Bringing Online Consumers Closer to a Traditional Relationship

Rod Kinghorn
Outreach Specialist, A-CAPP Center-Former General Director of Global Security at General Motors

I’ve been thinking…

Brand protection professionals are keenly aware that the e-commerce market, both its legitimate and illicit channels, creates numerous enforcement issues regarding counterfeit products. As consumers shop online, internet shopping inquiries create a trail of information about their specific shopping habits and their brand preferences. This information is then used not only by brands but also by purveyors of counterfeit products who lure unsuspecting consumers into the purchase of counterfeit products. To control these spurious solicitations, brand owners work tirelessly to identify their origin and have them removed—only to see them return a short time later. This appears to be the situation regardless of product, different takedown approaches, or attempts at more cooperative relationships between brand owners and e-commerce platforms.

In the more traditional commerce model, brand owners determined when they would move their brick-and-mortar operations and associated support systems (e.g., sales, marketing, distribution, customer service, enforcement) into specific geographic regions. In essence, product became available to the consumer when brand owners decided conditions were right to provide it.  

The e-commerce model turned that model on its head. Consumers can now through e-commerce decide when to pull specific product into a geographic region, even when brand owners are not  ready to support or protect the product there. When this occurs, as Wilson and Fenoff note, consumers “extend the geographic theories of crime into cyberspace,” including those related to product counterfeiting.

In brick-and-mortar environments consumers often interacted face-to-face with brands at their physical business location. In my personal experience as a consumer the selection process was greatly influenced when positive or negative experiences contributed to the development of this relationship. Once I became comfortable with the quality and performance of my selected product, I returned again and again to the physical market  confident that past performance would indicate future satisfaction. In that traditional environment, I hardly ever considered that the product I selected might not be genuine. After all, the brand name was on the building and also on the product.

While consumer awareness about product counterfeiting continues to expand, “many consumers do not think to question the authenticity of the product they purchase and do not know what to do about product counterfeiting or where to report it,” as Wilson and Kinghorn note.  In this situation, is their selection process influenced more by what they see in the e-commerce market than by what they know? Or is their trust a carryover from their relationship with brands in the traditional markets?

We might replicate traditional consumer authentication processes in online markets. For example—if all the IT, legal and operational issues could be overcome—perhaps when  consumers open a counterfeit web site or a legitimate web site selling unauthorized product a pop-up from the brand owner would explain how to receive an immediate automated response about authenticity. Or perhaps consumers will become educated enough to know when to question authenticity and initiate contact with the brand owner for a similar automated response. Consumers would be indirectly participating in market monitoring for the brand owner and protecting themselves from inadvertently purchasing a counterfeit product.  This could replicate the interaction previously experienced in brick-and-mortar commerce and build a network of reliable trust. Some brands have implemented variations of this approach. Others are moving toward these authentication techniques. When trust cannot be built face-to-face, brands should consider a means to simulate it.

Just a thought………