Web Puts Brand Image Out of Companies' Control

NEW ORLEANS–Well-known companies are finding it harder to stop their brands from being tied to sites with dated, embarrassing and even obscene content.

Porn sites, for example, often use popular brand names — Mattel's Barbie and Mercedes are two of the most common — to garner higher hits on search engines, Richard Moore, vice president of sales and marketing at Arlington, VA-based Cyveillance, told attendees of the Food Marketing Institute's Marketechnics conference here last week.

As a result, when consumers are searching for their favorite supermarket, links to adult sites are likely to appear as well.

Moore searched for Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertson's, Safeway, Winn-Dixie, Publix, Bi-Lo, Stop 'n Stop, Giant Food and A&P, and he found the retailers' names mentioned on many adult sites.

Moore told retailers and consumer goods manufacturers that porn affiliation is just one of many ways that the presentation of their brand names and products is out of their control on the Web. Their brands are much more pervasive online than they realize, he said.

Moore found that five of the 10 grocery retailers were featured on general complaint sites and, worse, on more specific ones such as Walmartsucks.com.

The travel industry is particularly rampant with the unauthorized use of brand names and the outdated use of information online.

“A hotel chain could be getting a booking from a travel agent who was using an expired rate [on the Web site] and didn't bother to take it down,” Moore said.

Unlicensed use of company logos and information is also a major problem in the travel industry.

“Our competitors are frequently attracting customers with online bargains that falsely lead customers to believe they will be getting the same, luxurious hotel accommodations that Hyatt provides,” said Joan Lowell, vice president of e-distribution and marketing at Hyatt, which recently hired Cyveillance to help combat the problem.

In addition, retailers do not realize that many consumers consider the Internet a reliable source of information on a company and its products. Sixty-five percent of people trust the information they get online more than what they see on television, Moore said.

Stealing information off corporate Web sites, or stealing the entire site, a practice called framing, is common, Moore said. When a frame of one site is placed on top of another, traffic is temporarily diverted to the site doing the framing.

Many retailers and brands are also unaware of “cybersmearing” campaigns, in which individuals, former employees or competitors spread rumors about a company or its stock on Web sites and message boards.

Companies that have been the subject of cybersmearing often ignore the issue until a crisis occurs. About three years ago, an unknown individual started a rumor in a newsgroup that Tommy Hilfiger, founder of Tommy Hilfiger Corp., made racial slurs during an appearance on Oprah.

Though the information was false, the rumor spread around the Net, then started appearing as fact in newspaper and television broadcast stories. Tommy Hilfiger Corp. initially ignored the rumor, but the company was finally forced to respond with an expensive public relations campaign.

“At the time, the company didn't recognize how powerful the Net could be. [Now], an online-only crisis would be just as harmful to a company's image” as an offline slander campaign, said Amy Jackson, director of competitive strategies at Middleberg Euro RSCG.

Norm Willox, president of the National Fraud Center, Philadelphia, said companies should be most concerned about cybersmearing campaigns headed by former, disgruntled employees. “Employees have a lot more internal knowledge of the operation and have tried to hurt companies' stock,” he said.

However, Moore has found that among the most problematic issues are the ways a brand's products are being sold on the Net without the brand's knowledge. “Online is creating a disruption within traditional channels,” he said. “The Net environment is very difficult to control.”

For example, a manufacturer of helmets for NASCAR drivers and motorcycle riders had problems when an offline motorcycle shop that sells its helmets went online. The shop created a liability for the manufacturer, which requires the helmets to be fitted on the customer before they are purchased.

Companies with independent agents who are selling their products, such as insurance companies, are also becoming more proactive about monitoring their companies' activities on the Web, Moore said.

After company representatives discover that a site is misrepresenting its products or misusing its information, they typically send “cease and desist” letters from their attorneys. If the misleading information continues, companies should ask the hosting Internet service provider to pull the site, Moore said.

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