprocal ways; supporters do not simply lend their voices and hearts to their sporting team in return for a symbolic experience they can buy into, but they also support or prop up the brand itself. More fans buying genuine goods means more money for a team, more money can lead to better experiences for the fans themselves in terms of better players, better stadia and more successes.

So how can social media help to foster these better relationships between brand and consumer? Ultimately, in the context of a sporting brand in particular there are two important things; 1. Increasing commercial revenue from genuine sales by getting people fired up about exciting things the club is doing – whether this may be from community outreach, partnerships with existing or new brands or generating interest in new products through the provision of new, related content. Social media platforms are unique in that they are fast, cheap and that they offer this same model of reciprocity that characterises the very idea of “support”. The club speaks to the fans, the fans speak back to the club, the fans speak to one another. Everyone has a voice. 2. Social media can be used to increase awareness of counterfeits and of the harm this actually does to the club. This doesn’t have to mean the hectoring of the public for buying the “wrong” thing, they don’t like that. Sometimes a well-placed joke or image showing the terrible products on offer from counterfeiters can be much stronger a message about the need to keep it real and authentic.

So those are some of the reasons why we think it’s important for any brand to keep their social media fresh and well-managed, but below are some of our tips on just how you can go about this:

1. Understand the audience for each platform. Just as you wouldn’t address a key shareholders meeting in the same terms as a best man’s speech, do some research into the different demographics who characterise your support on Facebook versus Twitter for example. What kind of messages are those individuals responsive to, and in what format do they expect to be correctly addressed?

2. Tailor your content, style and language to each individual format. Where possible try not to directly re-use content, or simply just to freshen it up so that it is relevant on each occasion. What is the USP of each form of communication and how might this alter the nature of the content? If you have a better mastery of the flow of each platform then you have a much better chance of converting each visitor into a genuine fan, into a genuine sale, and away from the cheap alternatives.

3. Use content to invoke fan engagement as a basis for all commercial transactions. Creating unique content based around videos, competitions and social media outreach can help to generate excitement for the launch of new products at key moments. Rather than simply attempting to drive people to your website to buy something you must create a deep sense of WHY. Why are they related to your brand? What aspirations does it satisfy for them? What gratification will they take in buying genuine rather than counterfeit?

4. Be flexible in how you use social media platforms on a day to day basis but also take care to strategise over a much longer time period. Seasonal ranges and changes in available products can coincide with anti-counterfeiting messages and content in ways that are not overly intrusive but merely seek to reinforce the wider brand message. Use your long term strategy for anti-counterfeiting to co-ordinate with external events, launches, partnerships and website activity. Don’t simply use social media as a mouthpiece to the “real world”, it can be much more than this in generating loyalty and attention.

5. Monitor for response. Learn how to differentiate the responses which different kinds of content on different platforms generate in terms of sales activity. Do videos about anti-counterfeiting initiatives generate different responses than funny images or blog posts? When you tie in anti—counterfeiting content around product launches or seasonal changes then is there also a discernible difference in how your consumers respond linguistically and in terms of online activity? It’s crucial to be able to speak internally with the people who monitor/publicise this activity and the sales departments, so that you can see where the sales spikes may have some correlation.

6. Find a champion. Don’t allow what is an important aspect of communication and commerce be handled by the work experience kid just by virtue of the fact that they are the youngest in the building and by the assumption that all digital natives know their memes from their mashups. A single person within your brand who has knowledge built from a whole range of worlds, from anti-counterfeiting to commerce (or at least who has the ability to cross these areas fluidly) should be in charge of the strategy and the development of this kind of engagement. Experience is the greatest teacher.

7. There is much to be said for sensitivity around contentious issues such as anti-counterfeiting. Be conscious of what is being said about your brand across different areas of the online world including fan sites, messageboards and other areas which are beyond the immediate reach of the company itself. While you don’t want to get dragged into debates, if people have real issues or a LOT of people have complaints about the same issues, i.e. price or availability, then don’t be afraid to reach out to them and to potentially alter course on an issue. The platform will show you publicly being responsive.

8. Have the ability to influence and reward those people who best represent or promote genuine merchandise consumption among your fan base. Don’t neglect those who buy genuine in favour of aggressively pursuing those who don’t. It’s too easy to fall into the negative trap of speaking too much about the problems of people buying fakes but by switching the narrative to one of positivity around genuine goods you can offer people a different sense that supporting the brand brings benefits for all. Why not take the example of Coca-Cola who instead of instigating proceedings against an extremely popular fan created page which was utilising their trade marks chose to take control of the content but allow the creator to keep their own element of control. The result was a fan page which boomed even further in popularity and created even better goodwill for the brand as a whole.

9. Have a high degree of consciousness about how counterfeiters operate in the different social media spaces. Are they simple marketplace sellers who might be deterred from their infringements by takedowns or are their products manufactured and then sold via more advanced means such as campaign websites and fulfilment models? How are they potentially manipulating “trust markers” and duping your consumers into buying from them? Are they buying social media likes, are they linking things in a way which make them look genuine or are they more blatantly unofficial? By understanding the mindset of the counterfeiter you will be better placed to communicate not just with them but with the wider consumer set.

10. While it’s important to understand the different forms of social media, creating a unified message around anti-counterfeiting is also important. Take time to educate consumers on the value of buying genuine merchandise by creating a global message which can them be disseminated across all online platforms. The tone and style may vary according to the specific form of communication, but don’t limit anti-counterfeiting messaging just to a dusty portion of your official website. Make it active, make it relevant and take care to spread the message as widely as possible.

11. Give fans the opportunity to report cases of trade mark infringement. It’s important that consumers who opt for genuine have the opportunity to report concerns about counterfeit merchandise in a direct and confidential manner. Advertise specific ways they can contact you and ensure them that all issues will be taken seriously and looked into. They may have a variety of reasons for wanting to report these issues, but they can still often be a good source of finding new listings or seller groups/platforms which your own researches have not shown you.

12. Don’t be afraid to outsource the work if necessary. The combination of technical know-how with commercial sense and communication skills can be a tricky set of disciplines to master but there are people out there who can offer this. If you need to engage the services of someone more skilled than yourself then try to do what we always encourage clients to do and see the value of getting your anti-counterfeiting strategy right as an investment not just in reputation but in actual money saved. Every cash transaction denied to counterfeiters is just one more that you should be making.

RT @bhamts: @bhamts & Regional Investigations Team had successful warrant execution yesterday working with @The_ACG @Realdeal_Market disco…

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