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As more and more of us participate in forums, take part in Facebook, Linked In, My Space, Twitter and other platforms, or simply write or comment on blogs, it becomes more and more important for us to be aware of what is being said about us online. The same goes for businesses, even non web based ones. Everyone needs to embrace some form of online engagement in the new connected world we now live in.
It is hard to remember a time when only those with specialised skills could produce content for the web. Yet it was only a few years ago that the development of blogging platforms, known as web 2.0, made it possible for us all to post information on the world wide web. It is not an exaggeration to say that this change revolutionises society. It heralds the start of a seismic change the effects of which we are only just beginning to see.
The fact that so many people are posting content online, and commenting on the Internet, some of them anonymously, and from locations where they cannot be reached by English courts is one reason why brand protection has to evolve to keep up with these trends. After all, online comments can be instantly and indefinitely accessible to millions of people around the world and that is what makes them a matter of serious concern.
Say a consumer is dissatisfied with your product or services. Before Web 2.0 made it possible for people to broadcast their disappointment to the world, an issue might have resulted in a grumble over a pint in the pub. But it takes on more sinister significance on the Web when a momentary comment remains there for everyone to see, possibly for years.
Even if the original site where comments were posted has disappeared, the comments may remain cached in a search engine or appear on other websites or blogs. Indeed, it matters a lot what type of site comments appear on. This will be discussed later in a chapter on Defensive Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Google Page Rank.
Whether there is any validity to any online smears is immaterial. Once it’s on the Internet it’s in the public sphere, where it stays.
Why monitor conversations
It is important, therefore, to monitor conversations taking place online, or monitor your reputation as they say, in order to keep track of what is being said about your brand on the web. Being able to respond quickly and appropriately to whatever is discovered is one of the fundamental pillars of the new style of brand protection that businesses will need to implement.
Some people confuse press cuttings services with reputation monitoring. However, reputation monitoring is a completely different beast. The sheer volume of information makes it difficult to keep track of the online comments and to identify which ones are significant. This will be discussed in a separate chapter on tools, and possible approaches to deal with the limitations in the available tools.
The focus of brand protection isn’t just on the criminal or domain-based threats. It is not necessarily even about the major issues involving malware, phishing, counterfeiting, trade mark and copyright infringements, URL redirection, or defamation. These are all serious threats for sure, and can do serious harm to a brand. There is no doubt about it.
However, the threat which people are most likely to be overlooking right now is that which comes from failing to pay attention to what is happening online. If you are not ready to deal with whatever happens then your brand is at risk. Situations can creep up on a brand all too quickly. Something trivial or which starts off in a minor way can quickly escalate and catch people and organisations unaware. This is why protecting the brand requires reputation monitoring plus the ability for the organisation to engage with consumers.
Brand protection and brand promotion
Brand protection and brand promotion are inevitably intertwined as the old ways of cultivating brands have changed. Advertising plays a less prominent role now in brand promotion. Instead of courting press coverage, buying broadcasting and other forms of traditional advertising, businesses are waking up to the power of social media. They are realising that the very consumers who are filtering out advertising messages by finding ways to avoid watching the commercial breaks on TV, can be reached online. New ways of engaging with them are both giving the brand more exposure, and creating new and different relationship with consumers. This is a trend any business ignores at its peril. So the web is moving centre stage as the way to cultivate a brand.
Brand protection strategies
The ideal brand protection strategy will give due prominence to the different skill sets involved in protecting and promoting the business brand – from trade mark lawyers, who register and defend trade marks, to the marketing department that promotes the business’ products and services. This multi disciplinary involvement is necessary not just because the world is becoming ever more complex and specialised, but because the new ways of cultivating brands online give less control to the business to convey a simple rehearsed message about itself.
The brand is no longer in charge of how consumers will perceive it. All manner of unpredictable events can happen. The need to engage with consumers means a different sort of dynamic is at play. So businesses need a team that is able and ready to enter into dialogue with potential and actual consumers. Only then will they be able to react instantly to anything that crops up. Putting a plan of action, and an effective team together for online communication is going to be key to success for many businesses. This is discussed in detail in another chapter of the book.
Choice of name and rights to use are now key
The shift that is happening in society has many implications. The importance for all businesses to focus on securing the rights to their brand name is one by-product of it. If your business succeeds, your online promotion efforts will result in a significant presence for your brand on Google. So the worst thing that could happen would be to lose your online history, and the very foundation of your success. Changing your name (if it meant a change of website address) would entail such a loss. So, better make sure of your rights to use your website address, and if you choose a non distinctive one, then watch the value of your goodwill disperse. There are ways to use descriptive domain names without losing distinctiveness and this will be discussed in the chapter on Brand Names.
Small businesses better able to compete with bigger brands.
In the old world view where the big boys have sizeable marketing budgets and a bigger voice, start ups and smaller businesses without external investment stand less chance of growing into sizeable businesses. Their marketing budgets are too small. So, some experts consider it less important for these start ups to spend their meagre resources on getting advice to secure a good brand name and on registering trade marks. The thinking is that if these businesses became noteworthy enough for external investment, then it’s likely the investors would want to change the business name anyway, as well as the corporate identity. Well that is no longer true if it ever was, and in the chapter on Names I discuss this in much more detail including the interaction between trade marks, domain names and search engine optimisation and social media marketing.
With the new ways of cultivating brands online smaller businesses are in a unique position to stand up and be counted. It is possible now to cultivate the brand on social media, and to create a strong online brand which sky rockets a business to greater heights, in a quicker timeframe than has ever before been possible for small businesses. So brand names are really important, as is having a solid foundation in terms of a website address that is secure and can be owned without threat. A business that is infringing on someone”s trade mark rights stands to lose all its goodwill, and success on Google and other search engines. Any business that aspires to amount to something should take its name and especially its domain name very seriously.
Trade Mark lawyers – skills and education
The skills needed of trade mark lawyers in this new climate are currently not generally possessed by them. The legal services industry as a whole is likely to undergo fundamental challenges and transformations over the coming years, and I envisage that for trade mark lawyers to become the business advisers of choice for organizations involves a sea change in training and education. One significant advantage these professionals currently have is that they are already registering trade marks and protecting business’ brands, and generally looking after their clients’ brands. As such they understand the brand well. But many of them have little understand of the internet or of internet marketing, which makes them less useful to business.
In many businesses a number of different departments are currently involved in various issues relating to brand protection – IT, marketing and PR, and legal. Often domain names are the responsibility of either the marketing department or the IT department. The reason for this may well be the lack of adequate skills by the legal department, but an effective brand strategy would require the legal department (comprising a new type of trade mark lawyer) to be in the driving seat on domain registration issues.
I argue in this book that registration of domain names should be firmly within the responsibility of legal, and not left to the IT, marketing or other departments because brand protection requires a proper centralised domain name strategy and administration. Otherwise, there will be lack of consistency between the trade marks and domain name portfolios, and vital renewals might be overlooked.
In the ideal brand protection strategy I envisage that if marketing wanted to register domain names for certain campaigns and other one off purposes it would leave it to the legal team that is in charge of the businesses trade marks to acquire them, rather than having individual employees register them as now happens in many organisations. Brand protection must become part of the every day running of the business rather than being treated as a separate small scale activity such as it often is at present, where at most a trade mark professional uses a trade mark watch service.
What about adverse comments?
When a business discovers adverse comments on a forum, I would like to see them turn to their trusted business adviser, who will be a trade mark lawyer with a good understanding of internet marketing. This adviser is rare nowadays because few trade mark lawyers have the necessary skills to fill the role. Such an adviser takes account of options other than the purely legal ones like defamation proceedings or ‘cease and desist letters’. While these options have their place, a trusted business adviser lawyer would have such a profound understanding of the web that they will offer their clients business advice on the possible ramifications of any legal steps. Only then can their client give informed consent to whatever remedy seems most appropriate. If such a lawyer is not involved, the business could lose out. For example, if the lawyer’s understanding of domains and trade mark law could have helped the business to find a swift solution, such as recovery of a domain name, then lack of knowledge of that option, could cost the business unnecessary expense and aggravation.
What is involved in promoting and protecting a brand’s reputation online?
On a day to day level protecting a brand’s reputation online involves participation. You can either be proactive in promoting your business online, or you can sit back and hope none of the hundreds of millions of people online have made or are making negative comments about your business.
Given that brand development is now moving online, it is difficult to see why any business would not want to promote itself online as part of both protecting its brand, and developing new business opportunities.
When something plays out on social media it can erupt in a matter of hours. So reaction time is critical. In subsequent chapters I will outline some examples of companies that have been ill prepared when something blew up, and examples of companies that have managed social media to their advantage. I will also look at Twitter and the unique challenges it presents to organisations. News spreads so fast on Twitter that a fundamental aspect of brand protection is to watch Twitter, engage on Twitter, and to have a plan so you can engage in whatever scenarios your brand may face.
Gauging the Brand’s online presence
Google accounts for 50% of all Internet searches. Many Google searchers reportedly never look beyond the first ten links. For businesses and individuals worldwide, this means their most visible reputation is dictated by ten blue links and a few lines of text. So, it is worth trying to occupy as many of those first 10 links as you can by engaging in brand promoting.
This involves establishing a positive identity for your business and cultivating a prominent online presence. You then stand a better chance of ‘owning’ your search rankings. This is prevention in the sense that it lessens the chance that isolated incidents will rise to the first page of Google.
This is good for your brand, because by beginning to engage your customers in a positive and transparent way you also head off potential negative comments even before they are made. Later in the book, I will discuss more why this dual prevention and promotion role is part and and parcel of brand protection, and outline some approaches to establishing an outstanding online presence.
If your business is ‘Travel XYZ”, and your potential customers are searching for information about you, their first impression is most likely influenced not by your official website, but by the information that comes up when they conduct a Google search.
The first or second link might be to the official ‘TravelXYZ.com” site. But what if among the other search results in the top ten, there is one featuring links to a disgruntled review of one of your holiday packages, a forum thread about how ‘Travel XYZ stole my money”, or even a dedicated complaints blog called TravelXYXsucks.com!
It is immaterial whether the comments on the negative sites are correct or not. The problem is that just like in the offline world, first impressions count. No matter how good your official website, those negative sites are going to sit in the mind of your potential customers, and contacts, and at the very best raise doubts. At worst, it could see the potential customer pass over your business and seek out a company with a more favourable online presence.
So what can you do? Your first instinct is probably to do everything you can to get the negative content removed. After all, if someone spray-painted something about your business on the side of your shop front, you”d do everything in your power to have it removed as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately when it comes to online content, having items removed is not always straightforward. On many occasions efforts to force people to remove online comment has backfired, only creating more attention on the negative content, attracting visitors and shooting it up the Google rankings…maybe even ahead of the businesses” official site! This is known as the Streisand Effect, and will be discussed in a later chapter.
Rather than move in a heavy handed fashion to have negative content removed, a more ‘softly softly‘ approach may achieve a better outcome. For example, you could try putting across your side in a constructive and positive way.
In a later chapter I discuss when it might be appropriate to engage the services of a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company to manipulate the search results in order to try to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.
It’s important that the business fully understands if this will be worthwhile, and does not accept the stock answer of some SEO companies that they cannot guarantee results. That may be true, but what is more relevant to find out is how hopeful the situation is. For example, if the adverse comment is on a site with a high Google page rank is it really feasible to displace that site from the first page of Google in a reasonable time frame? If it is likely to take much longer and cost far more than the business can afford, then SEO may not really be an option worth entertaining. This is an example of how I see an internet savvy trade mark lawyer becoming a trusted business adviser to business and adding significant value in the process.
So I will now move on to looking at the important role that Names and Domain names occupy for businesses on the web.