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The Internet Facade

by Mike Fromowitz on Jul 30, 2011
The Internet allows you to be something you aren’t.The Internet is wonderful, isn't it? It works magic. For marketers and advertising people it’s opened new doors to reach customers in your town ...

Blogger profile: Mike Fromowitz

Mike Fromowitz is partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising Inc., a multicultural agency that is redefining how brands engage with today’s multicultural consumers.

The Internet allows you to be something you aren’t.

The Internet is wonderful, isn't it? It works magic. For marketers and advertising people it’s opened new doors to reach customers in your town or around the world.  It’s a big game-changer in a very vital way, leveling the playing field for small companies to compete with bigger ones. Virtual unknowns can have an impact in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Companies can reach a wide audience or a niche market for a fraction of a traditional advertising budget.

Some websites look great, offering amazing prices on hot new products, travel, DVDs, and get-rich schemes. But are they for real?

As commerce and marketing efforts continue to shift online, real brands’ exposure to risks is increasing. It’s difficult to know whether a flashy, professional looking website has a real, reputable company behind it, or if it is a shoddy, fraudulent scam. Fraud on the web is netting cyber-criminals millions of dollars as they set up fake websites that mimic well-established brands and companies, including banks.

It’s remarkable how the Internet allows people and businesses to pretend to be something they aren't. Even before some clever entrepreneurs have customers, they can pretend to have a legitimate business with sales. They do it by putting up a good-looking website. In fact, you could start a business you know very little about, and still look like a genius.

A challenge to brands and services

Regrettably, many brands can have their images tarnished and lose brand equity as a result of a fraudulent website. The most vulnerable brands are those that rely on Internet activities for legitimate business, but the damage to any brand can be significant. Whatever problems a brand faces in the physical world, in the online world it can multiply those problems by a thousand times.

The question is, what can those whose business is fundamentally built on internet services do about it?

Today, the Internet makes it easy to dress up a website that reflects a more professional operation than it actually is, and a clever way to cash in on the power of Internet marketing. The strategy: Build the customer base first, and then figure out how to sell it.

Here’s how some scam websites work. People first identify a business niche or a hot growth area. Then they buy the domain name, build the site, add some content (copy, photos, or scam services) and wait for customers.

One fraudulent website reported on ConsumerFraudReporting.org notes a work-from-home scheme that promises that you will make lots of money,  and like many of the scammers, they want to give you their cd for free! "Imagine owning your own business, being your own boss, working only a few hours a week, but still making lots of money - all from your own home ..."

The schemes are often no more than phony get-rich quick schemes - where you're not the one getting rich!  In fact, almost all work-from-home schemes are pyramid schemes, scams or simply worthless.

The Internet can be deceiving—a fake, a sham, a masquerade. If you can make a site look pretty and make it sound credible, you can pull in inquiries for just about anything. It’s too easy to turn a website into one great sales-generation machine.

It’s the real thing. Or is it?

Take for example this Chopard case. When several unsuspecting owners of fake Chopard watches sent their watches to Chopard for repair, the company discovered that they were not genuine. Many even had what appeared to be legitimate certificates of authenticity and warranty papers. The watches were apparently sold by unauthorized dealers and sellers on auction websites such as eBay who claimed that they were authentic. Ironically, there are websites that offer “fake” Chopard watches, and do not even claim to be offering the real thing.

Coca-Cola has also been the victim of Internet scams. Recently, some Internet users were informed that their email was among “20 Lucky Winners” of an online lottery promotion. To collect their winnings they had to fill in a form with their personal information for verification. In another instance, Coca-Cola ran into problems when a rumour was circulated on the web about Coke running ads that were offensive to Muslims. The rumor claimed the ads depicted the Company's logo emblazoned on the Dome of the Rock and featured images of violence against Palestinians. The grisly images had been misinterpreted by some to be actual advertisements.

Apple iPods, iPhones and iPads, Gillette razor blades, Absolut vodka, Durex condoms, cancer drugs and antibiotics, Yamaha motorcycles and Mont Blanc pens—there is nothing you can think of that’s truly immune to counterfeiting.

Rolex for one, is no rookie at this game. Rolex watches were first counterfeited sometime in the early 1980s. Since then, things have changed with the dawn of the Internet. Gone are the days of launching an investigation, going to a store, buying counterfeit products and then shutting down the store. Now, companies must find the phony goods that have been sold on the Internet, ID them and have the site taken down within 24 hours.

Counterfeiting is a double-edged sword: The bigger the company and the better it’s doing, the more it’ll be targeted. Brands have to deal with it in one form or another for as long as their brand is popular. If their product can be duplicated and there is a strong demand for it, they’re likely to be victims of counterfeiting.

Amazon and e-Bay have proved that you can build a reputable brand on the Internet. But how many others are there, and how many will spend the time, effort and money to do it right? At best I think the Internet will remain in a supportive role to other media, despite the claims being made. I continue to believe that the Internet, providing information supportive to the main thrust of the branding function, I continue to believe the Internet works best as 'Your on-line brochure'.

It should be no surprise to anyone reading this blog that counterfeit Apple products  are abundant in Asian markets. But did you know that there are actually knock-off Apple Stores?  That’s right, some savvy counterfeiters actually set up fake Apple Stores—real ones, with bricks and mortar, as well as e-commerce stores. Most are in China, motherland of counterfeit goods. Yikes!

Can you really trust the Internet?

The Internet has become our prime source of information. Because it’s there and it’s written down, we assume it must be correct. We usually accept it as such without question. Generally we don’t bother to look things up on Snopes.com or corroborate what we find on the Internet. Can we really trust it?

Seasoned Internet users know that many web sites are like used car dealers. They can only be trusted so far. While the Internet has become a great storehouse of human knowledge, much of that "knowledge" is misconceived, poorly presented, and just plain wrong.

While most young practitioners of advertising and marketing today know computers and the Internet inside out, many are still not savvy when it comes to finding ‘real’ information online. Personal experience has taught me that many people, when faced with a research assignment, are unable or unwilling to look beyond the first information they can find with a Google search. From time to time, you will find sources that contradict each other. Ultimately, the information is only as good as the person inputting it, which means that you might not be able to trust it.

Back in 2006, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, challenged the comfortable assumption that the web is moving in a positive rather than a negative direction when he told The Guardian newspaper that the Internet could be corrupted by unseemly elements. He said: "There is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way."

Perhaps Berners-Lee was prescient. Today, the internet appears to be racing in a direction that will make it less and less unaccountable and out of control rather than the other way around.

The Internet allows companies to be unethical.

In advertising, there are fine lines between putting a positive spin on something, pushing the truth and outright lying. Some marketers make claims they simply cannot substantiate.

Let’s get something straight first. Ethical marketing on the Internet doesn’t mean you will make less money. Fact is, ethical marketing results in sustainability, in making more money for longer periods of time.

When we think of car salesmen, we often think of an uncomfortable experience. Try buying a TV today. See what the salesmen tries to sell you. Chances are it is an item that they make the most commission on versus the best-value product. The exact same thing is happening on the Internet with the many snake oil salesmen and scam artists who have set up websites. These are unethical marketers looking to make a ton of fast cash online. They don’t care how they do it, or who they hurt. All they see are the dollars. They’ll try to convince you to buy stuff by making outrageous claims.

In marketing, we know that quality creates reputation, reputation creates repeat customers, and repeat customers create longer-term success. If you’re honest about your products on the Internet, you will promote the product that is of the best quality for the best price. Being ethical builds relationships.

Experts and other BS artists.

When the subject line of an e-mail says “enlarge yours”, you know these jokers are not for real. However, it's surprising that some big, established firms do not pay heed to the damage that's done to their brand by one spam e-mail that directs you to their website. I think one spam e-mail can undo years of a customer’s positive interaction with the brand.

Underlying all of this is one common theme: that of trust. Trust, and by extension reputation, has fast become the new online benchmark of value and success. So how can you protect your customers, and how can legitimate brands and business owners gain the trust of their target audience?

Here are a few ways to secure your Internet presence:

  1. Establish your brand story. It is essential that you establish your brand story, your brand promise, and a tone that sticks in the minds of your target consumers. It’s the only way they will know when they are being baited by fakes.
  2. Manage your reputation. Most companies offer fair, legitimate products. Unfortunately, a single bad experience with a customer, or a former employee holding a grudge, can ruin a reputation very quickly. To combat this, a growing number of companies are retaining Online Brand Reputation services to clean up their name. They specialise in inhibiting negative results from the search engines. Google indexes content when scouring the internet. If Google sees a frequent occurrence of a brand name with the word “SCAM” somewhere near it, it makes an assumption that the words belong together, and thus suggests it to new searchers.
  3. Understand that consumers are more aware of SPAM e-mails. I spend at least 10-15 minutes a day unsubscribing from various SPAM messages. If companies really want to reach consumers, SPAM is not the way. Sending unsolicited messages promising free stuff is a joke. It's never truly free.
  4. Be diligent, constantly. Many people go online looking for deals. And many do not know or care whether they are buying legitimate products. One of the biggest problems manufacturers face is that when one phony look-alike website shuts down, another pops up in its place. Companies need to quickly shut down fake websites that sell look-a-like products.
  5. Craft strategies to effectively combat fakes. One solution that works is to target both sellers and buyers of counterfeit goods with a strategy that mixes offensive and defensive measures. To defend themselves, companies must track and monitor distribution, advertising, and sales, all the way to the specific point of sale. To cast doubt about fakes and make them less desirable to consumers, companies must educate buyers about the dangers that bogus products pose to both individuals and society.
  6. Make customers think twice. Consumers are more likely to purchase counterfeit or pirated products, particularly fashion items, if they see little downside to doing so. Legitimate manufacturers need to give consumers a reason to resist the temptation to buy cheap knockoffs. One example comes via magazine Harper’s Bazaar. It has taken a leading role in fighting fakes in the fashion world. For the past five years, the magazine has tried to make “fakes” less appealing to consumers by playing up the connection between counterfeit fashion and child labor and/or drug trafficking.  In addition to publishing articles on the subject, it hosts anti-counterfeiting summits and the www.fakesareneverinfashion.com website, which invites consumers to turn in their fakes.

The “secret” to becoming a successful brand or service on the Internet is to provide value to your visitors, and help them reach informed decisions. It may not be possible to eliminate all fake websites and counterfeit brands, but by implementing a strategy of offensive and defensive measures, companies can effectively reduce the flow of fake products and protect their brands.

In the old days, marketers could use hype and exaggeration to get noticed and people would simply accept it. Not anymore. Consumers no longer buy hype, and features and benefits bore them stiff. If you want to attract modern consumers and get their attention, you had better be truthful, authentic, relevant and emotionally appealing. If you’re not marketing that way on the Internet, now is the best time to change.

Mike Fromowitz

OCTANE

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