The Keys to Protecting Your Brand Online

When your brand is online, it is in jeopardy. Competitors may use your brand terms in keyword searches, pirate your slogans or unfairly label their goods with your brand. There are roughly a million ways for the unscrupulous to abuse your brand, and only one way for you to protect it — diligence.

Jolly Roger Flag: Protect Your Brand
Credit: Skull and Crossbones Flag on Flickr by Jennifer Gensch

When your brand is online, it is in jeopardy. Competitors may use your brand terms in keyword searches, pirate your slogans or unfairly label their goods with your brand. There are roughly a million ways for the unscrupulous to abuse your brand, and only one way for you to protect it — diligence. Protecting your brand starts with consistency of use and message, and requires a meticulous process to protect your brand value and your legal rights.

Best practices require that you establish your rights before you even go online if you can. I consulted renowned Trademark and IP attorney Maureen Kassner, partner at K&G Law, who offered this advice:

“The most critical steps you can take towards protection of brands and trademarks take place long before they are used. Trademark rights are national in scope. Once you have narrowed a list of potential brand names for your new product or services, the list should be searched for availability as a trademark in any countries in which it is proposed for use on significant scale. US trademark attorneys oversee this process in the States, and many have a network of colleagues who can assist with international trademark clearance. Ideally, the list should list potential names in order of priority so that once a mark appears to be available for use there is no need to undertake additional searches.

The United States, unlike most countries, recognizes trademark rights acquired through use as well as those conferred by registration. For this reason, trademark clearance searches should include not only the federal and state trademark registry for applications and registrations of prior marks but should also include common law (i.e., unregistered) uses, many of which can be found on the internet.    Demonstrated use of identical or similar names for related goods or services is a red flag that it will be difficult to create a strong brand identity and garner recognition in the marketplace.”

Once you have settled on an available trademark, it is up to the brand stewards to protect it, bringing in your marketing, corporate and legal resources for that purpose. The legal team will need to secure the rights to the brand. According to Kassner, this would entail:

“… not only filing an application for registration in countries relevant to the business, but also securing relevant domain names and social media handles. In addition, it is important to use the appropriate designation whenever the mark is used to indicate to the public that the term is proprietary. (In the US, “TM” may be used for any mark; the ® symbol can only be used after registration.)

Legal language identifying the rights claimed in a brand should be included in small print either at the end of an ad or at the footer on your proprietary website. Distinctive logos, slogans, favicons, and jingles which are used consistently in connection with the goods or services are great ways of building brand recognition among your target audience and can be registered separately as both trademarks and (with the exception of slogans) copyrights.”

Infusing your owned properties, like your website, with a consistent and appropriate brand presence should start with a brand guidelines document that is shared with all the internal and external partners that represent you online. Have your trademark attorney review that document. Once reviewed and approved, this cements a common understanding about the desired brand presentation.

As the brand evolves, of course, the document will need regular updating. Use those brand guidelines across social media platforms, in emails, and any public communication that represents your brand to ensure the consistency that ultimately helps to support your claims should you need to defend them.

The sad truth is that even with all the appropriate legal precautions and process, infringements routinely occur. Regular monitoring is required to find and minimize the impact of these infringements across channels and platforms.

Search activity is a common point of trademark infringement. Per Google’s rules (simplified) others may bid on your brand or trademarked terms but may not use the trademarked language in their ads. Get familiar with the search engine’s official policies and report bad actors in a timely manner both directly to the search engine and with a letter to the offender.

Schedule a weekly competitor check to see the bidding strategies of those most likely to benefit from your brand. Do regular branded searches both online and in social channels that extend to include your other trademarked items to see who is misusing your property. Include typos and the URL of your brand (www.BRAND.com) in your searches as consumers often type that into a search bar.

Your agency partner can and should provide this service, but there are also trademark monitoring services that can offer a broader package of monitoring and resolution. Be advised that the path to resolution with offenders is often lengthy, frustrating and filled with bureaucracy and forms.

Keep good records of all incidents and correspondence and don’t rely on third parties to reach the conclusion you need — this is a battle won by the diligent.

I Am Fascinating – Even My Hotel Thinks So

You know that age-old scenario with the man stuck in the labyrinth, who can’t find his way out? Well, there’s an online version of that—it’s the registration page that tells you there’s an error and you cannot continue, except the error is not with you, it’s with them

You know that age-old scenario with the man stuck in the labyrinth, who can’t find his way out? Well, there’s an online version of that—it’s the registration page that tells you there’s an error and you cannot continue, except the error is not with you, it’s with them.

Recently, I was shopping for a hotel in the San Diego area as I am planning to attend the DMA’s Annual Conference in October. Booking through the DMA’s site would ensure me a group rate, so I started perusing my options, sorting them by price.

One of the least expensive options was a hotel I had never heard of, but considering the property was only a 5 minute walk from the convention center, it was worth a closer look and the ad copy really intrigued me. Rather than simply extoling the hotel’s many features, I was given a peek at my life as a guest at their hotel: “When you are whisked up to your room, you’ll look out over the city, feeling like you belong here and that San Diego’s world is your oyster.” Sold! (Oh, and nice job getting me to picture myself as a happy customer.)

But then I began the booking process and a funny thing happened. After entering my guest details and confirming the rate and date, I was prompted to add my loyalty program ID number. Never one to pass up a deal, I clicked on the drop down menu to see if they would give me points with my favorite airline. Alas, my sole choice was the Kimpton InTouch loyalty program. Since I had never heard of it, I closed out of the menu. But it seems that InTouch was now selected, and I was unable to un-select it unless I put in my member number.

Abandon the transaction entirely? Another might have, but I—being the intrepid and inquisitive marketer that I am—jumped onto my second screen and researched the Kimpton InTouch program. (Did I mention I’m not one to pass up a deal?) It provided a simple registration form and the hope of instant use. But rather than getting a formulaic “welcome” email with membership number, a clever thing happened at the end of my registration process—a virtual membership card appeared on my screen, with my new InTouch loyalty number AND a downloadable V-card for Outlook. Genius!

In a split second, I downloaded and saved the V-card into my Outlook Contacts, and was delighted to know I would now have this number at my fingertips whenever booking with Kimpton again. And if the San Diego experience turned out to be as fabulous as promised, it was highly likely I would.

A simple copy from one screen and pasted to the other, and my booking process was back on track.

But what was equally interesting about the Kimpton InTouch registration form was this statement and request near the bottom of the form:

We love being fans and friends of our members. Please help us stay InTouch with you.

It then asked for my URL/Website/Blog and Twitter handle. Certainly this boutique hotel group was not planning to visit my company’s website and follow me on Twitter? Or was it?

It’s now a week later and Kimpton Hotels is not following me on Twitter, but for a brief moment I felt like the most interesting customer in the world. On the other hand, what is Kimpton planning to do with this information? Tweet me after my stay? Encourage me to tweet about my experience while a guest?

Check back with this column in October and find out. I’ll be impressed if Kimpton comes through with something that makes me feel like the most interesting customer in their world.