Author: Stuart Fuller
Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone sitting on a bench, head between their legs, sweating and looking very off color. I’m sure we would all be worried and offer assistance. But without understanding the context, clusters, or congruence of the situation it would be foolish to act. Perhaps the person was a marathon runner, taking a quick breather in the middle of the race. Knowing that context we would likely just encourage him to carry on rather than administering any first aid.
Understanding context, clusters, or congruence, or the “3 C’s,” is a fundamental part of a comprehensive brand protection strategy that an organization should use to prevent financial and reputational damage from fraudulent activity. One key aspect of understanding the 3 C’s is that of gathering, and acting upon, actionable intelligence. Whilst brand protection specialists such as OpSec Security leverage technology including network intelligence, situational analysis, and formulating targeted insights to provide valuable and timely information on threats to an organization’s intellectual property, activating end-customers to become brand advocates, and supplementing the reporting of suspicious web activity is a low-cost, high-impact tactic.
Actionable Intelligence must be relevant and reliable which is why using the three C’s approach to customer education is adopted by many global brands today. At the most basic level of monitoring for counterfeit and fraudulent activity against a brand holder, understanding the threat landscape and trends is vital, which is where customer observations are incredibly useful. However, unless customers, clients or prospects of a service can recognize when the context is wrong, the clusters of information are incorrect and the congruence of the communication is not consistent, then it may be hard to cut through the noise to find the real nature of the threats. The digital landscape presents a host of risks to brands which is why developing a brand protection strategy that is underpinned by actionable intelligence is now a necessity rather than an optional expense.
So, what do we mean when we talk about context, clusters and congruence, and their importance to actionable intelligence?
When we talk about Context in terms of IP abuse and fraud, we normally refer to the relevance of the message or threat. The Nigerian 419 scams are as old as the Internet itself and whilst 99.999% of recipients of the far-fetched emails promising millions for very little in return file them in trash, it only takes one victim to make the scams worthwhile, which is why they are still in circulation. The complete randomness of them is an example of context – there is no reason why the deposed crown prince of an African state would contact you, nor why they would be willing to transfer millions of dollars to your bank to help them.
For a brand holder, the relevance of the IP abuse gives it context. Many global brands not only have to fight a war against the counterfeiters but also about the brand abusers who create inferior products that the organization has never manufactured and slaps a logo on it. The context is wrong for a Burberry print car or a Netflix watch. Yet these examples of counterfeit branded products have been promoted by fraudsters.
Many brands look at diversifying their product range from time to time. When Richard Branson opened the first Virgin store in London in 1971 who would have believed that fifty years later they would be flying people around the world, and even into space. The Virgin Group has had its fingers in so many industries since launch but has always given consumers the context as to why they are doing something new or completely different. The key for brand holders is providing that brand context in a clear fashion for consumers, developing the Brand Promise.
Hand in hand with that approach could be a mechanism for someone to check the legitimacy of a product as well as any websites selling the brand – if a consumer is unsure whether a branded product is genuine or not then this is a simple win-win solution. This also enables the brand holder to collect some valuable analytics about sales channels and volume of potential counterfeits that customers are seeing.
The second C relates to Clusters which is especially relevant to social media abuse. There is no coincidence when you click on an ad presented on social media and then you see countless similar, but not quite the same, ones in the days to come. Every time you interact with an advertiser (and accept their tracking cookie), that small piece of information is used for targeting you with subsequent advertising. Fraudsters use the same marketing strategies as genuine brands when it comes to social media advertising, buying targeted ads designed to reduce their cost of acquisition. So, when you start seeing lots of ads for similar products there is a good chance you are in the sights of an organization who are trying to fool unsuspecting victims.
The concept of clustering is one of the most recent developments for online brand protection. Rather than just focusing on the individual IP abusers and counterfeiters, a combination of off and online intelligence is used to reveal the hidden networks, or clusters, that exist below the surface. By focusing on these clusters, often criminal organizations, brand holders can have a greater impact on reducing the risks to customers and Internet users.
For brand owners, understanding the tell-tale signs of clustering (similar ad wording, images used and even copied terms and conditions) is vital as part of a brand protection strategy, as well as an educational story for customers.
The final C in the strategic approach to increasing actionable intelligence is Congruence. In simple terms, if something is congruent it means it is the same or compatible as something else. In terms of the protection of intellectual property and brand protection strategies, congruence relates to the visible aspects and appearance of the genuine article versus a fake or counterfeit.
For this to really work, there is a leap of faith required from a brand to admit they have an issue with counterfeits and be prepared to proactively communicate the tell-tale signs of how to spot fakes. Numerous consumer surveys on this topic continue to indicate that consumers expect brands to educate them and will switch brands to those brands who do provide active mechanisms to protect their products and services and then educate their customers on how to tell the genuine articles from the counterfeits.
It seems obvious that whilst many counterfeits are cheap imitations, made with low quality, often dangerous and unsafe materials, some are identical, made from the same materials, and manufactured in the same factories as the genuine articles. These “Gray Market” products are very difficult to identify to all but the skilled eye. It is therefore important for a brand who wants to be proactive to limit congruent articles to be as transparent as possible on the key nuances and detail about their products and the value there is in it against the more common counterfeit items seen. It may also require brands to take extra steps to implement more sophisticated security measures to provide unique identification for their products and services, so consumers can understand the difference between diverted products and the real thing. It may also require the brand to monitor and enforce on its supply chain more stringently to ensure their manufacturers are only producing the goods they’ve been contracted to build for the brand.
Aligned with the other C’s it is also important to have a data aggregation and analytics mechanism to identify and expose potential infringers and websites selling counterfeits – this further provides the brand owner actionable intelligence gathered from this interaction between a brand’s products and services and their brand security and protection solutions.
Whilst many brands may not want to be transparent about the risks they face in terms of IP abuse, counterfeiting and online fraud – implementing proactive and visible measures to educate their consumers, customers and internet users is a worthwhile strategy all brand owners should consider as part of the new normal of doing business in the transition to everything online and everything digital. It is the most cost-effective way to extend the reach of an organization’s IP abuse detection capabilities, being able to use real-time intel from loyal brand advocates and well-intentioned customers to determine where to focus efforts on reducing the threats that bad actors represent.