How to protect your products in a world of unceasing internet knock-offs

internet knock-offs

By Mark Schaefer

I had a great question from a student last week.

He described a situation where designer Christian Louboutin had become well-known for a certain red-heeled woman’s shoe. In fact, he had become so famous and associated with this style that he tried to patent the look as intellectual property (Maybe this would be patent leather? Ha!).

However, as we see throughout our world today, where corruption can occur, corruption will occur, and soon the space was filled with cheap internet knock-offs of his famous shoe. Shady companies were easily copying the style at a fraction of the designer’s high-end price. The entrepreneur has now engaged in multiple lawsuits trying to chase down these ghosts.

My student asked me … what is the marketing strategy when the internet knock-offs can so easily crush a brand? Let’s unpack that today.

The bad news first

Have you ever played that childhood game called whack-a-mole?

Every time you whack a plastic mole, another mole pops up in another hole to torment you.

That’s how the internet works, too. eCommerce has become one big game of whack-a-mole. And there is no reasonable way to stop the bad guys. Especially with lawsuits.

There are people out there copying my work all the time. It makes me sick, but I also know I cannot waste my time whacking moles. I tried it, I know. I just need to keep coming up with new ideas to stay ahead of them.

So it gets down to this decision: How do you spend your precious resources? Do you start a war with the moles that you will never win? Or, do you focus on innovation, customer connection and build a brand? Let’s look at that option.

The good news

Marketing is normally about building some sort of emotional connection with an audience of customers.

Years ago, we were pretty much limited to accomplishing that through advertising, but today we have lots of channels and options. In fact, for the first time in history, through the internet most businesses have a chance to build a community around their products.

There are nasty people on the web who digitize my paper books and sell them online so that I never see a dime for my work. If every book-lover bought from these unscrupulous agents instead of from their favorite author, at some point most professional writers would have to quit (or severely reduce) their efforts since there is no money coming in to justify the time.

Luckily, that’s not the case. People love my books, but they also love me and they want to support me and my work. I’ve spent a decade creating that emotional bond and I can never stop because “trust” is the true source of my revenue.

The good news is that you don’t need millions of dollars to build a brand. Businesses of all sizes can find, connect, and engage with customers and maybe even earn their trust and loyalty.

Going with the flow

A few weeks ago, I received a cease and desist email from a law firm asking me to take down a photo of a fish I used on a blog post in 2010. The fish was a painting done by an artist, their client, and I had apparently used the photo without permission.

I am very careful about such things, but apparently Google’s “safe for re-use” search function let this one slip through the cracks. I was happy to take the photo down, but I don’t think this was the best strategy for this artist.

This whole thing seemed fishy to me. I mean … what’s the porpoise of taking the photo down? Can you really scale this sort of strategy? Or, is he just pursuing lawsuits for the halibut?

(Official end of puns)

Wouldn’t it be better if he took the high road and asked me to keep the photo up and link back to his site with enthusiastic support? That would help his business so much more than wasting money on legal fees. I took the photo down, but he could have at least made a few clams from the deal.

(OK I lied).

Back to the designer

So should the red heel designer Christian Louboutin spend his money convening lawsuits or deepening customer bonds?

I think the answer is obvious and, in fact, he probably has one just choice: Take the high road.

internet knock-offs

The real deal

When I was in my 20s, I had a chance to work in China. At that time, and probably today, China was the epicenter for cheap knock-offs of famous brands. They were sold on the streets of Hong Kong everywhere a tourist could possibly set foot.

Back then I was young and broke and thought it would be fun to buy a cheap variation of a Breitling watch. I really didn’t consider the ethical implications. My world was too small and my focus was too narrow at that young age to even realize I was hurting an important watch brand and its employees by supporting Chinese thieves.

As I got older I realized my mistake. I tucked the cheap watch away forever and started to learn about the real Breitling watches. I subscribed to an online newsletter about fine watches and their stories.

Over the years, I formed a real emotional connection to the company and their heritage. I worked hard to get to a point in my life where I could buy a real Breitling watch, which I did a few months ago.

Maybe it was my way of saying “sorry,” but more likely I was simply completing a familiar consumer cycle: We buy from those we know, like, trust … and maybe even love.

And I think that is the only long-term strategy that will win in this corrupt world. I realize that sometimes you need to protect your brand and direct a legal team to go after the crooks. But I think if your overall focus is on turning awareness to engagement, engagement to trust, and trust to love … you’ll be OK.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.


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