For some context, imagine going through your Instagram DMs on a random day and you spot a message from the username: “VersaceTrivia”. They claim you’ve been shortlisted for some contest organized by the global Italian fashion company, Versace, and all you have to do is pay $20 to a CashApp account to enroll in the trivia game. After this, you stand a chance to win $10,000 and free gifts from any Versace outlet in your locale.
From a mile away, many people would smell a scam being run by some dingbat who probably hasn’t paid his electricity bill for the month. There would be no need to link any of it to the actual, legitimate Versace. Sadly, not everyone would get the drift and you’d find people on forums, websites, even in Versace’s comment sections, calling them out for trying to scam customers and prospective patrons of an embarrassing $20 token.
Essentially, Versace’s reputation has been considerably dragged in the mud because their brand was hijacked, or, as MarkMonitor termed it, they got brandjacked. This is exactly what happens to companies on Amazon, eBay, and Wish when apparently, their products are being sold in hundreds but they only make meager profits. They are “sharing their identity” with dozens of other sellers and take-downs won’t always solve the problem.
By proper definition, brandjacking describes an activity or series of actions geared toward assuming the identity of a business, brand, person, company, or entity – totally or partially taking over certain elements from their name and logos to ideas and concepts. Basically, brandjacking means pretending to be a brand you are not. It’s like catfishing, but for businesses. Brandjacking is classified as a major form of IP rights infringement and brand abuse. Brandjackers always infringe on at least one or possibly all of a genuine brand’s trademarks, sometimes tapping into their customer pools, slashing revenue, ripping off customers, or smearing the reputation of the business.
However, brandjacking is a broad term and is not always performed with malicious intent and in rare cases, it could be beneficial to authentic businesses.
Since Instagram’s best functionalities were previously only on mobile phones with poor provisions for web-viewing on tablets and PCs, software developers Pek Pongpaet and Brandon Leonardo launched Pinstagram – a mash-up of Instagram and Pinterest. Users could then view Instagram feeds in the waterfall layout of Pinterest, resizable to fit different screen sizes.
While it certainly contributed to the popularity of Pinterest, Instagram benefited greatly as it had more people viewing across multiple devices. The brands never commented on this mashup, but they never sued or complained, either. This is one of the rare occasions where brandjacking causes no harm. Another instance is people creating fan/update pages of businesses and personalities on social media out of pure loyalty and love – with no intent to scam customers and fans or discredit the brand.
With the rise of the internet and the ease of creating fake pages and websites, brandjacking is at an all-time high and a major source of concern for businesses at all levels. Instagram alone records over a billion users on its app as of 2021, but in reality, only about 50-60% of the accounts are real. The rest are bots and fake accounts created by people for various reasons, one of which is brandjacking. On Facebook, the reality is the same and it’s seemingly worsening with time.
Categories of brandjacking (with example cases)
This is the commonest form and the major scenario both in the physical world and in the online sphere. Infringers would assume the name, logos, social media usernames, associated designs, and general identity of another brand with the intent to steal customers and corner patrons to fake websites, stores, and pages.
Consumers lose estimably $60 billion every year to identity criminals posing as legitimate businesses.
In 2017, a case went viral of a man who got scammed out of $100,000 when he made a one-time payment into a fake account for a luxury Mercedes Benz car. One of the numerous fake Mercedes pages on Instagram had built a pretty convincing and solid profile over a few months. From the Mercedes three-star logo to the exact website URL, the page had hijacked every facet of the German giant’s identity. Despite being unverified, 250,000 was pretty convincing and a guy parted with $100,000, only to find out the next hour that the page had been dissolved.
One of the most common instances of this is on social media, where random accounts with AVIs of people sitting in front of PCs, wearing headsets, and looking all prim would slide into your DM. They’d claim to be employees or “verification managers” at Instagram/Facebook/Twitter, and with only $15,000, you could get the coveted blue tick on your account.
If you fall prey, you’d part with your precious cash.
Even in physical markets, many brands, especially small/growing businesses have gone under due to marred reputations caused by brandjackers. For example, a person could create a false ID and assume the identity of a real estate company, receiving down payments from eager homeowners, and eventually, they’d disappear with accumulated funds, leaving the company in trouble and dozens of payees, stranded.
Copy websites and fake online stores
You’d often see warnings from tech experts online, telling people never to enter their information on websites preceded by “http” instead of “https”, which is the more secure version. While this is great advice, it’s not foolproof because scammers now go as far as creating https sites and verifying online stores with similar extensions to existing businesses.
If an authentic business owns the URL, https://www.sandy.com, brandjackers could purchase https://www.sandy.net, https://www.sandy.org, or even https://www.sandyy.com, either to spite the business or scam its customers.
This usually happens when rival businesses take the competition too far. In 2011, Apple sued Samsung for $2.5 billion for smearing the former’s image in an ad campaign. Apple had just released the iPhone 5 and Samsung also debuted the Galaxy S3. The latter created a video showing a line of Apple’s fans queuing up to buy the iPhone 5, but somehow, they got confused about the specs and new features. Then enters the Galaxy S3, all bold and superior, taking the shine. Apple had none of it, and so the controversial lawsuit was slammed heavily on Samsung.
This involves tiny, seemingly negligible acts performed by a person or group to tap into the reputation of another business, geared toward increasing popularity and profit. While it comes off as non-parasitic, using the hashtags of another business repeatedly on your social media posts is a subtle form of brandjacking.
Using the hashtag #burberry in all your posts would connect you to Burberry’s hashtag pull-up when customers search the brand. So your posts are getting promoted for free and instead of seeing exclusive Burberry content, fans would have to sift through your brand’s items as well – and it’s extremely annoying when this infringing content is not even related to fashion.
Staying ahead of brandjackers – what can you do?
The first question is, “Should every business, including the small ones be worried about brandjacking?”
The answer is YES. Even a one-month-old struggling business could be subject to brandjacking antics, and at this stage of the journey, it’s easy to pack up from the ripple effects of an early reputation smear. Many business owners believe that brand protection strategies should only be deployed when real problems occur. However, this would mean that a degree of damage has already been done. These safeguarding strategies should be deployed at the earliest stages for maximum protection.
Constant or periodic surveillance of the web
You need to virtually get some “boots on the ground” to monitor the internet and all major platforms for people posing to be you and abusing your brand. At AXENCIS, our smart brand protection plan is deployed by a team of expert investigators using our proprietary monitoring and surveillance software to scan all major marketplaces for infringements. We constantly monitor the web and run background checks on possible cases for verification, prior to the full take-down and prosecution procedures.
Buy up extra extensions and related domains
It’s not a waste of funds to invest in purchasing the .net, .org, .store, and .online extensions of your brand’s URL. This would prevent brandjackers from taking advantage of the free domains, afflicting your SEO progress, and possibly scamming your customers. As your visibility increases, you may also purchase common misspellings of your business name. For instance, Google.com owns the site googel.com, a common misspelling of their URL that redirects to the actual site.
Send email alerts to customers
This is another reason why virtual “boots on the ground” are important. Having all your loyal customers on an email list is essential for alerting them when possible scammers come up on your radar. Paypal employs this method regularly to warn its millions of customers around the world. Banks do this all the time, and it’s extremely helpful in keeping your patrons abreast of every possible identity theft situation.
Again, it doesn’t matter if your business is only a day old. Brandjacking doesn’t merely affect global giants or top public figures. Everyone could be a victim, on any scale, at any stage. Always be ready with a strategy to prevent infringers and brand abusers from taking advantage of your hard work. The best approach is to safeguard your reputation before it’s smeared. This way, you’d put up a stronger stand against brandjackers.