Social MediaCredit: Sofiaperesoa

There's no denying that the Internet has given businesses a lot to be thankful for - a new platform in which they can engage clients regardless of geographical location, a brand new medium for building reputation, and a whole new advertising venue that doesn't require much in the way of financial investment. However, for all the benefits it provides, it also opens the door to a lot of abuse from both ends by virtue of its open-endedness.

One of the more insidious threats to  IPs brought by the Internet is brand hijacking, which has the ability to negatively affect multi-million dollar brands and their reputations, without requiring anything from the perpetrators except a few keystrokes and time.

It's also worth pointing out that the motivation for brand hijacking isn't always malice towards a company or brand. It is clear that sometimes the trigger for the attack can be a bored individual who thinks impersonating a famous company and ruining their reputation is funny, while being oblivious or uncaring to real life consequences.

Brand Hijacking in a Nutshell

Brand hijacking is very common on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as it is very easy for individuals to create fake accounts used to pose as someone or something else. What makes this even more damning is that Social Networking sites rely on the brand owners themselves to police their own brands, and rarely requires solid verification of the correct identity of the brand owner.

Publicized Cases

One of the more famous cases of brand hijacking on social media concerns airline Jetstar Airways. A Facebook page was created by a person unrelated to Jetstar, using the same logo as a profile picture and the name "Jetstar Australia."

Last year[1], the Jetstar Australia account started replying to client feedback and questions on Jetstar Airways' Facebook wall, with disruptive results.  One Jetstar customer who has asked for clarification on a schedule change on her flights received a reply from Jetstar Australia stating that all of her flights had just been cancelled. This resulted in panic and outrage from the customer. Worse, all of this could be seen by other Facebook users, perpetuating the customer’s shock at the apparent incompetency of Jetstar.

Unintentional Cases

One of the more alarming aspects of brand hijacking is that it effectively dilutes control of a brand or trade mark. This is applicable even in cases where the hijacking is unintentional or meant in good faith, as is the case of fan pages.

Large social networks like Facebook and Twitter, again, are prime examples of this. It is very easy for fan-created pages to become more popular than official ones, especially if the company has a low interest in online advertising. Even if well-meant and the owners of the fan page have no intention to do anything that would harm the brand, a misstep by the fan could cause problems - for instance, a consumer mistaking the fan page for an official one, and assuming that the lack of response to a query on the fan page as indicative of the actual company's perception and treatment of customers.

Taking aggressive steps against a fan page can sometimes backfire – the fan can become upset if a business tries to wrest the page from the fan. Dealing with fan pages, especially fan pages with large followings can sometimes be an exercise in diplomacy.

Protection Against Brand Hijacking on the Internet

One of the best ways of protecting your IP from online brand hijacking is to be proactive. Irrespective of whether a business’s marketing and advertising campaigns includes social media, it is not a significant business risk not to look at policing social media to ensure that no unauthorized third party has misappropriated the business’s brand.

A useful tool to do this is the website "KnowEm", which provides a snap shot of the use of a particular brand on a large number of social media platforms.

Another toll is the app “BrandTracker," which allows brand owners to search public Facebook and Twitter posts, to see what consumers (or brand hijackers) are saying about a brand.

A significant risk of long-term apathy relating to management of social media is that of the fundamental right to ownership of the brand. This to my knowledge has never been tested in a court – social media is still in its relative infancy, and many cases have not proceeded to judgment. But allowing a third party to use a brand, extensively and over a prolonged period of time, in a social media environment might lead to a loss of rights to the brand in that environment or beyond.